Reporting on Congress: The Role of the Media
Stephanie Larson, Dickinson College
NOTE: Professor Larson presented a session on the media's coverage of Congress to participants in The Center's summer workshop for teachers, Congress in the Classroom, in July 2005. She agreed to post this summary of her remarks. Some editorial changes have been made for the sake of clarity.
Stephanie Larson is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Dickinson College. She teaches about American politics with emphasis on the mass media and political behavior. Her research focuses on the content and impact of media coverage of political actors and institutions and, as a second specialty, the representation of women in popular culture. In addition to this work, she is a consultant for the Advanced Placement Division of the Middle States Regional Office of the College Board. In this position, she runs workshops to assist high school AP government teachers.
Why teach Congress and the media?
1. Information on Congress and the media can easily connect to what you already teach about the legislature because media is important for understanding the relationship between the executive and the legislature, between Congress and the public, and between legislators.
2. Information on Congress and the media can help you deal with problems inherent in the way that most introductory textbooks teach the media in isolation.
3. Attention to Congress and the media can engage students and help them develop the important skill of "media literacy" thus providing them with a skill that will serve them well as life-long consumers of political news.
What would a comprehensive lesson on the media and Congress include?
1. Attention to both the local and national news.
2. The amount, focus, and tone of media coverage of individual legislators and of the institution.
3. Attention to the factors that influence these coverage patterns and to their consequences.
What approach can you take to teaching this information?
What does scholarship teach us about Congress and the media?
1. Use the major goals of legislators (reelection, good public policy, and influence in Washington) to discuss the media and individual legislators. Use the functions of Congress (representation, lawmaking, and oversight) to discuss how the institution is covered. Use examples and video clips to illustrate these points.
2. Focus on the relationship between Congress and the president and how the media tends to help tip the scales toward the president because of the nature of the three institutions (the media, the executive branch and the legislature). Use examples and video clips to illustrate these points.
3. Have students draw lessons about the media and Congress from video clips, newspaper articles, or editorial cartoons distributed or shown in class or from media observation homework done by students before class. Ask them to look for the media frames (that is, how the media present a story), such as patterns, omissions, and emphasis. Does the story match the introduction? Are there gaps in the story? Why might those gaps exist?
1. Most legislators put most of their attention and resources toward getting local print coverage, rather than television or national coverage.
a. Local coverage extensiveness and depth vary by the degree of fit between the district and media market, the quality of the local newspapers, and the qualities of the representative. Coverage focuses on voting records and members' actions as "local agents." Members who do more newsworthy things and those involved in competitive campaigns get more coverage. Local coverage is generally neutral but far more positive than negative when not objective.
b. Many legislators seek national news coverage in order to maximize their policy goals and desire for influence in Washington. Researchers call them "media entrepreneurs." They are not simply "show horses." Instead they usually have seniority and leadership positions combining "outside strategies" with "inside strategies," that is, they use the media to reinforce their efforts to use internal processes and opportunities to achieve influence.
2. Nature of institutions influences relative coverage and has implications for power.
a. Mainstream media organizations cover what they deem newsworthy (visual, clear, audience-appealing) and easy to report on because they have time and space constraints. The bias in most mainstream news is "structural" rather than "political."
b. Congress is an open, divided, decentralized, slow-moving institution with a multitude of people, rules, and issues. Lots of competing stories make it harder for media to focus on "the story of the day." This makes it hard to compete with the president for attention. Some Speakers of the House (and committee chairs) have sought to address this by centralizing power and seizing the role of congressional spokesperson.
c. Congress gets less coverage than the president and shares much of its coverage with him (playing second fiddle in these stories). Congress gets more coverage during periods of divided government. Most bills get little or no coverage. Committee hearings on newsworthy issues/scandals can temporarily result in Congress successfully competing for attention.
d. Coverage of Congress as an institution is more negative than positive (in contrast to the coverage of individuals members) and usually more negative than the president's. It focuses on conflict (partisan, individual, between chambers, or between branches), disarray, deadlock, slowness, timidity, and/or self interest. Confrontational issues get the most coverage with attention on who is "winning."
3. Consequences of the coverage differences between local and national media and between members and the institution help explain why polls show a gap in approval ratings between Congress and one's "own representative." It also helps explain why people want term limits while continuing to reelect legislators. Year-round media coverage, rather than campaign coverage, contributes to the incumbency advantage.
Major Books on Congress and the Media (1980-2005)
Arnold, R. Douglas (2004). Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability. NY: Russell Sage Publication and Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clarke, Peter and Susan H. Evans (1983). Covering Campaigns: Journalism in Congressional Elections. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Cook, Timothy E. (1989). Making Laws & Making News: Media Strategies in the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
Dennis, Everette E. and Robert W. Snyder, eds. (1998). Covering Congress. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Goldenberg, Edie and Michael Traugott (1984). Campaigning for Congress. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Hess, Stephen (1991). Live from Capitol Hill! Studies of Congress and the Media. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
Hess, Stephen (1986). The Ultimate Insiders: U.S. Senators in the National Media. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
Kahn, Kim Fridkin. (1996). The Political Consequences of Being a Woman. Columbia, NY: Columbia University Press.
Kedrowski, Karen M. (1996). Media Entrepreneurs and the Media Enterprise in the U.S. Congress. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
Larson, Stephanie Greco (1992). Creating Consent of the Governed: A Member of Congress and the Local Media. Carbondale, IL: Southern University Press.
Mann, Thomas E. and Norman J. Ornstein, eds. (1994). Congress, the Press, and the Public. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution.
Rozell, Mark J. (1996). In Contempt of Congress: Postwar Press Coverage on Capitol Hill. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Vermeer, Jan Pons, ed. (1987). Campaigns in the News: Mass Media and Congressional Elections. NY: Greenwood Press.
Vinson, C. Danielle (2003). Local Media Coverage of Congress and Its Members: Through Local Eyes. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Zilber, Jeremy and David Niven (2000). Racialized Coverage of Congress: The News in Black and White. Westport, CT: Praeger.
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