Candidate appearances on soft news shows and public knowledge about primary campaigns.

Author:Brewer, Paul R.
 
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Following what has now become standard procedure for presidential contenders, the candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination made the rounds on entertainment-oriented "soft news" programs. For example, on September 16, 2003, John Edwards announced his candidacy on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (prompting Stewart's reply, "I guess I should let you know--we're a fake show"). On November 11th that same year, John Kerry attempted to reignite an apparently faltering campaign by riding a motorcycle onto The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and on December 6th, Al Sharpton shared his James Brown impersonation with the audience on Saturday Night Live. All of their major rivals--including Wesley Clark, Dick Ghephardt, Dennis Kucinich, Joseph Lieberman, Carol Mosely-Braun, and early front-runner Howard Dean--made their own stops on soft news programs.

According to some, such appearances do little to inform the public. For example, when Stewart himself made an October 15, 2004, appearance on Crossfire, a more traditional news talk show, host Tucker Carlson (2004) cast doubt on whether the comedian asked any useful questions of candidates:

It's nice to get [politicians] to try and answer the question. And in order to do that, we try and ask them pointed questions. I want to contrast our questions with some questions you asked John Kerry recently ... You asked him questions such as--quote--"How are you holding up? Is it hard not to take the attacks personally? ... Have you ever flip-flopped?" et cetera, et cetera.... You got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question? (1) Others have even argued that candidate appearances on entertainment-oriented shows may discourage informed and reasoned decision making on the part of the voting public by trivializing or debasing public discourse (e.g., see Postman, 1985).

This study suggests a different conclusion. Drawing on recent research into the nature and effects of soft news (e.g., Baum, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2005; Niven, Lichter, & Amundsun, 2003; Prior, 2003; Young, 2004), as well as theories regarding how citizens reason about politics in general (Downs, 1957) and during presidential primaries in particular (Popkin, 1994), we argue that exposure to candidate appearances on soft news programs may actually be associated with greater knowledge about primary campaigns on the part of audience members.

Soft News Programs, Candidate Appearances, and Primary Campaigns

Hard news sources, as defined by Baum (2002, 2003a, 2003b), include newspapers, news magazines, and network and cable news programs that devote at least part of their coverage to public policy themes. According to Baum, this category also includes the politically oriented news talk shows on broadcast television (e.g., Meet the Press, This Week) and cable television (e.g., Hardball with Chris Matthews, Larry King Live, and Crossfire) that primary candidates often visit (see Benoit, McHale, Hansen, Pier, & McGuire, 2003; PresidentialCampaign2004, n.d.-b). Soft news sources, in contrast, are those that emphasize stories with a certain set of characteristics, "including the absence of public policy component, sensationalized presentation, humaninterest themes, and ... dramatic subject matter such as crime and disaster" (Baum, 2002, p. 92). Recent studies (Baum, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2005; Prior, 2003) have identified a range of such sources, including television news magazine shows (e.g., 60 Minutes, 20/20), morning shows (e.g., Good Morning America, The Early Show), late-night talk shows (e.g., The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman), and political comedy shows (e.g., The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live).

Nielsen ratings suggest that large numbers of Americans watch such shows (see Baum, 2002, 2003b; cf. Prior, 2003). (2) For example, in the first week of November 2003, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman had ratings of 5.4 and 4.8, respectively (with one rating point equaling 1.084 million households and each household equaling around 1.3 viewers). In the first week of December 2003, 60 Minutes (with a 11.9 rating, or about 17 million viewers) and 20/20 (with a 6.7 rating, or about 9 million viewers) had even larger audiences. In February 2003, The Today Show had about 6.5 million viewers, Good Morning America had almost 6 million, and The Early Show had over 3 million. By way of comparison, Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and This Week averaged 4.2, 2.7, and 4.5 million viewers, respectively, over the course of 2003. On cable, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart averaged 1.2 million viewers per telecast in the last 2 weeks of January 2004, a figure that placed it in the same 1 to 2 million viewers range occupied by The O'Reilly Factor and Larry King Live and ahead of Crossfire and Hardball with Chris Matthews.

Although research suggests that the appeal of soft news programming to its audience lies primarily in its entertainment value and not its news value (Baum, 2003b, 2005; Prior, 2003), these shows often contain political content. For example, Baum (2002, 2003b) found that many sorts of soft news programs frequently covered certain political topics. Looking more specifically at late-night shows, Niven et al. (2003) and Young (2004) found that the hosts of these shows targeted politicians with numerous jokes. Examining "e-talk shows" such as Oprah Winfrey's and Rosie O'Donnell's, Baum (2005) found that they tended to present relatively flattering messages about the candidates appearing on them.

Studies have also concluded that exposure to soft news programs can influence public opinion. For instance, Young (2004) demonstrated that exposure to late-night shows was conditionally related to people's ratings of presidential candidates' traits. In a similar vein, Baum (2005) found that exposure to candidate interviews on entertainment-oriented talk shows had conditional effects on attitudes toward those candidates, as well as on vote intentions. Given these effects, it is not surprising that candidates would be enticed by the free exposure that soft news programs offer.

But do such shows influence public knowledge about politics? Numerous observers, from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to present-day scholars, have argued that an informed citizenry is vital to democratic politics (see Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996, for an overview). Thus, any connection between soft news programming and knowledge about primary campaigns could have implications for the health of the American political process. There is no consensus, however, on whether soft news shows inform--or, alternatively, misinform--the public. Some observers, such as Postman (1985), endorse the latter view. On the other hand, surveys have found that many Americans claim to learn about politics from a range of soft news programs, including news magazine shows, morning television shows, late-night television shows, and political comedy shows (e.g., Pew Research Center, 2000, 2004). Moreover, Baum found that under certain circumstances exposure to soft new shows is associated with not only greater attention to politics (Baum, 2003b) but also greater political knowledge (Baum, 2003a). Then again, Prior (2003) concluded that "there is very limited evidence" (p. 149) that preferences for soft news are related to political knowledge in either direction.

The goal of this research is to shed new light on the topic by considering why and how exposure to candidate appearances on soft news programs might be related to knowledge about campaigns. We have been unable to identify any previous study that has examined this relationship. Like Baum's (2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2005) studies, this study draws on Downs (1957) and Popkin (1994) to argue that citizens can obtain information about politics as a by-product of their nonpolitical lives--in this case, by watching soft news shows for entertainment. According to Downs, one should not expect citizens to expend effort in gathering large amounts of information about any given election because they have little chance of influencing political outcomes and, thus, receive little to no payoff by working to become informed. Instead, citizens should rely on information shortcuts--for example, using "free" information--to reduce the costs of becoming informed (Downs, 1957, p. 228). Building on this idea, Popkin argued that daily life provides many pieces of free information that may be politically relevant. Baum (2003b), in turn, extended Popkin's logic to the act of watching soft news shows: Given that people watch these shows for the benefit of enjoyment, the information that they contain may help to produce an "accidentally attentive" (and knowledgeable) public. The present study applies this argument to candidate appearances on soft news shows and tests it in the context of the presidential primary campaign, which features relatively low levels of knowledge among the public (Popkin, 1994) and frequent candidate appearances on such shows. (3)

To be sure, the claim that such an effect may occur presupposes that candidate appearances on soft news shows actually contain content that might serve to foster greater knowledge about campaigns. This presupposition is plausible, however, given research showing that these appearances provide something that many forms of hard news coverage lack, namely opportunities for candidates to speak to voters at length in their own words. As numerous scholars have described, hard news coverage of elections has evolved in recent decades toward fewer campaign stories, shorter sound bites from politicians, a greater emphasis on the horse race, and greater prominence for the interpretive voices of journalists (e.g., see Farnsworth & Lichter, 2003; Hallin, 1992; Steele & Barnhurst, 1996; see also PresidentialCampaign2004, n.d.-a, for evidence from news coverage of the 2004 primary campaign). As a...

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