The following is from an interview with Dr. John T. Spence, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Thomas More College. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cincinnati with focuses in American Government and political behavior, among other things. Before joining Thomas More, Dr. Spence was a Visiting Professor of American Government at Xavier University. Dr. Spence is currently conducting research pertaining to the Senate race, a study of whether there is a bias in how the race is presented through newspaper coverage.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your project – what are you researching?
I began collecting newspaper accounts of the election for the U. S. Senate seat for Kentucky early in 2013 when the election coverage began. I am only using the Cincinnati Enquirer, the only daily newspaper in the Cincinnati metropolitan area. I am collecting articles that address issues related to the race as well as candidate specific articles. My original plan was to create a pamphlet to use in my “Campaigns and Elections” class for students to see how an election develops. After a few months however I began to realize that by using content analysis I might also be able to see if there was any bias in the information being presented, or in the way the election was being covered. My intention is to try and answer those questions through analyzing content and context. Although limited in scope, the research will add to the ongoing academic dialogue centered on the role of the mass media in a democratic society.
2. Can you give us a brief summary of how you are conducting your research concerning the Kentucky Senate race and newspaper coverage?
At this point I am concentrating on collecting all relevant articles and considering what variables I might use in applying content analysis to the information. Factors could include how often the articles come out, what issues they focus upon, how they portray each candidate, the position taken in editorial commentary, what issues are analyzed, and how poll data is presented are all aspects of the study. The Cincinnati Enquirer is generally known as a conservative and Republican newspaper despite being part of a national chain (Gannett). Content analysis may provide a deeper understanding of how the mass media frame an election if bias is uncovered. However, if bias is not discovered, then it might mean that the stereotype of the paper is not real and in fact, it might help define what balanced journalism might look like for election coverage.
3. If there is a bias in favor of McConnell, what explanations do you think would explain it? What about in favor of Grimes?
I would suspect that if bias favoring McConnell were found, it would be based upon the Senator’s long incumbency and ability to use his office for strategic opportunities in regard to gaining media coverage. To some degree I have already observed this in articles that relate his re-election bid while focusing upon a ‘ribbon-cutting’ in the region. He has also authored published editorial commentary on Kentucky’s heroin addiction problems. Grimes has had neither of these opportunities.
Any bias favoring Grimes does not have the same obvious point of reference as incumbency does for McConnell. Some might argue that gender bias could conceivably be a factor. Perhaps “incumbency fatigue” could also be a factor and influence the paper’s editorial staff to prefer a younger, fresher candidate. Without rigorous context analysis, it is unclear whether bias is present or not in the reporting and publication.
4. What kind of effect, or to what degree, do you believe a bias in local media can impact a United States Senate election?
If one believes that the mass media plays an important role in presenting relevant information for voters about candidates and elections, then the effect of bias could be significant. If voters are unsure about their capability to make informed decisions about candidates, then perhaps the editorial stance by a paper led by professionals whom voters believe spend significant time studying the election might be an important factor in influencing their candidate choice. If voters have a limited frame of reference for developing an opinion about a candidate’s character or issue stance, then the paper might be an important reference for the voter in coming to a decision on how to vote. If a paper reinforces a voter’s preconceived attitudes or opinions then the voter might not be challenged to critically consider his or her choice. Certainly the scale of the election is relevant to the impact of the paper upon an election. It seems fair to suggest that the impact of the newspaper upon an election outcome would be greater at the local level than at the state level, particularly where you have several moderately large cities with their own daily newspapers who may have divergent points of view.
5. What are a few major problems that you have with the way media portrays events? Do you think there is a way to better to portray political events in a more neutral light?
I am not sure that there is a perfect point of neutrality that a paper, or any election analyst, can find. To some degree whether something is neutral or not is simply one’s perspective. That being said, I have been an elected official and experienced firsthand how the media portray events where I have been an active participant. I have learned that how an event is covered depends greatly upon the professional attitude and training of the reporter. For reporters who have limited experience, the coverage tends to be superficial. For reporters who are more seasoned, they tend to have a broader perspective of the community and issues. In that case the coverage is generally more expansive; the event or issue is placed within a larger perspective. Some reporters rely repeatedly upon the same people for their background material and quotes. Others are more open to divergent points of view and balance their approach. As a result, the reporter’s perspective and thoughtfulness greatly affects the way an issue is presented and made relevant for the public.
Newspapers face all kinds of challenges today and the industry is not doing well as indicated by lower circulations generally. The effort to attract the public’s attention to increase visibility (and thus sales) for both print and electronic media has led to what appears to be prioritizing coverage of the violent and the controversial to the detriment of focusing upon a more in-depth examination of political issues. However, my preference for better analysis and coverage may be just my idealized view of the press’s role in a democratic society. In actuality, the press’s predilection to “lead with what bleeds” is an historical fact as is the idea that the press has biases. Regardless, newspapers continue to be an important agent of socialization for a democratic society and some of us refuse to accept that it could lose that key role.