Voters unmoved by politics via news media

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Washington politicians who use the media to get their message out have little influence on the voting public, according to new research.

Voters are more apt to be swayed by news stories about grassroots protests and local events, says Corwin Smidt, assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University.


“What this says is that maybe politicians can’t use the bully pulpit to influence public opinion through the news media as much as many people thought they could.”

For a new study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Smidt looked at media coverage of two national issues—gun control in 2000 and health care reform and 2009—and in both cases found that stories focusing on Washington debate had little to no effect on public opinion polls, possibly due to oversaturation of Washington news via 24-hour news channels and the Internet.

But news coverage of protests seemed to strike a chord. For example, coverage of the Million Mom March in 2000, designed to rally support for stricter gun-ownership laws, was highly influential in shaping public agenda.

News stories chronicling high-profile gun crimes also were influential in opinion polls, although less so than protests.

Smidt didn’t look at why the news media covered certain stories, but rather how the public reacted. While some believe the news media sets the public agenda, he says that may not necessarily be the case.

“The news media are still the gatekeepers—in that if they don’t cover something we probably won’t hear about it—but everything they cover does not have the same effect. It actually may be the storyline within the news that provokes opinion.”

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