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Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability

Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability

R. Douglas Arnold
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability
    Book Description:

    Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability is the first large-scale examination of how local media outlets cover members of the United States Congress. Douglas Arnold asks: do local newspapers provide the information citizens need in order to hold representatives accountable for their actions in office? In contrast with previous studies, which largely focused on the campaign period, he tests various hypotheses about the causes and consequences of media coverage by exploring coverage during an entire congressional session.

    Using three samples of local newspapers from across the country, Arnold analyzes all coverage over a two-year period--every news story, editorial, opinion column, letter, and list. First he investigates how twenty-five newspapers covered twenty-five local representatives; and next, how competing newspapers in six cities covered their corresponding legislators. Examination of an even larger sample, sixty-seven newspapers and 187 representatives, shows why some newspapers cover legislators more thoroughly than do other papers. Arnold then links the coverage data with a large public opinion survey to show that the volume of coverage affects citizens' awareness of representatives and challengers.

    The results show enormous variation in coverage. Some newspapers cover legislators frequently, thoroughly, and accessibly. Others--some of them famous for their national coverage--largely ignore local representatives. The analysis also confirms that only those incumbents or challengers in the most competitive races, and those who command huge sums of money, receive extensive coverage.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4958-1
    Subjects: Political Science, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Legislators, Journalists, and Citizens
    (pp. 1-28)

    The mass media perform a vital function in democratic systems by reporting what elected officials are doing in office. The media convey not only factual accounts of officials’ activities and decisions; they also transmit evaluations of officials’ performance, including assessments by other politicians, interest group leaders, pundits, and ordinary citizens. Although the media are not the only source of information about officials’ performance, they are by far the most important. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how large-scale democracy would be possible without a free and independent press to report the actions of governmental officials. Robert Dahl, the democratic theorist,...

  6. 2 Explaining the Volume of Newspaper Coverage
    (pp. 29-63)

    How extensively do local newspapers cover members of Congress? Why do some newspapers cover representatives more extensively than other newspapers do? Do large urban newspapers or papers with reporters based in Washington provide more coverage than small papers with few resources of any type? Why do some representatives attract more coverage than other representatives? Does press coverage depend on representatives’ positions in the congressional hierarchy, on what they do in Washington, or on the competitiveness of their districts? This chapter provides answers to all these questions.

    Both the volume and content of newspaper coverage are important if citizens are to...

  7. 3 How Newspapers Cover Legislators
    (pp. 64-91)

    Newspapers regularly publish information about their local representatives. The typical newspaper in the first data set published about 15 articles per month that mentioned the local representative (chapter 2). What kinds of information did newspapers dispense and where did they display it? Did newspapers merely reprint representatives’ press releases or did journalists do their own reporting of representatives’ actions? Did lists of roll-call votes constitute a large fraction of the coverage of what representatives were doing in office or did journalists write stories about representatives sponsoring bills, working in committees, and building coalitions? Was coverage of representatives confined to the...

  8. 4 Legislators as Position Takers
    (pp. 92-124)

    The recorded vote is the single most visible and often the most important indicator of what individual legislators have contributed to congressional decisions. Recorded votes have a special status in American politics; they are constitutionally protected. The Constitution requires that the yeas and nays be recorded at the request of one-fifth of those present. For votes to override presidential vetoes, they must be recorded without exception. As one of the framers, James Wilson, put it: “The people have a right to know what their Agents are doing or have done, and it should not be in the option of the...

  9. 5 Legislators as Policy Makers
    (pp. 125-155)

    The recorded vote is a superb way to apportion responsibility for specific congressional actions because each representative must stand up and be counted. A legislator either supports or opposes a particular bill; no intermediate position is available. The roll-call vote is not an effective way to apportion responsibility for legislative inaction. When Congress does nothing, it is rarely because a majority of representatives rejected a bill on the House floor. Inaction usually stems from other causes. Perhaps no one introduced a bill; a committee never acted; the Senate objected; a conference committee failed to resolve differences between House and Senate;...

  10. 6 Legislators as Candidates
    (pp. 156-193)

    How do newspapers cover representatives running for reelection? Do they focus on representatives’ past performance or their promises about the future? Do they review what representatives have been doing in office—their leadership activities, votes, and accomplishments—or do they assume that citizens need no prompting before deciding whether representatives deserve reelection? Are issues that were resolved a year or more ago, such as NAFTA and gays in the military, featured as prominently as issues of more recent vintage, such as crime control and health care reform? Do newspapers publish more frequent or more positive coverage of incumbents than of...

  11. 7 How Newspapers Differ
    (pp. 194-220)

    Newspapers differ greatly in how they cover local representatives. They differ both in the frequency with which they cover representatives and in what kinds of messages they convey about legislators. That much is clear from the evidence presented in chapters 2 through 6. But it is still not clear how much these dissimilarities reflect differences in the newsworthiness of particular representatives and how much they reflect differences in newspaper markets or in the practices of individual editors. This chapter examines what makes newspapers distinctive.

    The principal source for this chapter is the second data set. As discussed in chapter 1,...

  12. 8 Effects of Newspaper Coverage on Citizens
    (pp. 221-243)

    Does it matter that newspapers differ so much in how they cover representatives? Are citizens who live in districts where newspapers carefully cover representatives better informed than citizens who live in districts where newspapers provide superficial coverage? Does higher quality campaign coverage increase the chances that citizens will learn useful things about challengers as well as incumbents? Do representatives behave differently depending on whether newspapers regularly cover their actions in office? These are questions about whether differences in the informational environment have consequences for citizens’ and representatives’ behavior.

    Scholars have had only limited success in determining how variations in the...

  13. 9 The Press and Political Accountability
    (pp. 244-264)

    A basic premise of this book is that the nature of the informational environment affects the prospects for accountable government. More and better information about what elected officials are doing in office increases both the chances that citizens will notice the information and the likelihood that the information will affect citizens’ decisions about whether elected officials deserve to be reelected or removed. A rich informational environment also affects how elected officials behave in office. When officials know that what they do will be reported to citizens, they behave differently than when they believe that their actions will be forever hidden....

  14. References
    (pp. 265-272)
  15. Index
    (pp. 273-279)