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How can the news media do a better job covering elections — in a way that won’t leave out voters?

- November 5, 2018
Voters enter the Hamilton County Board of Elections on the first day of early voting on Oct. 10 in Cincinnati. (John Minchillo/AP)

Imagine reading a narrative in which the main characters are underdeveloped. Their choices are dictated by others. They are not given much dialogue. When they are described in detail, they are labeled as “uninformed” or “troubled.” This story line represents how voters have been treated in news coverage of elections since the early 1970s.

My new book, “Votes That Count and Voters Who Don’t: How Journalists Sideline Electoral Participation (Without Even Knowing It),” shows how voters have been devalued in the news for 50 years. It reveals how such coverage may unintentionally depress people’s desire to vote and increase their anger at the media.

My research also shows this is can be changed. Here’s why.

How the research was conducted

The project began with an analysis of how 36,400 instances of the words vote(s), voter(s) and voting were portrayed in six major newspapers spanning the 18 presidential campaigns between 1948 and 2016.

The project also included an experiment and focus groups testing how people respond to various portrayals as well as interviews with over 50 reporters to learn more about why journalists write the stories they do.

How elections used to be covered

Journalists regard elections to be important. They admit, though, that they struggle while reporting on them.

Take coverage in the 1948 presidential contest. The Chicago Tribune could not wait for the ballots to be counted before famously and falsely identifying Republican Thomas Dewey as the victor over Democrat Harry Truman. Shaken by this error, journalists in the 1950s and 1960s were cautious in their reporting on polls and their forecasting of election results.

Intriguingly, however, when polls didn’t drive the news narrative, depictions of electoral participation signaled considerable power to the electorate. In particular, the term “votes” appeared as much as six time as often in headlines and articles than the word “voters.”

That subtle word choice may seem modest. But the term “votes” signaled what was being pursued by campaigns, what was contributing directly to electoral outcomes and what was providing citizen input in election narratives.

When the term “votes” was prevalent, as in news stories between 1948 and 1968, readers were urged to participate, reminded of their opportunity to influence the political system, and told how they can use the franchise to protect themselves and their interests. In other words, news stories suggested people decide — and benefit from — elections.

The shift from ‘votes’ to ‘voters’

But beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, news coverage featured less use of “vote” and more use of “voter.” The word “voters” first eclipsed the term “votes” in 1972. The problem isn’t necessarily with the word “voter” itself. Other research, indeed, has found it to be a powerful term in mobilization efforts. The issue here is with how journalists use it.

At that time, reporters began exposing how campaign operatives were using survey data to anticipate voter preferences. News organizations also embraced polls as a way to offer timely, reliable and sophisticated election story lines. Concurrently, news coverage focused less on the relationship between candidates, voters and policy positions and more on political operatives in American life.

While “votes” connoted public involvement, feedback and participation, “voters” was a means to write stories about the electoral horse race and strategists spinning for their interests. “Voters” were also frequently portrayed as frustrated by the role of money in politics, apathetic in response to bad candidates, endangered by voter purges or intimidated by voter identification laws. This portrayal was far less empowering of voters’ role in the political process.

What could change this?

How could news coverage talk about electoral participation in ways that won’t decrease interest in it or incite frustration with the media?

To begin to answer this question, we conducted an experiment within a Polimetrix (now YouGov) online survey in 2008. All respondents read a story about the 2008 presidential primary, but the story varied in key ways.

One group of respondents read a generic story about the 2008 primaries. A second group read that story, but it also included a paragraph that portrayed voters as active participants by describing how “votes” were being solicited and “voters” were being urged to act. A third group read a story that portrayed voters more like spectators (“voters must face a fierce horse race”) and included polling results.

People who read the “active participants” story — including both Democrats and Republicans — were more likely to express a desire to vote and less likely to express frustration with the press, compared with those who read the “spectators” story.

The difference between the words “votes” and “voters” may seem trivial. But in campaign reporting, these two words may send different messages about who decides elections. When voters are implicitly given a more robust role to play in elections, democracy — and the news outlets that write about it — may benefit.

Sharon Jarvis (@DrSharonspeaks) is an associate professor of communication studies and associate director at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.