How Media Shapes Politics
In the latest episode in Talking Policy’s series on the Future of Democracy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with political scientist Amber Boydstun about how the media shapes how citizens think about politics and elections, and how the role of the media is changing. This interview was recorded on November 4, 2022. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
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What kind of power does the media have in shaping how we think about the world? I remember one of my first jobs, at the San Diego Union-Tribune; I would marvel when the editorial team would meet in the late afternoons to decide what would appear on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I thought, wow, that is power. What captures that power in your view?
I love that anecdote about the afternoon meetings. I’ve attended several of them at The New York Times, called the page-one meetings where they meet to decide: of all of the headlines that they could tell people about, which ones do they think we should be paying attention to? And you’re exactly right. That’s setting the agenda. That’s telling us what we should be paying attention to. There’s so much power in that.
Those of us who appreciate good journalism maybe have an overly idyllic view of how the world should work, namely that these earnest men and women journalists, ideally from all kinds of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, look at the problems going on in the world and generate a curated list of the things they think we should be thinking about. And they frame those things for us in lots of diverse ways. And then we as citizens take that information and figure out what we think about it.
Even if that was the way that traditional newsrooms worked, and there are lots of flaws in that ideal model, it’s so much more complicated than that.
There’s a project I have my undergraduate students do in the media politics class I teach. I have them keep a media diary where, for one entire day, they track all of the media they consume. The first part of the assignment is getting them to understand what counts as media. Everything from the printing press counts. So every time you read a book, you log that. Every time you look at an article on Canvas, every time you get a text message from your mom—that counts. Every time you watch a TikTok video, every time you watch Netflix—all of that is media.
There are two things I’ve taken away from those assignments. The first is that it really is shocking how little waking time they don’t spend on media. Often only a quarter of the pie chart representing a day is time that they’re awake and not consuming a podcast or watching TikTok or reading a book. I don’t know if there’s normative judgment there, but that was surprising to me. The second thing is that this generation of undergrads, in my perception—and I’m an optimistic bunny—are quite savvy. They understand at an intuitive level that when they use TikTok they’re feeding into an algorithm—and that they can control it. But it’s also influencing how they see the world.
You wrote a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review called The Trump Conundrum about how reporters struggled to cover Trump’s candidacy in large part because they didn’t take him seriously as a candidate or didn’t know what to do with him. He was so unconventional. The challenge of covering Trump continued into his presidency and I suspect will continue into the next election cycle and beyond.
On the one hand, the press has a responsibility to cover the activities of important people. But just by covering every wacky or dangerous thing that he said or did, the press inadvertently helped to advance his agenda. So the media has power but is also vulnerable to being manipulated, to being used as a tool.
That piece was a labor of love that I did with Regina Lawrence. You’re right that the media is susceptible to being manipulated. With social media, the susceptibility there is all about incentives. We’ll see what Elon Musk does, but the goal of any social media company is to make money. And so that means that there’s a profit model built in. In the traditional newsroom, there is also a profit model, but they also have journalistic professional norms. They want to tell the right story in the right way, and they are operating within rules of the game that have been in place for generations.
I wrote a separate piece with Peter Van Aelst in which we interviewed a bunch of journalists who covered the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. It brought up a parallel conundrum to the one that Regina and I talked about, where the rules of the game just do not apply anymore. The line between entertainment and politics—to say it’s porous is an understatement. It just doesn’t exist anymore. If George Clooney announced that he was running for president in the next presidential cycle, I wouldn’t be that surprised. We now have room for a totally different model of politicians. And that makes that media diary project that I do with my students more relevant because when they’re watching something on Netflix, it’s not just that they might get incidental exposure to policy issues, it’s that the people who are making the content might become political. Look at Taylor Swift. She’s a powerhouse in the music industry and she has a very strong political voice.
And there’s a shocking lack of research in this area. So that’s the first way that the rules are totally changed. But the second issue is misinformation. The journalists Peter and I interviewed said they just don’t know what to do with it. How do journalists operate in this new world where they can’t trust that the president is going to give them factual information?
And one of the fundamental callings of journalism is that you tell a story that is balanced. You tell a story that is fair. Whatever trust we have in journalism is based on that assumption—that news is being fairly reported. But then how do you report on something in a balanced way when there is no balance anymore? You mentioned in your Trump Conundrum piece that negative reporting of Trump and Hillary Clinton was sort of similar, even though as candidates, there was no equivalence between them. But in a desire to be perceived as fair and balanced, there was this creation of a false equivalency. Do you think that the media are getting better at dealing with that kind of thing?
I think they are. At least the media that I consume, which like all of us is a select set. When I go to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR [National Public Radio], it seems to me like there’s been some kind of internal decision that every time we talk about January 6th, these are the facts that we acknowledge. And any time we report on a politician who says something counter to that, we’re going to say, as a reminder: this was an insurrection, and it was not okay. Or as a reminder, the 2020 election wasn’t stolen.
You wrote a book called Making the News, Politics, The Media and Agenda Setting. In it, you argue that the media have two different modes of reporting. One is an alarm mode, where some event suddenly calls reporters to attention and there’s a flood of coverage. And then there’s patrol mode where reporters are reporting more regularly on a set of issues. This is what we would think of as the traditional watchdog function. In that book, you talk about the effects of these two modes on two issues that were particularly salient at the time: capital punishment and the war on terror. How might that argument apply to coverage of something like the January 6th insurrection or the upcoming election?
Sometimes news outlets really are just in alarm mode, where something happens, there’s a flood, and they rush to that neighborhood either literally or metaphorically, and cover it and then they zip away to the next thing, even though the victims of the flood are still dealing with the aftermath for years to come. And the traditional watchdog patrol coverage is classic beat reporting. What’s really interesting is when those two things collide. And it most often happens when there are some big events like the January 6th insurrection and news outlets rush in (in alarm mode), but then, because it’s a big enough event, they become entrenched and go into patrol mode. From that, we can get a whole bunch of really good reporting. So, for example, we’ve seen stories about the people who were behind the riot and stories about the inner workings of the Capitol Police. We have a better, richer sense of what happened that day.
The challenge, though, is, because the issue got so much coverage for a sustained period, when it goes away, I worry that [many] citizens will get the signal that it’s taken care of. Think about the Dobbs decision this summer: there was a surge of media attention around the court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade and lots of follow-up stories about things like the ten-year-old rape survivor who had to go across state lines to get an abortion and everyone was talking it for weeks. But it’s died out because the news cycles have to move on to other things. There are real ramifications to that kind of lurching way of paying attention to things. For Democratic strategists, the Dobbs decision isn’t going to be at the forefront of people’s minds when they go to the polls this month, right? And that’s not necessarily the fault of journalism. As humans, we’re wired to not pay attention to things for that long. The media exacerbates that, and modern media does those same kinds of lurching patterns to an even stronger degree.
That’s important, this distinction between new media and traditional media like The New York Times, which has a lot of capacity to continue to report consistently on a range of important topics that are important for the public debate. But how much of it actually gets through? Do the majority of Americans read The New York Times? And when they do, I mean, I read The New York Times every day, but I don’t dig into each article. Life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the second year in a row. It’s a huge issue and [yet] it’s way down the page. You have to really look for it and most people won’t do that.
I do think that good reporting is available, but it’s often not trickling to people because you and I aren’t scrolling down far enough on the page. Or worse yet, we’re reading The New York Times on our phones where we get an even smaller number of stories. And if I get overwhelmed, I’m going to go watch cats on Roombas on TikTok, right? That’s an option to me in a way that wouldn’t have been 20 years ago. And that’s going to change my media consumption habits.
But journalists are acutely aware of our lack of attention spans. They know that they can only keep something on the home page for so long before they need to recycle it. That’s an incredible amount of pressure that has to filter into the journalistic ethos. Journalists are under pressure these days to be on social media, to have a certain number of posts, and to communicate in a sound byte kind of way.
You mentioned the business model of social media, which is driven by getting more users, more attention, and more clicks, which gives them a perverse incentive to push stuff that makes us angry, stuff that riles us up, whether or not it actually helps us in any way to be more informed citizens. How are traditional newspapers financed these days? What’s their business model?
Well, if you wanted this conversation to turn in a more optimistic direction, this was the wrong question to ask. Every local newspaper is funded differently, but in general, for-profit businesses own newspapers, and these for-profit companies have varying degrees of philanthropy. There have been some terrible cases, like The Denver Post, which was acquired by a company that just wanted to increase its profit margin, which was shrinking in part because of advertisers. In general, advertisers aren’t willing to pay as much for newspaper ads because they also have to spend part of their advertising budget on Facebook ads targeted at specific demographics. And so these newspaper owners wanted to reduce costs, and there were a bunch of layoffs at local papers across the country, including The Denver Post. There was also a change in the norms of the newsroom, where, for example, journalists are steered editorially towards stories that are click-worthy. It’s bad for local news outlets, and it’s bad for democracy.
There’s a fantastic case study that Josh Darr, Matthew Hitt, and Johanna Dunaway did looking at local newspapers when they’re shuttered. And what they found is that if we look at split ticket voting—meaning voters who vote for some Democrats in an election, but also some Republicans—it decreases significantly after local papers are closed. And that makes a lot of sense. When I get my local paper, the Davis Enterprise, it’s lovely and charming, not perfect, but there’s coverage of local events and local candidates so that I have a sense of people outside my party. If there’s no local paper, I would have no way of knowing that.
How does the way that journalism is funded in the U.S. differ from how it’s funded in other countries? Are there models that allow newspapers to protect their role and independence?
It varies widely by country, but there are certainly other models, namely where the government subsidizes public media. So you can imagine a place like PBS, but where they have money for better sets and more flashy design like the BBC in the UK, which is partially subsidized by the British government. It’s hard, though, to compare [the U.S. and a country like the UK] because we have a two-party system.
And that means that we have a different media landscape than they do in the UK with a multi-party system. Because a two-party system, at least in today’s culture, lends itself to tribalism that is really hard to combat. And if you’re a government-subsidized news outlet, maybe especially if you’re government subsidized, how do you make decisions about whether to give equal screen time to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
How have political candidates and political parties used anti-media sentiment to persuade or mobilize voters? Has this strategy been around for a while, or is it new? And is it more prevalent on the right or is it something that both parties do?
I haven’t studied this particular question, but I do think that messaging about not trusting the media has come more from the right than from the left. What’s really interesting is that the nature of the news coverage on the right and on the left is really quite different. It’s asymmetrical. Especially when you look at outlets like The Onion or The Daily Show, these satirical places where we get information—there’s not a good parallel on the right for that.
My colleague Dannagal Young would argue that that’s because Republicans and Democrats process information differently and that liberals appreciate satire and have an interest in and a curiosity about the ambiguity of language. And Republicans tend to have a higher need for closure to wrap things up. And so the kinds of things that are found funny on the right, people on the left think are not funny, and vice versa.
To the extent that the traditional legacy media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are populated by journalists who tend to lean left, I wonder if some of the ethos of that coverage tilts towards that kind of style. Maybe not satire, but the kind of style that is going to appeal to liberals, even if the content is true and neutral. I don’t know if anyone’s done research in this particular area, but I wonder if that’s part of where that distrust on the right came from.
It’s also possible that for Donald Trump in 2016, it was strategic to undercut legacy media, because to the extent that they were covering him, it was as a buffoon or they were covering him critically as a threat to democracy. Neither of those portrayals was helping his campaign.
It’s interesting to think about the ways in which the tone and style and language that reporters use, without maybe even thinking about it, actually does feed into a sense of distrust. Listening to NPR on the drive home, it can sound like an insider club that’s complaining together about the world. There’s an assumption that the people listening have the same point of view. Even as a liberal myself, it bugs me sometimes. It just feels a little flip. And if I were a conservative Republican, it would really bother me. The language reporters were using to describe Trump veered between saying that he is a threat and, at the other end of the spectrum, acting like he’s a circus show—and in a snarky way.
Exactly. In a greater-than-thou preachy way. I think you’re right. Liberals get criticized a lot for this. And I think the criticism is not far off the mark. Do you remember what Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said? “If you’re upset about this particular decision [and I can’t even remember what decision it was], go out and take a kickboxing class and drink a margarita,” or something like that. It was taken by a lot of working-class voters as sanctimonious and elitist and privileged.
Thinking about NPR, if public radio or public broadcasting was supported, it would take a lot of the fundraising pressure off of them. Right now they have tremendous fundraising pressure and basically eight times a month, they do a fundraising campaign and kind of need to lean into that group sense of community: the stereotypical NPR listener. Those comments that grate on you are probably part of the reason that they’ve realized that they get as many funds as they do because the people who appreciate those comments are going to be more likely to feel part of the gang. But at the same time, that’s the opposite of what we need for democracy, because it’s going to alienate liberals like you, but also any conservative who tunes in.
You’ve sat in on a lot of editorial meetings, and talked with tons of journalists. What do they say about how they are trying to tackle these problems?
Before the 2016 election, in the interviews I did with journalists, there was a sense of intrepidness, like they were doing hard work, but they were doing the good hard work. There was a sense of camaraderie and putting in the good fight. The interviews I’ve done since 2016 have had the same feel as the reports you saw in the heat of COVID with interviews with ER doctors and nurses where they just seemed so wrung out and overwhelmed. The question of how are we going to fix this or make it better wasn’t even on their radar. They just needed to survive. It’s a totally different scenario [between journalism and ER work], but it does seem like the journalists that I’ve interviewed in the last few years are just weathered and feel kind of beaten down.
What kinds of voices are playing an effective role in helping us make sense of where we are as a country?
The voice that I have in mind is John Oliver and Last Week Tonight, his HBO show. Speaking of this porousness between entertainment and news, his show does a phenomenal job of informing viewers about crucial issues and doing it in a detailed, fact-based way that is entertaining enough to keep people paying attention. I really like that viewers are going to tune in to watch him because it’s entertaining and they’re going to learn things about mobile home communities or the debt ceiling that they otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to because those stories are below the fold.
But that’s only hitting a subset of people who either have HBO subscriptions or are going to take the time to watch the snippets on YouTube. But I do think that that is a bright spot.
The next presidential election cycle will be here before we know it. The January 6th committee report will be released in December. What are you going to be watching over the next year?
I’ll be watching what happens with Twitter. I’ll also be watching how Fox News covers this upcoming election cycle. That’s going to be an important metric because they’ve had this kind of splintering between how Tucker Carlson has been handling things and how the more traditional news broadcast section of Fox News has been handling things.
We’ve been joking about how depressing this all is, but given that you’ve made a career of studying these things, how do you keep your spirits up?
I have a few different tricks. One is, I have a rule that my partner isn’t allowed to talk to me about politics before noon. That helps a lot. And when I’m on airplanes and people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a math teacher, which used to be true. I also think about the bright spots—about my students who seem to have such a good handle on things. I do feel like we’re in good hands.