This literature review aims to decipher how various media practices influence voter’s overall opinions and poll turnout. The role of the media was heavily questioned after Donald Trump came away victorious from the 2016 Presidential election. Recent research has shown that the media’s hidden agendas, inaccuracies, and sometimes lack of coverage can lead voters astray when it comes time to cast a ballot. The drive to increase their ratings causes news outlets to put the public’s best interest on the back burner, and instead turn to sensationalized news.
Keywords: Voter turnout, media agendas, local news coverage, 2016 Presidential election
In this research, I examine the role that news outlets play in both voter decisions and poll turnouts in political elections. A main concern that resulted from the 2016 Presidential election was how much influence the press had over the results. Since then, an emphasis has been placed on what effects various practices by the media has on the public. I hope to show how the media’s agendas, misrepresentation of information and lack of coverage impact voters.
Controlling the Narrative
There is a prevalent issue among media outlets that they only cover issues that fall within their own agendas. A prime example of this would me the 2016 Presidential Election. During the recent election, there were two main natural disasters: Hurricane Matthew and major flooding in Baton Rouge. Though the floods were substantially less destructive than the hurricane, they received more coverage in the news due to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s responses to the flooding. The floods made the news cycle because they fit the media’s political agenda, not because of the devastation the waters caused (Bright & Bagley, 2017). In the broadcast world, ratings equal money.
This leads to broadcasters prioritizing what will result in more views, and not necessarily what is best for citizens. Donald Trump proved to be entertaining throughout his entire campaign – which led to more air time for the now President (Boydstun & Van Aelst, 2018). And though the media covered many of Trump’s negative comments towards minority populations and towards women, the overexposure of his image allowed people to resonate with him, thus allowing Trump to push his political narrative (McLaughlin & Veles, 2019). As a whole, people enjoy stories. During elections, politicians utilize the media to craft their personalities and create personal history that establishes a relationship with potential voters (Sava, 2017).
Then there is another issue that arises in the media: false information. Though fake news was around prior to the 2016 election, it was brought into the limelight. The abundance of fake news circulating created a public distrust in the overall media (Van Duyn & Collier, 2019). There is a tie between credible news sources and the fake news stories: they fed off of sensationalism. Fake news sites didn’t have their own individual agenda, instead they took the stories fueled other media sites’ agendas.
Aiming to reel in more viewers, regular media sites would cover the more sensational stories, then fake news sites would turn around and tweak reality (Guo & Vargo, 2018). A completely separate false information issue lies within opinion polls media uses. Whether done cognizant or not, when presenting polls to the public, journalists often create false information or false interpretations of the numbers. The inaccuracy of these polls is blind to many and influences the actions of both voters and politicians (Tryggvason & Stromback, 2018).
Controlling the Turnout
The coverage in the media also influences voter turnout during elections. There is a strong relationship between what is presented in news and what people pay attention to. Unless they are aware of policies that are trying to be passed or various candidate’s platforms, voters are unaware of why they need to participate in an election (Stromberg, 2015). While there is an abundance of political news coverage on the national scale, that coverage dwindles when you reach a local market – especially in less competitive races.
If the political race doesn’t offer an interesting story, the local outlets are less likely to cover it. And if there is no coverage of a political race in the community’s news outlets there are few alternatives that people can turn to in order to learn more about candidate’s platforms. With less coverage comes less knowledge, and the less people know about a race the less likely it is they will participate in an election (Hayes & Lawless, 2015). The access to relevant information regarding election issues directly influences voter turnout.
Another factor is the media market size (Kulder & Goodman, 2019). Now that the media scene goes beyond the television screen, there are multiple factors that influence voter turnout in the digital media world. The internet created an electoral landscape that transcends traditional state borders. Now, politicians don’t have to be focused so much on winning Iowa, instead they can continuously target their constituents online. However, spectator-voters were very common during the 2016 election. These are people who voice their opinions and support for one candidate online, but don’t act on their opinion or cast a vote (Sava, 2017). Going forward, those spectator-voters need to be turned into actual ballots.
Media’s influence on politics has become a prevailing issue. There are set agendas that outlets are trying to fulfill at the expense of the viewer, and these agendas are affecting the turnout to polls. Now more than ever, viewers are having to discern whether the information they are consuming is factual or fake. After the 2016 Presidential election, the issue of media bias has been brought to the forefront. There is still more research that needs to be done, especially on the influences in the digital world – primarily the effects of social media on voters. While there is more to be discovered, the public needs to be aware of what news they are consuming and how it is influencing their decisions politically.
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- Bright, C.F., & Bagley, B. (2017). Elections, news cycles, and attention to disasters. Disaster Prevention and Management, 26(4), 471-478.
- Guo, L. & Vargo, C. (2018). “Fake News” and emerging online media ecosystem: An integrated intermedia agenda-setting analysis of the 2016 US Presidential Election. Communication Research, 1-23.
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- Van Duyn, E. & Collier, J. (2019). Priming and fake news: The effects of elite discourse on evaluations of news media. Mass Communication and Society, 22(1), 29-48.