Advocates and legislators often want to generate media attention for their preferred legislation, but that does not help pass bills in Congress. Mary Layton Atkinson finds that media coverage focuses on legislation with partisan conflict and emphasizes process over policy substance. That tells voters that Congress is dysfunctional and full of extremists, reducing support for policy change. John Lovett finds that media coverage leads to more intervention by backbencher legislators, creating a spiral of increasing salience that makes it harder for leadership to pass bills. Congressional media coverage turns off the public with stories of conflict-ridden sausage making that disrupt internal consensus-building.
Matt Grossmann: How media coverage of Congress limits policymaking, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Advocates and legislators often want to generate media attention for their preferred legislation, but that doesn’t mean the media coverage helps pass bills in Congress. Instead, congressional media coverage may turn off the public, with stories of conflict-ridden sausage making, and disrupt internal consensus-building. This week, I talked to Mary Layton Atkinson, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, about her Chicago book, Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking. She finds that media coverage focuses on legislation with partisan conflict, and emphasizes process over policy substance. That tells voters that Congress is dysfunctional and full of extremists. I also talked to John Lovett of Wake Forest University, about his new Michigan book, The Politics of Herding Cats: When Congressional Leaders Fail. He finds that media coverage leads to more intervention by backbench legislators, creating a spiral of increasing salience that makes it harder for leadership to pass bills. Both books are multifaceted. Atkinson finds that congressional reporting is overwhelmingly about process and that negatively affects public views.
Mary Layton Atkinson: I used a variety of methods in the book to draw these conclusions, some of which are about the nature of public affairs reporting, and some of which are about the nature of public opinion. I start with content analysis of public affairs reports that are about legislation in Congress, to demonstrate widespread use of the conflict frame. And this is something that has been studied before, right, especially in the context of reports about campaigns. We’ve known for a long time that campaign reporting really focuses on the horse race as opposed to the substantive policy conflict or debate that goes on during a political campaign. I demonstrate similar findings in the context of a policy debate in Congress, and then the rest of the book uses various methods to show how this impacts public opinion. I have experiments and observational studies that show that when policies are described by the news media as partisan, as rancorous, as a brawl, a battle, a fight, that these things impact how people think about the policy-making process and whether it’s working as intended.
For instance, I have two experiments where I give subjects a description of an education bill that’s supposed to be under consideration in Congress. And everybody is told in the vignette that they receive, what the bill would do, it would expand K through 12 education funding. And everybody is told that this is a Democratic bill, and everybody is told that the Republicans have some concerns, and they’re told what the substance of those concerns are. Everybody gets the basic framework of who’s on which side of this plan, and why are there differences of opinion? But some of the respondents are told that this is a partisan brawl, and it’s a heated conflict, and it’s going to break along party lines, whereas other respondents are told that lawmakers are working to sort out their differences, they’re trying to reach a compromise. And this presence of disagreement and the degree of that, right, the degree to which it’s ratcheted up and described as a battle, really affects how people think about the lawmaking process.
It matters to members of the public whether our differences are described as intractable, or whether lawmakers are described as working to overcome their differences. When the problem is intractable, people say the lawmaking process is broken. I have questions and I’m able to demonstrate that people believe the policy making process is broken, rather than working as intended, when the process is described as being really heated and partisan. The implications of that, are that policy opinions might then be a function of this belief about policymaking, right, and I go on to test that. To what degree are people willing to say they don’t want the passage of a policy that has parts that they like, right? Let’s say you’re somebody who is a Democrat and you want increased funding for education, but the process is one that you abhor.
Are you willing to put aside those process considerations and support the bill anyway? And what I find is that, many people are turned off by the process discussion, even if they like the substance of the legislation. So the broad implication is that policy opinions are more than just a function of the usual suspects, partisanship and ideology. They are also a function of the process by which the policy is made and the portrayal of that process by the news media.
Matt Grossmann: Lovett finds that backbenchers can help disrupt policymaking through media coverage.
John Lovett: I’m looking at, to some extent, the interaction between Congress, the media, and public policy, and really thinking, in particular, about how individual members can influence that policy process through the media. Now, what I end up finding at the end of the day is that really, members can use the media and use that kind of increase in issue attention, focus on issues, to stop leader desires when it comes to policy, that when leaders want to change policy, they’re going to have a hard time doing it during times of high media coverage. Really, at the end of the day, for something to actually work for leaders to really get what they want out of the process and get stuff through, they need to have basically all their ducks in a row.
They need to have all of the different pieces in place necessary institutionally, because at the end of the day, leaders still have major institutional power. It’s just that if there are any wavering or variances, it gets that much harder for them to actually get all of their people together, because at the end of the day, especially in modern age and over time, media is going to allow these members to really expand the topic essentially, and bring in new perspectives. As you get more and more of those new perspectives, it gets that much harder for leaders to get everybody together.
Matt Grossmann: Leaders want to pass legislation, but it’s harder when it becomes salient.
John Lovett: We’ll take the current congressional composition, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, obviously they want to get legislation passed. Obviously, we’re right now in the midst of getting the COVID-19 Relief Bill passed. Really, the summit said, they’re going to want to go through the congressional bill process, and they’re going to want to make sure that, that bill doesn’t get bogged down. They want to make sure that that bill is not… Basically, they just want to get it through. They want to get legislation passed. They want to make sure that they have all the people that they need in the House and the Senate, to actually pass that bill. Now, the problem is that with that, when something is big within the media and when something gets more coverage in the media, obviously what’s going to happen is, the journalists are going to be looking for people to talk to.
And sure, you start with Pelosi and Schumer, you start with the leaders, because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who control all the processes. They’re the ones that are going to be the people running the show, essentially. But that’s not going to create a particularly exciting story. You want to go talk to other people, so there are these other members of Congress who probably have different perspectives on what should be in any number of bills. When you see this increase in the amount of coverage, what ends up happening then is that more members are part of this discussion, they’re going to have different perspectives on how this should work, and really, to some extent, as that continues, you end up with leaders, really at the very beginning, losing control of the message on the outside. Because at the end of the day, you have all these different members offering their own version of what should be in here.
Still for the most part, leaders should have that inside control. But there are situations where, if you’re bringing in all of these members with their own perspectives, their own ideas about how these things work, I think they’re going to want to push these. And if you don’t have full control of your leadership, if you don’t have everybody lined up and on the same page, that can lead to you not getting policy passed. We go back to… I think one good example, one recent example, is healthcare. 2017, you have Republicans who are united in the idea that they want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, but they’re not united in how they want get rid of the Affordable Care Act, so all these different perspectives are coming in.
You have on the House side, the Tuesday Group, more moderate members, wanting to go one direction. You have the Freedom Caucus, more conservative members, going another direction, and sure they work that out, but then you get to the Senate and that bill isn’t going to be viable in the Senate. They’re all going back and forth, before John McCain dramatically ends this whole discussion by voting against the [inaudible 00:10:08]. This was just one example of the larger phenomenon at work, but basically the idea is that, if these people are getting a lot of coverage, they’re going to get more support. They’re going to get more people talking about, outside of Washington, about what they care about. If that’s happening, then to some extent, that’s going to put more pressure on leaders, and if these people are bringing these things in, and you have tenuous majorities, it’s going to be very hard to get things passed.
Matt Grossmann: Atkinson helps to explain the mechanism. The public can be turned off from policy by messaging about process.
Mary Layton Atkinson: The biggest finding from this book, and the takeaway, is that people really dislike rancorous political debate. They like it so much so, that it can lead them to dislike policy proposals that generate heated debate, even when they like the substance of the bill. This is true across the political spectrum. It affects people who are aligned with the party that proposed the legislation, as well as independence and members of the opposition party. Describing a bill as politically-motivated and contentious, is a really powerful, rhetorical weapon that lawmakers in the opposition to a policy can wield to carve away support for that plan.
Matt Grossmann: Atkinson started the project by looking at gay marriage, showing people didn’t like the debate.
Mary Layton Atkinson: It did start as my dissertation, and prior to that, there’s a chapter in the book that’s about attitudes toward amendments to make gay marriage illegal. And that was the first chapter of the book that was written. It was initially a standalone project, because I was just really interested in the litigation and re-litigation of that.
… did in sort of the litigation and re-litigation of that issue. First, these things were made illegal with statutory law, and then we had state-level constitutional amendments, and then we had federal amendments proposed. And this is a really contentious, divisive issue, or especially in the early 2000s, when the polling data I collected came from. So I just was really interested in whether people ever grew tired of the rancor and the divisiveness around this issue. And I’ve found that they did. That people didn’t necessarily become more tolerant of gay marriage over the course of these debates. Their attitudes on that underlying question, “Should gay marriage be legal or not?” Stayed steady, but what changed over time was their willingness to support a ban on gay marriage, even when their underlying attitudes didn’t change. And I found that so fascinating. And so that really sparked the entire project, and so I built the dissertation out around that, and when it came time to turn the dissertation into a book, I added additional chapters, but the book looks very much like my dissertation.
Matt Grossmann: Lovett started from the story of Jack Kemp and seeing how generalizable it was.
John Lovett: This started as taxation, and kind of focusing on how individual members can really get their policy priorities passed, even in a case where you have no control whatsoever. This goes back to Jack Kemp, the former member of Congress from Western New York, former Buffalo Bills quarterback, former Vice Presidential candidate. He’s one of the main actors of one of the largest tax cuts of the modern era. Yet at the same time, he never spent a day on the House Ways and Means Committee.
And so I found that kind of interesting, and so I started there, and I was kind of looking and saying, “Okay, this goes beyond taxes. This goes into sort of questions of, okay, how can members of Congress use the media to get what they want out of policy?” Because at the end of the day, you’re dealing with these individual members who, theoretically, sure, they’re there. They are part of the process, but at the end of the day, they’re not sort of the power players when it comes to public policy. What we usually think of are your House Speaker, your House and Senate party leaders, even your committee chairs.
They’re the ones that are actually determining, “Okay, what gets a hearing? What doesn’t get a hearing?” All these different things. Whereas these individual members, what do they get out of this?
And so for me, that’s really where the ideas sort of started, and the dissertation, I ended up kind of focusing on it in terms of sort of subsidy theory and the idea that media and Congress are kind of providing subsidies to one other. I ended up kind of rethinking that entirely a bit. And really, I went back to Edie Cheshire, and I went back to conflict extension. Namely, the ideal that theoretically, you’re dealing with a fight. And now under normal circumstances, we’re going to assume that the one who’s going to win is probably going to be more likely, is the one that has whatever sort of things would make them the normal winner, whether they are stronger, or in the case of Congress, have all of the policy controls and everything else, and the other one’s not going to be able to get anything.
So how does that other one actually try to win? You expand the conflict. You take the conflict and say, “Okay, now more people know about it.” That leader doesn’t need to, going back to Congress, that leader doesn’t need to necessarily expand the conflict. Because at the end of the day, they won. If you win like 218 to 270, that’s the same thing as winning 434 to one. So you won. So at the end of the day, really the development kind of was the dissertation, although it is kind of the basis for what we eventually see here in the book, ends up being a completely different character altogether.
Matt Grossmann: But he says most backbench members can’t replicate that influence.
John Lovett: It’s always going to be very hard for individual members to influence in sort of a Jack Kemp sense. And I think that the Jack Kemp sort of sense, it’s kind of a unique topic, but really what’s going to happen is especially in the House of Representatives, you are one of 435 members. So it’s going to be very hard to get coverage to begin with. So you’re going to have to look for those opportunities to jump in. You’re going to have to look for that sort of moment where this is actually going to be, “Okay. I can actually get in here and help expand, and sort of help get more coverage of this issue, and get more focused on this issue. Get more people talking about this issue.”
And so Senate, you can influence things a little bit more, because there are fewer of you. You’re more of a national figure. We know some Senators generally are going to be more sort of national, regular kind of figures in media than others. So to some extent, there’s a little bit of a different effect in the Senate, but in the House, you’ve got to act on those increases. When you see that coverage increase, and you see that focus go towards that issue, you got to jump in and really kind of push your version.
Then so what happens is you get a lot of members doing that, and so that makes it so you’ve got all these different perspectives, and this is all going out to the public as well. So the public is seeing all this, and there’s all this confusion. And so to some extent, it is a situation where all of these different members are going to, because they’re only one member, they’re going to find it that much harder to actually get what they want out of the process. They’re going to find it that much harder to influence things, and that to some extent leads to sort of the beginning. So again, it’s not always going to work, but it is a situation where the more coverage you get, or the more coverage that this issue gets, the harder it is for leaders to be able to bring all those people back together.
Matt Grossmann: And when backbenchers do succeed, it can’t be based on media alone.
John Lovett: I think I mentioned in the book AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and sort of bringing in Ed Markey as kind of a co-sponsor on the Green New Deal, essentially kind of ensuring that you’ve got that kind of senior congressional member kind of working to sort of help you push through this process. And so there is room for backbenchers to influence policy. I think the big thing is, a lot of it is probably more that inside, working with other members, trying to get those things done, happening to meet Ronald Reagan, if you’re in the late seventies, early eighties, rather than simply doing it through a media. Because media, you can stop things in the media. It’s much harder to get things to move forward than through simply a media campaign.
Matt Grossmann: Atkinson agrees that the incentives of lawmakers and media work together to shape coverage.
Mary Layton Atkinson: I think John’s findings and mine are really complementary. If you want media attention as a politician, you almost have to be an extremist. You have to be a vocal critic. These are the messages that attract attention and feed the conflict narrative, and that makes bills harder to pass, and it also makes compromise harder, because the news media don’t sort of go out of their way to find instances of lawmakers doing a good job and to praise them, right? If you want to be newsworthy, it’s sort of better to obstruct than to work across the aisle to get something done.
So you’re unlikely to hear about lawmakers who are sort of the workhorses of their respective chamber. If you think about somebody like Amy Klobuchar, who’s notorious for successfully shepherding legislation through the Senate, she’s someone that before her presidential bid in 2020, most people really didn’t know much about her, because she’s somebody who is just doing the work behind the scenes, and not coming out to the news media and trying to stoke controversy. So those are the people whose voices are not being heard. If we did hear more of their voices, I think we would get a more balanced representation of what the lawmaking process really looks like. It is a slog, and it does require diligence, and patience, and compromise, and conflict. And it requires parliamentary maneuvering, and all of these things, but that’s not always bad. Sometimes it can help us get a piece of legislation in the end that is better than what the initial proposal would have been.
Matt Grossmann: Important laws get five times more coverage if they are passed by slim majorities.
Mary Layton Atkinson: There is this really striking finding in the book that even important laws that are enacted by a slim majority get five times more coverage when they are focused on conflict, right? When you have a slim majority passing a piece of legislation, you get five times more coverage. And I use David Mayhew’s list, first wave list of important laws to check and see how much coverage these laws would get during their consideration. So I used somebody else’s measure of what is an important law, and a pretty good one I think we can agree, right? And then I looked to see, “Okay, on this list, we’ve got laws that were passed by slim majorities, and we’ve got laws that were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. So how does the media respond?”
And there are some very reasonable explanations for the finding that journalists pay much less attention to important laws passed with bipartisan support. And those are related to journalistic norms. If there’s a controversy among lawmakers, journalists want to step in and inform the public about the contours of that conflict. The idea is that public oversight and input are needed to resolve the conflicts. Conflicts are also interesting for news consumers, and given the immense pressure I think we recognize that journalists and editors are under to attract news consumers, we can’t just expect them to ignore consumer preferences. There’s simply too much competition in the marketplace for news consumers, that you can’t just give people dry reports about what happened today on the Hill and expect people to tune in.
So there’s really good reasons for these patterns of coverage, but the unintended consequence is that this skew toward focusing on controversial pieces of legislation means that people are often unaware of the numerous instances of compromise that take place on the Hill. You get so many reports about the pieces of legislation that are controversial and far fewer about the ones where there’s bipartisan action. So people think that’s an accurate representation of what’s happening in Washington, when at times it isn’t. So people think the government never does anything right, that lawmakers never work together, and that Washington is broken.
Then the other implication of that is that people don’t get the information they say they want from policy-focused news reports. So people often say that they want to know how a policy will help people like them. There’s some problem at the root of every piece of legislation, and the people facing that problem want help, and they want-
… and the people facing that problem want help, and they want to know from journalists what are lawmakers doing about this? When the focus of reporting, however, is on the contours of the political debate, it’s on the horse race, it’s on who’s gaining momentum, who’s the underdog, the thread that people are looking for gets lost, which is “how will this legislation solve my problem, and who has the better approach to correcting things?”
Matt Grossmann: And not much media coverage focuses on policy details or solving problems.
Mary Layton Atkinson: In looking at a news database that I compiled that came from the New York Times, I pulled 30 years of news articles that focus on legislation in Washington and the corresponding policy problems that go with them. If you’ve got a problem of, say, unemployment, then you want to also talk about what’s Congress doing legislatively to try to deal with this. In analyzing that coverage, I find that only 3% of coverage of law making is really focused primarily on policy details. The lead says something about what’s in the policy, and 50% of the article is also digging into the details of that legislation.
The other stuff that you find in these articles is talking about what’s the process, so the opposition party is typically the one that wants to talk about the process and say, “This legislation is being rammed through without due consideration. We didn’t go through the usual committee process. We haven’t been able to offer the amendments that we want,” and so on and so forth.
You also have discussion of upcoming elections and how the legislative process plays into who will be the victor in upcoming elections. You have storylines about heated debates. If lawmakers are using heated language and attacking one another in their sound bites, there’s a lot of attention to that and a lot of attention to coaling. Those are the storylines that are more typically used in discussing lawmaking than a straight facts-oriented story that talks about the substantive details of the legislation.
Matt Grossmann: Lovett agrees the stories fit together, showing the Congress and media sides of the incentives.
John Lovett: I think, to some extent, I mean, Dr. Atkinson and I’m like… that we’re thinking about similar things in different ways to some extent, that obviously her focus is very much on at the process side and how people react to that, and really, to some extent, by these people jumping in, by these new members jumping in, they’re creating those fights. They’re creating that system of seeing this more as a conflictual aspect because now you’re adding all these different ideas to the story, and so to some extent, it adds to that larger theme of Congress simply being a conflictual body that can’t get itself on the same page because you have so many different people bringing in so many different perspectives.
I think, really, that the two of our works really do speak to a pretty similar concept, which is that, especially when we’re thinking about media coverage of Congress, it ends up being member-focused, it ends up being process-focused, and it ends up looking really conflictual, and that has impacts, especially for people who might not know a lot about Congress, want Congress to get stuff done, but Congress isn’t doing it. You look at it, and you say, “Why aren’t you getting this done?” What you see is all this back and forth, all this fighting, all these multiple perspectives.
Matt Grossmann: He looked across agriculture, immigration, and healthcare to look at differences in salients.
John Lovett: The multi-issue analysis gets at “what are the general trends we’re looking at, what does it generally look like?” Across the board [inaudible 00:28:37] that we see, especially when it gets into the coverage question, members getting in, we see, generally speaking, that when there is more coverage, more members are getting in. But at the same time, really, to really understand how this whole piece works, I think I realized it was very important for me to be able to take some of these individual issues and saying, “Okay, how does this work under a circumstance where your issue gets very little coverage whatsoever, how does it work when we actually see that change, and how does it work when you always have high levels of coverage so people are constantly thinking about the issue?”
I think in all those different cases, what I wanted to do was really understand, “Okay, so we have this analysis, and we have the general trends. Now what does it look like when we’re dealing with specific cases?” Really, those cases I was looking at because of the nature of how each one works, so agricultural subsidies, very little coverage, immigration, that changing coverage, and then healthcare, massive amounts of coverage, especially in those eras where there was consideration for overhaul in the healthcare system. Really, for me, it was being able to effectively answer the question on as many different levels as possible and really be able to combine those into a story of how individual members can overwhelm this process.
Matt Grossmann: The changing salience of immigration helps show the usually negative role of media attention.
John Lovett: In the first part of that, I’m focused on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. In truth, it still takes three congresses to complete, but a lot of that effort is happening bipartisanly, and it’s really, at the end of the day, simply that some leaders are not as onboard as others to changing policy until ’86, until the compromises are worked out. Starting in ’81, you have Republicans taking control of the Senate and Alan Simpson of Wyoming becoming the subcommittee chair on immigration.
Meanwhile, in the House, Romano Mazzoli, a Democrat from Kentucky, gets the subcommittee chair for that judiciary immigration subcommittee, and really, to some extent, they just start working out this bill to reshape immigration in the United States. It’s really a bipartisan effort where the two of them are working on this, and then to some extent, you have leaders that are kind of stopping things. You have Tip O’Neill, who’s uncomfortable, especially with some of the migrant provisions on behalf of members like Edward Roybal and Robert Garcia, and so it’s really not until ’86 when they work out all of these issues. Really, but it still works at the end day, and it’s still a bipartisan effort.
You have a decade later, you start seeing that increased polarization, and you begin to see especially the splitting between legal and illegal immigration. In the ’90s, what you end up having is that as that polarization increases, you have the split now between the legal and illegal immigration bill. There is still a little bit of bipartisanship, but especially the legal immigration bill gets stopped because of members like Spencer Abraham and Mike DeWine on the Senate side who don’t like many of the provisions in the bill, and then by the time you get to the 2000s, there’s still that element of bipartisanship with Ted Kennedy and John McCain working on things, but for the most part, this is all beginning to go away.
Really, this issue, especially by the time you get to 2008, turns into the way that you can set yourself up to run for president. One of the big names in 2008 that’s really… or 2005, 2006… that’s really influencing a lot of the discussion, at least within the media, is Tom Tancredo of Colorado, very much an anti-immigration voice. He has running for president in 2008 on this.
Now, he doesn’t do particularly well in running for president in 2008, but he uses this as a springboard to running for president. I think that’s an important thing in all of this, and really, to some extent that… Obviously, I don’t get a lot into the member motivation for why [inaudible 00:32:50] because members have so many different motivations, it’s all over the place, but this is, especially when you see a more polarization like this, it is a way to become a national political figure, especially if you’re a member that people don’t necessarily know a lot about like Tom Tancredo.
Matt Grossmann: Atkinson says there are reasons to prefer public attention, but it may not work once policy solutions are proposed.
Mary Layton Atkinson: Should activist be working behind the scenes and trying to thwart attention, one, because that’s a very difficult strategy to pull off, practically speaking, and two, because normatively, that’s not what we want. We don’t want lawmaking behind closed doors where the public and the news media aren’t observing what’s going on. The real goal is to have lawmaking done in plain sight where the public have a good sense of the true motives of the lawmakers. Are they raising a stink out of really being concerned about the long-term implications of the policy, or are they making noise about this proposal because they just want to obstruct and score political points?
This is something that’s really fraught. I will say, it is a good strategy to focus attention on a problem. Reporters often cover societal problems in adjust-the-facts way, which can lead to consensus among members of the public that something should be done to correct that societal problem. You can get momentum on… There should be something done to solve this issue by attracting news coverage.
But my academic lineage will also suggest that you can’t then control which solution is going to get linked up with your problem, nor can you control exactly how the media are going to frame the solutions that are offered. It’s complex. What I would like to see in an ideal world is more substantive coverage of policy debate rather than folks trying to create policies behind closed doors.
Like I said, creating policies without oversight from the news media is hard to achieve. If you think back to the Clinton era when a major healthcare reform was being put together, a lot of that was done behind closed doors. The idea of the strategy was to try to come forward with a developed plan rather than have the opposition pick it apart piece by piece before it was even complete. But that led to a narrative of “what’s going on, why are they being so secretive, and who can we get to leak details in this kind of thing?” which isn’t helpful either. I think you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t in terms of trying to keep your proposal out of the public eye versus make it public.
Matt Grossmann: But she wants to help journalists improve coverage, and she thinks that’s possible. But she wants to help journalists improve coverage, and she thinks that’s possible.
Mary Layton Atkinson: I want to say that I’m really sympathetic to journalists who kind of throw up their hands and say, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Because I love journalists, honestly, and I have such respect for the work that public affairs journalists do. And I’m somebody who, I edited by college newspaper and I edited my high school newspaper. And I have such an appreciation of this work.
So, I don’t want the work to come across as just criticism of journalists for criticism sake. I understand the pressures that shape their reporting. But I do have some suggestions. And one is to try to connect problems and solutions more. One of the things that I talk about in the book is that different reporters cover societal problems versus government action. So, you have sort of features pieces that might talk about rising unemployment and the impact that has on individuals and communities. And then, you have a different set of reporters who talk about what sort of legislation is working its way through Congress.
I would like to see less of a divide here between sort of the soft news, hard news aspect of this issue. I’d like journalists to kind of unpack complex problems and the complex proposals designed to redress them in a series of articles that connect these things. Because people want to know how government actions are going to address their issues. So, explain it to people. News consumers are really interested in the human condition. We want to know about the trials and tribulations of workers, and families, and communities. And that does attract people to news coverage. So, use that frame. Right? Use the problem frame to attract viewers.
And then, ask experts and lawmakers, “How are we going to fix this? What’s your approach? How does it differ from other approaches? Why is yours better?” And that’s something that, if you unpack a complex issue, you can stretch that type of reporting on a single issue out to be a series of articles, not just a one shot, sort of here’s what’s in the bill. Right? That’s not a dynamic story that can go on for weeks. But, if you’re unpacking something that’s complex and you’re framing it in terms of problems and solutions, that has the potential to be a dynamic story and to bring in an audience.
The second thing that I would say is don’t repeat claims about a broken or rigged process without serious fact-checking. If lawmakers are crying wolf and saying, “What’s going on here is unprecedented, an unprecedented effort to sort of thwart our minority input in this process.” Well, there are experts who can weigh in and tell you whether this is indeed unprecedented or whether things are working the way they were actually designed to work. So, call those people up. Get those historians and policy experts on the line and ask them. And hold accountable legislators who are trying to feed you a line about how broken things are.
Sometimes things are broken. Right? And I think we saw some of that during the Trump administration. But it’s really hard to alert the public that, “Hey, things really are problematic and different,” if you’ve had 20 years of lawmakers crying wolf beforehand and getting those arguments sort of passed on without being really pressed on by reporters. So, don’t accept framing from lawmakers that leads directly to the conflict frame. It isn’t balanced. It favors the status quo. It’s offered up strategically by those who want to thwart reform efforts. So, press on it and try to figure out whether there are legitimate reasons why people are talking about the process. Is the process being misused? Is this an unprecedented sort of violation of norms and procedures? Or are lawmakers crying wolf to try to change the narrative in their favor?
Matt Grossmann: Lovett says social media makes that hard. It’s easier for backbenchers and harder for leaders.
John Lovett: The media has kind of drastically changed. And, as a result of that, to some extent you can create your own audiences. And that has ramification for leader control in particular, because at the end of the day, if you can create your own audience, if you can get your sort of major large audience, and you can get them thinking about the topics you care about, and they can try to influence a process, it’s going to be that much harder for leaders to get anything done. Trump is definitely part of the larger general change in terms of the seeking of coverage. But he’s not the entire story. I, mean, he’s a big part of, I think, what the style looks like for sure. But I think that members were going to go this direction regardless, to some extent. And really, I think it’s especially when we think about social media and we think about reporter coverage.
I mean, the recent sort of back and forth between representatives Marie Newman and Marjorie Taylor Greene over representative Newman putting a transgender flag outside her office and representative Taylor Greene putting a sign saying are only two genders outside her office. And, of course, their offices happened to be across the way from each other. And then, both filming this for Twitter, I think, to some extent it’s giving members opportunities to really sort of expand on everything and sort of get coverage on everything. And so, it’s not just anymore simply coverage on sort of policy issues.
And so, to some extent, you’re going to get covered for pretty much anything you do if there’s sort of controversy around it and you’re able to craft your own audience. And so, I think we’re going to continue to see this disruption. I think it’s something that is going to continue long past Trump in terms of policy. I mean, to some extent, if they’re staying on policy, we would assume that maybe we won’t see as much sort of loss of leader control there, that really they’re just creating their careers. But, to some extent, I mean, if they are kind of wading into policy in a lot of these areas, I mean, there is that potential that now you have more confusion.
Matt Grossmann: Atkinson’s next project looks at how media coverage encourages backlash, but also shows that it can be overcome.
Mary Layton Atkinson: The new book does grapple with this issue of real or sort of long lasting underlying opinion change. Right? And when do people actually change their underlying preferences on a given issue, as opposed to just responding to what they’re getting from the government or what they perceive to be getting from the government. Because those perceptions are, of course, shaped by the way the news media portray government activity.
So, there is definitely a thread connecting these two projects. The thermostatic response is one that happens through the mediation of the news media. Right? Whether the public thinks policymaking is tilting too far in the liberal or conservative direction is impacted by the way policymaking is covered. And I show in my first book that, when there is a rancorous debate, people are more likely to think the policy under debate is extreme. If it was proposed by Democrats, people think it’s extremely liberal when it’s hotly debated. If it’s proposed by Republicans, people think it’s extremely conservative when there is a protracted partisan debate. So, that has the potential to sort of overheat the thermostatic response, not to sort of mix my HVAC metaphors here. But you could have the public thinking that we’ve swung further in the liberal or conservative direction than we actually have because of the way the news media cover law making.
But when do we get sort of real, sustained change in public opinion? And what we show in the new book that’s coming from Cambridge is that people’s opinions are sometimes shifted by other than partisan debate. We have the potential for real shifts in public opinion and underlying attitudes when we have a dominant actor other than the political parties. So, when we see social movements, for instance, become a dominant actor, that’s the moment when we might not see things break clearly along partisan lines, and we might not see the same type of cycling in public opinion that we would when parties are driving the messages.
So, what we find in this new book is that with issues of equality, and specifically equality for the LGBTQ community, equality for women, and equality for African Americans, social movements come in and are able to move things in a pro-equality direction in terms of public opinion. And this happens through a process, both of individual level change, people becoming more supportive of equality over time, and also through a process of generational replacement where younger cohorts are socialized in a more tolerant, and accepting, and pro-equality environment. And this carries forward in time as those cohorts age. Right?
So, what we show is that, in these instances, there is trending public opinion, not cycling. There may be some short run cycles that you see sort of with periods of backlash mixed in with periods of progress and movement toward a pro-equality stance. But, if you look over a period of 30, 40, 50 years at attitudes towards civil rights for women and minority groups, you find this sort of systemic shift in a pro-equality direction. So, the thermostatic response is not always the dynamic that is at play. And it is very much connected to the degree to which party conflict is shaping the dialogue, as opposed to other forces like social movements, economic disaster, war, and so forth.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Thanks to Mary Layton Atkinson and John Lovett for joining me. Please check out Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking and The Politics of Herding Cats: When Congressional Leaders Fail. And then, listen in next time.