The mass media as sentinel:
Why bad news about issues is good news for participation
Paul S. Martin
This article argues that negative news coverage of politically relevant social issues
stimulates political participation by shaping citizen awareness of collective problems and interest
in politics. By drawing citizen attention to social problems that government may attend to, the
press acts as a sentinel for the mass public, cuing them to periods when participation is more
important. Drawing on an analysis of the 1974 National Election Study in combination with the
Center for Political Studies’ content analysis of newspapers, I find evidence that bad news about
issues is good news for participation.
Published by Political Communication, 25:180-193, 2008
This article makes the case that political participation is partially conditioned on citizens’
perceptions of the state of the country, which are largely informed through mediated channels,
specifically, newspapers and television news.1 In doing so, I try to explain the role of mass
media as a force of political mobilization. Mass media serve as a conduit to social context by
relaying key information about social conditions to citizens. The media continuously inform
citizens about the world outside. Citizens, in turn, use this information in their decisions about
whether to participate in politics or not. Consequently, the mass media serve as a sentinel to the
public by cueing the public as to when it is important to participate in politics.
Interestingly, recent scholarship has both upheld the modern media as a vital institution
that might aid in cueing citizens about when to pay attention to government (Schudson 1998) and
accused the media of turning citizens off from government altogether (Cappella and Jamieson
1997). This argument takes a position closely connected to Schudson’s theory of the “Monitorial
Citizen”, which suggests that modern citizens generally pay limited attention to government, but
are alerted by the press as to when they should pay closer attention to government. I extend
Schudson’s contention that the media serve as a cue to tell citizens when it is more important to
pay attention to government by connecting this attentiveness directly to citizen participation
through a social threat mechanism.
The argument is that (1) citizens become more and less active in politics depending upon
their perceptions of conditions in the country and that (2) these perceptions are largely informed
through media channels. In other words, citizens pay low levels of direct attention to politics;
they survey the nation through the information provided by the mass media and become more
active in politics when that information cues them to increasing national problems. In this way,
I thank Diana Mutz, James Baughman, Charles Franklin, Richard Merelman, Virginia Saprio, and the anonymous
reviewers for their valuable suggestions that improved this article. The Miller Center of Public Affairs provided a
scholarly environment complete with a porch and rocking chairs conducive to completing this article.
the media contribute to citizens’ decisions governing political participation by relaying important
information about the social and political context. When the media tell citizens that all is
relatively well, the incentive to act in politics is weaker; yet, if the media tell citizens that the
country is in turmoil, then the incentive to act becomes stronger. In short, bad news about issues
is good news for participation.
A theory of media influence on participation
The idea that bad news could encourage voting may seem counter-intuitive because
media negativity is often thought of as demobilizing citizens and making them cynical and
disillusioned about politics (Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1995; Cappella & Jamieson 1997;
Patterson 1993). Studies that emphasize a detrimental effect from media negativity examine
mostly personal negativity associated with negative campaigns. Recent studies have challenged
even these conclusions and have pointed to potentially positive influences of negative campaigns
on voting (Freedman & Goldstein 1999; Kahn & Kenney 1999; Lau & Pomper 1998; Freedman,
Franz, & Goldstein 2004; Martin 2004).
Issue negativity, on the other hand, points to the existence of problems in society, thereby
identifying problems that may require government attention such as increasing crime, economic
troubles, or inadequate health care. The effects of issue negativity have received considerably
less attention than the effects of negativity targeted at campaign actors and political institutions,
but the effects of issue negativity should not be overlooked. Indeed, they deserve emphasis.
People learn of collective problems via issue negativity. Furthermore, compared to negative
coverage of campaign actors, issue negativity is ubiquitous. Issue negativity exists within and
outside of campaigns and continuously informs citizens about social conditions in the nation as a
whole. Consequently, people become more aware of social problems and engaged in politics
when exposed to higher amounts of issue negativity.
While media influence on politics is most often thought of in terms of direct persuasion
(Page, Shapiro, & Dempsey 1987), agenda-setting and other cognitive effects (Iyengar & Kinder
1987), and reinforcing pre-existing beliefs (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet 1944), media
influence is not limited to persuasion, agenda setting, and reinforcement. Media also influence
politics in more subtle, but powerful, ways by informing beliefs about social reality that in turn
shape political attitudes and behavior (e.g. Mutz 1998). Most often citizens either support or
oppose policies and programs based on their media driven perceptions of social reality. Two
examples illustrate this idea. First, citizens alter their support for incumbent politicians based on
their perceptions of economic reality. When people perceive the economy to be doing well they
reward incumbents and when they perceive the economy to be faring poorly, they punish
incumbents (Fiorina 1981). Second, citizens alter their support for welfare state provisions based
on their perceptions of the race and status of target groups being aided. Support for welfare
provisions is stronger when the target groups are perceived to be either children or elderly and
white, and support is weaker when the target groups are perceived to be of working age and
black (Gilens 1996). If media alter or simply inform perceptions of social reality – how the
economy is doing, how much crime we have, and who is poor – then the power of the press to
influence politics is unquestionable.
Bad news and republican citizenship
To stimulate political participation, issue negativity must alter the motivation for voting.
I argue that issue negativity simultaneously makes people more aware of problems and
stimulates their interest in the campaign. Problem awareness motivates political participation via
a social threat mechanism. Threat is widely seen to motivate the behavior and attention of
organized2 and unorganized3 groups, and threat has become an increasingly important
explanation for individual behavior. When organized interests are under threat, interest groups
are able to increase membership and contributions (Hansen 1985). More importantly, when
individuals are confronted with the threat of a policy change on specific issues that they consider
to be important – such as abortion or the environment – they respond by contributing money to
interest groups and volunteering for campaigns that will try to protect the existing policy (Miller
& Krosnick 1999).
Threat, however, need not be in the form of grave immediate danger. In earlier research,
scholars have found that candidate-based threat, measured as anxiety in response to candidates,
encouraged people to learn more about the candidates, pay greater attention to the campaign, and
alter their habitual patterns of voting behavior (Marcus & MacKuen 1993; Marcus, Neuman, &
MacKuen 2000). During the 1980 Presidential election, citizens who perceived more threat in
the political environment in response to Reagan and Carter were more likely to correctly place
Reagan and Carter with respect to liberal/conservative policy positions (Marcus & MacKuen
1993:679). Moreover, citizens who demonstrated greater anxiety in response to George Bush
and Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign were more likely to pay attention to the
campaign and less likely to rely on partisan predispositions to make their vote choice (Marcus &
Interest groups seem to proliferate in the face of perceived threats to their interest (Lowery & Gray 1993), and
memberships in interest groups receive a boost when interests are threatened (Hansen 1985).
The contextual threat of concentrations of black Americans is thought to condition the political behavior of white
southerners in opposition to blacks (Giles & Buckner 1993; Giles & Hertz 1994; Wright 1977).
The threat-mobilization hypothesis suggests that in the face of social threats – bad news
about high unemployment or problems with health care, for example – citizens mobilize to
counteract the perceived social threat in two ways. First, the awareness of social threats in the
form of perceptions of collective problems provides an estimate of the importance of a given
election as a symbolic event encouraging civic action. The more things that are going wrong, the
more things government is likely to act on. Elections that are perceived to be about a broad array
of social problems are likely to be thought of as more important than elections that are perceived
to be covering a narrow array of social problems. At the individual level, a person who thinks
that both the economy and health care are important issues is likely to see the election as being
more important than a person who only sees only the economy or health care as an important
issue. Citizens respond to perceived social threats as if they were external threats to the country
– they rally and vote at higher rates.
Under this scenario, voting, and other affirming acts of civic engagement in response to
perceived social threats can be explained, in part, as a symbolic act.4 As Sears and Funk suggest,
“people may be socialized to respond to public issues in a principled and public-regarding
manner” (1990:169). This notion is entirely consistent with republican models of citizenship
starting with George Washington as “the modern Cincinnatus, forming the new nation, ruling
without excess, and returning to ordinary life” (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton
1985:254). Citizens mobilize to counteract national problems and withdraw from participation
when they perceive fewer problems.
While citizens may become more likely to participate when they see more problems for symbolic reasons,
collective problems can also become political opportunities. Hence, citizens could rationally choose to participate to
try to further their party’s interests when election stakes are higher. Given weak parties and American lack of
interest in politics, it seems more likely that citizens will participate out of disinterested duty rather than partisan
interest. Moreover, modern civic expectations placed on citizens fit better with notions of obligations to society
rather than to political parties (Schudson 1998). In short, participation in reaction to awareness of collective
problems is most likely symbolic rather than instrumental.
Secondly, perception of threatening social conditions in the form of multiple social
problems produces anxiety and increased attention to politics. These cognitive triggers – anxiety
and interest -- translate into political participation. Many studies have found that when groups or
individuals feel threatened by political actors or other groups they respond proactively. Marcus
and MacKuen argue that threat is an attention-getting device and find that when citizens feel
stronger threat or anxiety during political campaigns they are more likely to pay attention to
campaigns and learn more about the candidates (1993; also Marcus et al. 2000). Citizens
“abandon complacency and start to pay attention when the world signals that something is not
right” (Marcus & MacKuen 1993:673). Threat is often translated into increased arousal and
attention that would enable greater participation.
In sum, social threat incorporates an idea of republican citizenship that channels potential
anxiety toward rather than away from participation. People participate in politics more when
they believe that more is at stake in a given election based on their evaluation of collective
problems, and they believe more is at stake when issue media is more negative. In this sense,
they are rational actors, limited by imperfect information (e.g. Simon 1957; Simon 1985), who
try to accommodate a flexible, republican sense of civic duty by participating more when they
believe there are greater challenges in the social and political system. Hence, as Berelson and
colleagues argued long ago, nonvoting may well be, in part, an expression of contentment rather
than discontentment (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, & McPhee 1954). Forgoing the opportunity to vote
may be a passive expression of consent, especially for those who possess resources necessary to
This type of political motivation need not be cast in this positive light. People may also decline to participate in
politics because they fail to make the connections between the problems they see and politics. Many things that
theorists of politics would consider political (i.e. where values are being authoritatively allocated) are not conceived
of as being political by citizens (Gaventa 1980), or at least not connected to the political institutions that could
The previous sections described a two-step model of media influence on voter turnout
where negative issue coverage makes people more aware of collective problems and more
interested in politics, which in turn stimulates voting. More formally, the two hypotheses are:
1) Higher levels of issue negativity will heighten problem awareness and political interest.
2) Individuals who are aware of more collective problems and more interested will be more
likely to vote.
A combination of secondary analysis of survey data with content analysis is used to test
the hypotheses in the first step of the model – that issue negativity motivates problem awareness
and political interest. Secondary analysis of National Election Studies (NES) survey data is used
to test the second step of the model.
Media influence on problem awareness and political interest
How exactly does issue-media influence problem awareness? The process is
exceptionally simple and very similar to Zaller’s “receive-accept-sample” model of
communication effects (1992). Zaller’s model, building off Converse (1962) and McGuire
(1968), assumes that citizens vary in their ability to resist messages. Zaller’s model has two
basic components – reception and acceptance – where acceptance is a function of political
awareness or sophistication. The implication for the effect of issue media on problem awareness
is that the least sophisticated will accept news on problems more readily than those who are more
address the problems (Merelman, Streich, & Martin 1998). If the problems that people face most often are defined
as being non-political (e.g. private issues such as business downsizing or gender relations) then it is unlikely that
they will act on them politically (Kinder & Kiewiet 1981; Sniderman & Brody 1977). When more things are
brought into the perceived realm of political problems, either by the development of political consciousness or by
politicizing increases in the perceived prevalence of problems, people become more engaged in politics.
Pr (attitude change) = Pr(Reception) X Pr (Acceptance|Reception)
Reception, however, is more complicated. Based on the psychological influence of
positive and negative information, citizens are less likely to receive positive information than
they are to receive negative information (Fiske 1980; Kahneman & Tversky 1984; Pratto & John
1991). They are also less likely to pay attention to or remember positive information (Lang,
Newhagen, & Reeves 1996; Reeves, Lang, Thorson, & Rothchild 1989). Conversely, negative
information is most likely to be paid attention to, remembered, and then used for judgment (e.g.
Shields & Goidel 1998:108). Consequently, bad news is more likely than good news to
influence problem awareness.6
News coverage is not the sole source of problem awareness. First, partisanship may bias
estimates of national conditions so that people see more problems as a reflection of their partisan
opposition to government (Fiorina 1981). For example, Republicans thought the economy was
doing better than Democrats did in 1992 (Hetherington 1996). I measure partisanship using the
direction and strength of the respondent’s partisanship using a seven-point scale. Second,
demographic differences between people such as age, education, income, race, and gender are
likely to influence citizens’ problem awareness for both individual and structural reasons.
Education, for example, may influence problem awareness because of individual differences in
public attention or awareness. But education may also influence problem awareness because of
structural differences in the life experiences of the higher and lower educated. The more
educated segment of society is likely to notice problems that affect higher status people, like the
drops in the stock market, whereas lower educated people may see problems that influence lower
Stories of good news should not counterbalance stories about bad news in how they affect problem awareness.
Exposure to 2 bad news stories and 2 good news stories should have a similar effect as 2 bad news and no good
status people more frequently such as unemployment. Likewise, lower income citizens are more
likely to personally experience the kinds of problems that comprise politically relevant collective
experience – crime, unemployment, criminal victimization, poor health care – but they are also
less attentive to public affairs which may hinder them from connecting their private experiences
to the larger collective experience (Mutz 1992).
In addition to these alternative causes on problem awareness, and as previously
mentioned, political knowledge may significantly influence the way that people process news
information (e.g. Zaller 1992). It is also necessary to control for political knowledge to
distinguish the potential media effect of content from the characteristics of the consumer.
Political knowledge is included in the model both to control for its direct effect and also as an
interaction with negative media. As a surrogate for political information, the interviewer
assessment of the respondents' political information is used (Bartels 1996; Zaller 1985). Zaller
(1985) found that this measure is highly reliable.
The same psychological advantages of negative information should also drive the effects
of bad news more directly to stimulate political interest, albeit in a simpler fashion. As news
gets worse, it becomes more pressing and more engaging. In theory, interest rises because
people become more aware of problems through exposure to bad news. The observable
implications are that problem awareness and interest should increase when exposure to bad news
Estimating the influence of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest
To measure the influence of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest,
I use the 1974 National Election Study (Miller and the National Election Studies 1999),
supplemented with an extensive content analysis conducted by the Center for Political Studies
(Miller, Miller, and Kline 1978)7 of the newspapers read by the respondents.8 The CPS analyzed
the content and tone of ninety-six newspapers read by respondents in the 1974 NES survey. If at
least seven respondents in the survey read a newspaper, the CPS selected the paper for inclusion
in the study. Ten randomly selected days – October 16, 17, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30; November 1, 3
and 4 – were included in the content analysis. For each day, all articles appearing on the front
page and editorial sections of the newspaper were analyzed. In all, the CPS analyzed 8768 front-
page stories and 9458 editorial stories. Every article was coded originally for up to two subjects
and up to two assessments of tone (one for each subject). So each article is represented by one or
two stories depending on whether a second subject was coded. Hence, the unit of analysis is the
story. Stories were originally categorized into subjects based on the primary and secondary
(where applicable) emphases of the headline and story text. I re-categorized stories as pertaining
to either the candidates or to social issues. The original study coded stories as campaign stories
only if they did not fit into an issue category (e.g. public announcements of future speeches,
personal stories, campaign statistics, candidate comparisons on style, or reporting on polls).
Hence a story about one candidate’s criticism of another’s economic policy would be coded as
an issue story and a candidate’s criticism of another’s personal life would be coded as a
campaign story. I categorized the stories originally coded as campaign events, polls, and debates
as candidate cases. I categorized stories originally coded to discuss economics, crime, social
problems, and general news as issue cases.
The data used in this manuscript were made available by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social
Research. The data for the CPS media content analysis study, 1974, were originally collected by the Center for
Political Studies of the Institute for Social Research, the University of Michigan, under a grant from the John and
Mary R. Markle Foundation. Neither the original collectors of the data nor the consortium bear any responsibility for
the analyses or interpretations presented here.
See Miller, Goldenberg, & Erbring (1979) or Erbring, Goldenberg, & Miller (1980) for a fuller description of
content analysis procedures.
The tone of the stories – negative, positive, or mixed – was originally assessed by
determining whether the actors or editorialist in the story “criticized or praised the actions,
positions, persons, or policies, etc., mentioned in the content” (Miller, Miller, and Kline 1978:
27).9 Issue negativity is measured as the proportion of national issue news stories that were
assesses as being negative in tone. In addition to the proportion of stories that are negative, a
count of the total number of stories is included as a control.
To measure problem awareness, I take a modified count of the number of problems a
respondent answers to the open-ended question: “What do you think are the most important
problems facing the country?” which is followed up with prompts to give up to two additional
problems. If a respondent named two problems within the same category,10 the second mention
was counted as one-half, so the measure is coded 0, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, and 3. To alleviate concerns
about the intensity of perceived problems, a second study conducted at the University of
Oklahoma tested a follow-up question after the most-important problems measure where
respondents were asked for each problem they listed, how much of a problem they believed the
item to be. On a scale from 1 to 100, all three problems were rated nearly the same at 75, which
provides some confidence that respondents do not mention problems they consider to be trivial.
The first dependent variable, problem awareness, is a borderline case for using either
OLS or ordered probit. As measured, problem awareness is discrete and ordinal ranging from
zero to three with six categories. The model was tested using OLS and retested using ordered
probit analysis. The findings were essentially identical; the OLS results are presented.
This citation refers to the codebook that accompanies the computerized data set.
The 16 categories are: economy, crime, government, national defense, health care, education, agriculture, public
morality, natural resources, poverty, civil rights, business/labor issues, immigration, infrastructure, and consumer
protection. However, the top five categories were consistently: economy, crime, national defense, poverty, and
government for the period 1974 through 1980 and economy, crime, national defense, poverty, and health care for
1982 through 1996. The top five categories make up between 80 and 90% of all mentions for every year.
The model is:
y(problem awareness) = b0(constant) +
b1(issue negativity) +
b2(total number of stories) +
b3(political knowledge) +
b4(political knowledge X issue negativity) +
The second dependent variable, political interest, is discrete and ordered, so an ordered
probit analysis is used. The model is similar to that of problem awareness with one exception.
Where the model of problem awareness model controls for the interaction of negative news and
political knowledge, the model of political interest controls directly for problem awareness.
Effects of issue negativity on problem awareness and political interest
The first column of Table 1 displays the tests of the effects of negative issue coverage on
problem awareness. The results of the hypothesis testing are consistent with expectations: the
proportion of negative news stories increases problem awareness (p<.05). The second row of
Table 1 shows that the total number of stories does not influence problem awareness – it appears
that tone matters more. These results hold when controlling for political knowledge and the
interaction between negative stories and political knowledge.
[Table 1 about here]
As expected, those higher in political knowledge are more aware of collective problems.
More importantly, the interaction of negative issue news and political knowledge is negative
(p<.05). This result is highly consistent with the expectations of Zaller's "receive-accept-
sample” model of media effects (1992). Those who have higher levels of political knowledge
were less influenced by the negative coverage than those with lower levels of political
knowledge. In other words, the least politically sophisticated are more likely to believe what
The results of these tests suggest that when the newspapers read by the survey
respondents in 1974 had a higher proportion of negative issue stories, the respondents became
aware of more problems. And conversely, readers of newspapers with very little issue negativity
were aware of fewer problems. In sum, the results support idea that citizens – especially those
with lower political knowledge – develop their problem awareness in part as a consequence of
the level of issue negativity in the newspapers they read.
The second column from Table 1 presents the effect of issue negativity on political
interest. Just as the proportion of issue negativity influences problem awareness, so does it
influence political interest. This finding alone is sufficient to suggest that issue negativity may
indirectly influence political participation as political interest is well known to drive participation
(see for example Marcus and MacKuen (1993). Even without considering the effects of issue
negativity on political participation, these two findings from Table 1 ring consistent with the idea
that the mass media acts as a sentinel when they feature bad news about issues: people become
more aware of problems and their interest in politics increases.
From problem awareness to political engagement
Table 1 shows how issue negativity stimulated problem awareness and political interest.
This section continues with the 1974 National Election Study and examines the second
hypothesis: that problem awareness and political interest stimulate voting.
A long literature has examined why Americans vote or refrain from doing so. Most
importantly, we know that voting is highly habitual (Plutzer 2002), suggesting that any media
related effects would be relatively modest. Resources such as time, money, and education
provide important gateways for individuals to access the political system (Verba, Schlozman, &
Brady 1995), and prior research has both noted the importance of these factors in determining
political participation and connected these resources to socio-economic status (age, income, race,
education, and gender as the representation of the resource model). Standing motivation
stemming from ideological or partisan extremity also plays a roll as those more ideologically
invested in the current system are more likely to continue to participate (Campbell, Converse,
Miller, & Stokes 1960). Party contact is also well known to be an important influence on voting
(Rosenstone & Hansen 1993). Resources, standing motivation, and party-based mobilization are
fairly consistent forces acting on citizen participation and provide a baseline with which to test
effects that are more variable, such as problem awareness and political interest11 that is partly
stimulated by bad news.
A second empirical consideration is disentangling the effects of problem awareness on
voting from those of political knowledge on voting. A skeptical reader may be concerned that
problem awareness is simply another measure of political knowledge.12 To seriously consider
this point, the empirical model must examine the influence of political knowledge on this
process. As problem awareness has the potential of being subsumed by political knowledge,
observing the effect of problem awareness while controlling for political knowledge is important.
The inclusion and operationalization of political interest is admittedly problematic because it likely taps long
standing political interest as well as short term interest that would vary. The finding from Table 1 indicating that
bad news affected political interest gives greater credence to the presence of a short term effect, but it most likely
has a sizable long-standing component.
Further investigation of the effects of negative news showed no effects of negativity on political information in
1974; however, the total number of stories, irrespective of tone, predicts political information (available from the
author on request).
Of equal concern, the influence of problem awareness on voter turnout may not be equivalent
across citizens with varying levels of political knowledge. Specifically, those with medium
levels of political knowledge are expected to see the greatest impact from problem awareness on
voter turnout. Keeping in mind that the process of problem awareness influencing voting is akin
to a persuasion model – persuading ones self that voting is important – it is precisely the medium
knowledge folks who would be most influenced to change their voting behavior along the lines
of their awareness of problems. The highly knowledgeable are well known to be most likely to
vote and less in need of reasons to vote. The less knowledgeable are equally known to be least
likely to vote. But more importantly, those with the lowest levels of political knowledge may be
less adept at connecting perceptions of collective problems with their own political participation.
It is those with medium levels of political knowledge whose participation is most likely to waver
from election to election with problem awareness.
The model examining how problem awareness and political interest influence vote
vote turnout = b0(constant) +
b2(interaction of problem awareness and medium knowledge)+
b3(interaction of problem awareness and low knowledge)+
b4(medium knowledge dummy)+
b5(low knowledge dummy)+
b6-11(Socio-economic Resources) +
b12-13(political interest & partisan extremity) +
b14(party contact) +
The model interacts separately problem awareness and medium knowledge, and then problem
awareness and low knowledge, while controlling for medium and low levels of knowledge. High
knowledge is the comparison group.
The findings in Table 2 show that the effect of problem awareness is strongly mediated
by political knowledge in ways that are consistent with expectations. We see no direct effect
from problem awareness, while the interaction between medium knowledge and problem
awareness is positive and statistically significant (p<.05) and the interaction between problem
awareness and low political knowledge fails to achieve statistical significance. These three
findings collectively mean that the direct effect of problem awareness is channeled exclusively
through those with a medium level of knowledge.
[Table 2 about here]
The other factors in the model are as one would expect. Those with lower and medium
levels of knowledge are less likely to vote than are high knowledge individuals as indicated by
the negative and statistically significant coefficients on lower and medium knowledge. Political
interest positively predicts voting as does strength of partisanship and party contact. The
representation of the resource model also performs as expected with positive effects on
education, income, and age.
Keeping all other factors at their means, problem awareness strongly influences voting
amongst those with medium knowledge. Those mentioning but a single public problem that they
thought was important had a probability of voting at about 57%, those at the other end of the
scale mentioning three distinct problems had a probability of voting at 71% (a difference of
14%). The average number of mentions for those with medium levels of knowledge was 2 with
a standard deviation of .7. Moving one standard deviation from the mean changes the likelihood
of voting by about 5%.
Discussion and Conclusion
The data used to test both hypotheses come from a unique source and a unique time. The
1974 CPS study remains unrivaled in the detail and extensiveness of its content coding of
positive and negative stories (other projects have done content analysis in combination with
surveys, but none to the author’s knowledge could adequately test the first hypothesis). The
1974 election also followed a particularly rough year. Nixon resigned on August 9th, Ford
pardoned him on September 8th, and the Republican Party lost 48 seats in the House and 4 in the
Senate in November. The American involvement in Vietnam was winding down, but would not
be completed until after the election. Unemployment was at 6.6% and rising, the consumer price
index neared 11%, and world oil prices jumped 252% in 1974 from $3.59 to $11.58 per barrel.
In spite of what appears to be a depressing year by any standard, the amount of bad news
in the newspapers read by the survey respondents varies substantially. One vivid example comes
from differences in the coverage of three Chicago-based newspapers included in the study. The
Tribune ran 84 stories coded as negative, the Sun-Times ran 40, and the Daily News ran 27
stories assessed as negative. Readers of these three papers would get very different impressions
of the levels of social, political, and economic problems facing the country. Cast in this light,
1974 offers a strong set of conditions to test the paper’s argument. It has a significant array of
problems that people could be cued to, yet the range of bad news in the press is wide enough to
have variation in the independent variable. In other words, the effects shown in this paper may
be present in most election years, but there may not be enough variation in exposure to bad news
to document them.
Still, the effects appear to be most pronounced in those with medium levels of
knowledge. Taking into consideration the degree of problems facing the nation in 1974, these
results suggest that while the press may play a sentinel roll along the lines implied by Schudson’s
theory of the Monitorial Citizen, it may only do so with those who are moderately informed to
This research suggests is that citizens may become more active in politics if politicians
and the press focused more on tackling social problems rather than tackling one another or
putting candidates under the microscope. Contrary to conventional wisdom, media negativity
need not be detrimental for democratic citizenship. Indeed, the media may serve as a sentinel to
the people arousing them to participate when conditions seem bleak. Rather than decrying the
press for being too negative, we may wish to encourage newspapers and media outlets that paint
the world in rosy colors to put the thorns back into the picture.
While the central claim of this paper is that bad news may stimulate a sense of republican
duty in the American citizenry, the findings also bear on the debate over the effect of negative
advertising on voter turnout. One of the more troubling aspects of that debate has been the lack
of specificity of clear mechanisms that could translate negative campaigns into political
participation (see Martin 2004). One consequence of this lack of specificity has been
inconsistency across research results (see Lau, Sigelman, Heldman, & Babbitt 1999). As
Sigelman and Kugler (2003) neatly point out, citizens do not equally read campaigns as negative
or positive, and therefore do not have consistent reactions to campaigns that scholars consider
“negative”. While there could be many mechanisms that could effectively translate negative ads
to political participation, the degree to which bad news or negative campaigns encourage people
to see greater problems facing the country may help to further explain why some negative
campaigns stimulate turnout and others do not.
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Bartels, L. M. (1996). Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections.
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Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the
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Table 1: Effects of negative national issue stories on problem awareness and
political interest during the 1974 campaign
Problem Awareness Political interest
Proportion of negative stories 2.13** 1.22**
Total number of stories .001 -.001
Political knowledge .607** .459**
Interaction of political knowledge and
proportion of negative stories
Problem awareness -- .055
Partisanship -.002 .106**
Education .038** .025
Income -.006 .013
Female -.003 -.184*
White -.132 .008
Age -.001 .013**
n 1045 1041
R-square .105 --
Ordered Probit Threshold 1 -- 1.86
Threshold 2 -- 2.79
Threshold 3 -- 3.99
model significance p<.0001 --
model chi-square -- 296.19**
initial log likelihood -- -1181.39
final log likelihood -- -1033.29
Note: * indicates significance at p < .05; ** indicates significance at p < .01; standard errors in
parentheses. Column 1 estimates are regression coefficients; column 2 estimates are ordered probit
Source: National Election Studies 1974 with content analysis from CPS.
Table 2: How political knowledge influences the effects of problem awareness on voter
turnout during the 1974 campaign
Problem awareness -.095
Interaction of problem awareness and medium political
Interaction of problem awareness and low political
Medium political knowledge -.930*
Low political knowledge -1.11**
Political interest .436**
Strength of partisanship .282**
Party contact .944**
Model chi-square 505.91**
initial log likelihood -1304.92
final log likelihood -1051.97
Note: * indicates significance at p < .05; ** indicates significance at p < .01; standard errors in parentheses.
Estimates are logit coefficients.
Source: National Election Studies, 1974.