Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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