Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


voting-booths

(PHOTO: SPIRIT OF AMERICA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Want to Reduce Polarization? You Need to Improve Political Journalism

• August 27, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: SPIRIT OF AMERICA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Ideologically extreme members of Congress are more vulnerable to defeat when voters can learn about their in-office activities through traditional media.

Efforts to reduce partisanship within American government have usually failed. “Civility initiatives” have gone nowhere, making primaries more open doesn’t seem to produce more moderate officeholders, and California’s top-two reform hasn’t made much of a difference yet (although it’s still early). Nor does non-partisan redistricting tend to produce less partisan legislators. And if efforts to get senators to sit together at State of the Union addresses have moderated the Senate at all, it’s really hard to see it.

These initiatives’ failures, of course, don’t keep politicians, journalists, and reformers from repeatedly touting them. But one thing that may actually make a difference in politicians’ partisan behavior hasn’t received much attention. That would be journalistic coverage of politics.

Ideologically extreme officials are more vulnerable to defeat where there is better coverage. They have greater incentive to behave as moderates if they know voters are watching.

In an article called “A Theory of Parties,” which I wrote with Kathy Bawn, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, we investigated this topic a bit, drawing on an earlier conference paper written by Cohen, Noel, and Zaller. (The Bawn et al. article is being presented with the Heinz Eulau award at the American Political Science Association conference in Chicago later this week, so expect me to be talking about it a lot.) These papers examine the congruence, or overlap, between media markets and congressional districts. That is, in perfectly congruent media markets and districts, everyone within a media market would be represented by the same member of Congress. In such a highly congruent situation, journalists have a strong incentive to cover that member of Congress’ daily activities, which has the effect of increasing voters’ knowledge of that member. When congruence is low, there is little incentive to cover the behavior of a given representative, since a high percentage of viewers will be represented by someone else.

It turns out that this congruence matters. We tend to think of more ideologically extreme members of Congress as more vulnerable to electoral defeat, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that. However, this vulnerability is mediated by the congruence of districts and media markets. Extremists only get tossed out of office if voters know they’re extreme.

The graph below divides up Democratic members of Congress (MCs) in the Republican wave year of 1994 by their ideological leanings (centrists, partisans, and extremists) and estimates their likelihood of losing reelection that year based on the congruence of their district and media market. What the results show is that relatively extreme members were much more vulnerable where congruence was high. This is because journalistic coverage of them was better; voters knew their MC was extreme because the media reported what they did in office. Relatedly, centrists were safer in such districts. In the districts where there was less congruence (and presumably less coverage of individual members), it didn’t much matter whether the members were voting in extreme or centrist ways—they were about equally likely to retain or lose their seats.

Probability of Defeat for Democratic Members of Congress in 1994

congruence

The upshot of this is that ideologically extreme elected officials are more vulnerable to defeat where there is better journalistic coverage. They have greater incentive to behave as moderates if they know that voters are watching.

So if you want more centrist elected officials, there’s your reform: have journalists provide better coverage of politics. That’s far easier said than done, of course. Newspaper readership is in steady decline, as is the number of regular newspaper readers. Coverage of politics, particularly local politics, is becoming more scarce. And there probably aren’t enough billionaires to buy all the struggling media companies in the United States.

Nonetheless, improving media coverage of politics is a worthwhile goal. Even if it doesn’t end up reducing partisanship by much, the worst you end up with is an informed electorate and more employed writers.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.