Over the years, scholarly and popular treatments of government-media relations have alternated between depicting the press as a watchdog or a lapdog, or even both at the same time. In a recent issue of the American Sociological Review (Ihere) a team of researchers from UCLA and the RAND Corporation headed by Steven Clayman takes up this issue in the context of the aggressiveness of reporters’ questions in presidential news conferences.
Clayman and his colleagues drew a sample of four news conferences per year, 1953-2000, coding the questions that reporters asked according to their active versus passive content, their directness, their assertiveness, their adversarialness, and their calling upon the president for justification of his policies or actions. They then related these scores to a wide array of situational factors that they hypothesized to underlie differences from news conference to news conference in the aggressiveness of the reporters’ questions. These analyses revealed that:
* Over the period encompassed by the study, which ranged from the beginning of Eisenhower’s first term — the photo above is from his first press conference — to the end of Clinton’s second term, reporters’ aggressiveness increased significantly.
* Second-term news conferences evoked more aggressive questioning than their first-term counterparts, though no short-run “honeymoon” effect surfaced during a president’s first term.
* A president’s current standing in the polls had no independent effect on reporters’ aggressiveness.
* Aggressiveness was, however, greater when the unemployment and prime interest rates were higher.
* Reporters were less aggressive when asking about foreign than domestic affairs.
Based on this set of results, Clayman et al. conclude that:
bq. …journalists modulate their aggressiveness in complex ways that do not readily map onto any single model of the journalism-state relationship. Some patterns (e.g., aggressive questioning is conditioned by objective economic circumstnaces rather than presidential popularity) are consistent with an elaborated version of the watchdog model. Other patterns (e.g., aggressiveness is reduced for foreign and military questions) identify domains of journalistic deference toward the president, although even foreign/military questions become more aggressive when the economy is in decline.