MEDIA PRIMARIES: THE ROLE OF NEWSWORTHINESS VALUES IN SHAPING ISSUE COVERAGE IN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES
Scott, Zachary A.
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Presidential primary candidates vie for the attention of voters by emphasizing specific issue stances or prioritizations. Yet not all candidates get their messages across. Why does the media follow the candidate’s agenda in some cases but not others? I answer this question by noting the role professional values play in journalists’ evaluations of “newsworthiness” and the important political ramifications those professional values have. Journalists prefer news stories that feature conflict, human-interest components, are timely, and are simple. I argue that there may be ways candidates can cue these values via their rhetoric and that the structure of primaries may affect how journalists apply these values when crafting coverage. I further argue that media outlets should differ in how strongly they prioritize these values. Finally, I argue that the media ignoring a candidate’s message should affect how voters evaluate candidates and how well voters are able to “correctly” vote. I show that the amount of anger language and candidate-based appeal rhetoric are positively correlated with the level of similarity between a candidate’s and the media’s agendas. I also show that expanding primary fields, where the contextual simplicity of the race is shrinking, are correlated with reductions in agenda similarity between candidates and the media. I also show that these effects are not homogenous across media outlets. Newspapers react more strongly to anger in candidate messages than TV news while news outlets with tighter space constraints are more responsive to declines in contextual simplicity. To assess the ramifications of these findings on political behavior I designed a laboratory experiment to test the effects of candidate-media agenda similarity on candidate evaluations and “correct” voting behavior. Subjects exposed to the low convergence treatment displayed higher rates of incorrect voting behavior. Collectively, these findings improve our understanding of the political repercussions of journalism’s professional values and provide insights into an oft-overlooked level of election. They also illustrate the normatively undesirable effects of low convergence. I close with a discussion of how to create a more efficient, media-centric primary process.