AMERICAN JOURNALISM AND THE DEVIANT VOTER: ANALYZING AND IMPROVING COVERAGE OF THE ELECTORATE IN THE TRUMP ERA
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This study examined media coverage of the 2016 presidential election to identify whether Trump voters were framed as deviant as defined by Daniel Hallin’s Sphere Theory (1986). In a content analysis of 384 reports produced in the last six weeks of the election by national and local outlets, this study found that journalists framed Trump voters as outside the political norm through the use of delegitimizing cues. Previous scholarship (Luther and Miller 2005; Robinson et. al. 2008; Taylor 2014; Billard 2016) has defined delegitimizing cues as frames that signal negativity to the news consumer. Using a coding system and a qualitative examination of the media reports, this study operationalized deviance through the identification of six delegitimizing cues applied to the Trump voter. The conclusion was that the media framed Trump voters using delegitimizing cues that differed from the coverage of Clinton voters and signaled deviance to the news consumer.Hallin defined three spheres of normative practice for journalists: consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance. Each sphere has different normative practices and goals. According to Hallin’s theory, most political coverage falls into the sphere of legitimate controversy. This study suggests that when journalists were confronted with voters considered a threat to democracy, normative practices shifted and coverage of the Trump voter moved into the sphere of deviance. This framing then contributed to a misunderstanding of the electorate by the media. An examination of differences in national and locally-based reporting in this study found that local media framed voters in a more nuanced manner. In addition, local media reports included details suggesting that political polls were an inaccurate descriptors of local voters. Also included in this dissertation is a summary of the media debate that followed the 2016 election and suggests political reporters were unaware of the shifting roles and practices during the campaign. Finally, this study suggests that framing voters as deviant contributes to the polarization of the U.S. political system. It aims to analyze the media coverage of the 2016 voter with the goal of illuminating current practices and suggesting improvements in the relationship of the media and the voters.