Media Matters: Journalists Influence Elections Because Viewers Are Voters

After each bomb drop of often salacious/ troubling information, from Trump´s inappropriate comments and behavior to Hillary´s emails, the respective campaigns have been either feeling the burn or feeling the bump. In the final weekend of campaigning some voters, even in states that allow early voting, are waiting with baited breath to see if there is a final November surprise before Election Day.

All eyes are on the candidates each time they are confronted with new information. Yet research reveal that public perception of the way they handle themselves depends in part on how they were treated by their media interviewers.

Media Matters because Viewers are Voters

During the 2016 presidential race, both Clinton and Trump were expected to hold a steady stream of press conferences and community activities to keep the public up to date and educated about their platforms and opinions.

Yet both Clinton and Trump have been accused of selectively choosing the networks and journalists with whom they agreed to speak. According to research, however, they were wise to choose their interviewers carefully. Studies reveal that voters´ perception of candidates can be influenced by the way they are treated by the interviewer. This is very important in any contested election cycle, because viewers are voters.

Trusting the Newscaster: Fair, Balanced, and Unbiased

In examining persuasive messages, research reveals that a newscaster is considered to be one of the most trustworthy communicators.[1] A political candidate, on the other hand, was found to be the least trustworthy.[2] Among possible explanations for the difference in perceived trustworthiness is the observation that a newscaster is viewed as merely providing information, unaffected by bias.[3]

Regarding the medium for the message, television was found to be the most effective method of communication for a newscaster, while least effective for a political candidate.[4] These findings taken together indicate that news reporters may have a stronger influence on the attitudes of their audience than elected political officials.[5]

Putting it all together, when a political candidate is interviewed on television by a media journalist, public perception will depend in part on the way the candidate is treated by the interviewer.

If the Anchor Likes You So Do I: Likability is Electability

Studies have demonstrated that a newscaster smiling when discussing a political candidate can boost the candidate´s electability.[6] Specifically, it was discovered that people who regularly watched a particular newscaster who exhibited facial expressions in favor of certain candidate were more likely to vote for that candidate.[7] The researchers concluded that “the selection of the president by the electorate may itself be influenced by which candidate the newscasters smile upon.” [8]

When a political candidate himself or herself is interviewed on the air, a similar dynamic is at play. One study investigating the impact of media bias found that impressions of a political candidate were influenced by the preferential behavior ´of the interviewer.[9] A hostile interviewer resulted in lower candidate ratings than a friendly interviewer, even when candidate behavior was identical.[10] This study was significant in terms of the impact of nonverbal behavior, because the subjects did not speak the language of the interviewer and candidate, and therefore did not base their ratings on communicative content.[11]

Is Bad News More Interesting than Good News? News Coverage of Partisan Politics

Research suggests that in general, news media covers more negative political advertisements than positive ones.[12] Partisan media attacks the opposing candidate yet fails to provide overwhelming support to like-minded candidates.[13]

In “Who Let the (Attack) Dogs Out?”—a study that examined news coverage by Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC during the 2008 presidential election, researchers concluded that partisan media sources impact voting behavior, political knowledge, and perceptions of candidates.[14] Specifically, they found that partisan media impact stems from negative coverage of the opposition candidate rather than positive coverage of the like-minded candidate.[15]

Although traditional media outlets seek to present both sides of the issues in a contested political election in order to educate voters and go to great lengths to fact check and ensure the content they are delivering is accurate, not all “news” comes from traditional outlets. Private “armchair journalists” often Tweets and blog “news” reports that have not been vetted or fact checked, often resulting in rumors and uncorroborated sensationalism that even when subsequently disproven, can be hard to forget.

All of these factors will no doubt be analyzed by researchers looking back on the unconventional political season we are experiencing, just as they have done with past election cycles. We look forward to continuing to examine voting behavior in light of modern technology, media, and unconventional candidates.

Portions of this article were originally published in Psychology Today

[1] Virginia Andreoli and Stephen Worchel, ”Effects of Media, Communicator, and Message Position on Attitude Change,” Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 1 (1978): 59-70.

[2] Andreoli and Worchel, ”Effects of Media, Communicator, and Message Position on Attitude Change.”

[3] Andreoli and Worchel, ”Effects of Media, Communicator, and Message Position on Attitude Change,” at 60 (citing DeVries and Tarrance, 1972).

[4] Andreoli and Worchel, ”Effects of Media, Communicator, and Message Position on Attitude Change.”

[5] Andreoli and Worchel, ”Effects of Media, Communicator, and Message Position on Attitude Change,” at 69.

[6] Brian Mullen, David Futrell, Debbie Stairs, Dianne M. Tice, Kathryn E. Dawson, Catherine A. Riordan, John G. Kennedy, Roy F. Baumeister, Christine E. Radloff, George R. Goethals, and Paul Rlsenfeld, ”Newscasters´ Facial Expressions and Voting Behavior of Viewers: Can a Smile Elect a President?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 51, No. 2 (1986): 291-295.

[7] Mullen et al., ”Newscasters´ Facial Expressions and Voting Behavior of Viewers,” at 294.

[8] Mullen et al., ”Newscasters´ Facial Expressions and Voting Behavior of Viewers,” at 294.

[9] Elisha Babad, ”The Psychological Price of Media Bias,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied Vol. 11, No. 4 (2005): 245-255.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Babad, ”The Psychological Price of Media Bias,” at 246.

[12] Glen Smith and Kathleen Searles, ”Who Let the (Attack) Dogs Out? New Evidence for Partisan Media Effects,” Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 78, No. 1 (2014): 71-99 (76).

[13] Smith and Searles, ”Who Let the (Attack) Dogs Out?” at 76.

[14] Smith and Searles, ”Who Let the (Attack) Dogs Out?” at 84.

[15] Smith and Searles, ”Who Let the (Attack) Dogs Out?” at 85.