Academic journal article The Public Manager

Government in and out of the News: A Groundbreaking Study Shows That There Is Less News about the Federal Government in the National Media Than There Used to Be, and That What News There Is Tends to Be Negative and Judgmental. How Is All This Affecting Our View of Government?

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Government in and out of the News: A Groundbreaking Study Shows That There Is Less News about the Federal Government in the National Media Than There Used to Be, and That What News There Is Tends to Be Negative and Judgmental. How Is All This Affecting Our View of Government?

Article excerpt

The past 20 years have been marked by dramatic changes in the political environment. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, American hostages were being released after their lengthy captivity in Iran. Americans were disillusioned with presidential power in the wake of Nixon's resignation and depressed by economic stagflation of the Carter administration. Our leading adversary, the Soviet Union, rarely looked stronger.

Twelve years later, when Bill Clinton took office, the Cold War had been replaced by a series of foreign policy challenges from Haiti to Somalia to Iraq. The Soviet Union had splintered into more than a dozen struggling nations. Good economic times had come and gone, the federal deficit had skyrocketed since 1980, and again a president (George H. W. Bush) had been replaced, in large measure due to a failing economy.

Another eight years later, George W. Bush took office in the wake of the most controversial presidential election in more than a century. He faced a deeply divided public from an office tarnished by scandal and an economy almost burned out from the high tech boom. Before his first year was out, the US suffered a terrorist attack unprecedented in scale, and with enormous consequences for American political culture.

Aggressive and Expanding News Media

Through all these events, successive administrations and Congresses had to reach the American people through an aggressive and expanding news media led by the "big three" broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and by national newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. These, along with influential regional newspapers around the country, were the lenses through which most citizens viewed their government.

The media environment also changed markedly between 1981 and 2001, with the rise of 24-hour cable news, the resurgence of talk radio, and the growth of the Internet. Nevertheless, the network newscasts and the major national newspapers remained highly influential voices. Today, the newer media sources have not necessarily displaced the old; instead they are offering a wider range of choices for news consumers.

Although the national news media remain dominant sources of information, their political coverage is not always highly regarded. Studies have shown that citizens routinely give the news media lower grades than the parties, the candidates, the pollsters, and even campaign consultants. Other research on media coverage of elections has indicated a decline in the quality and quantity of campaign news on network television.

Government: In and Out of the News

To gain additional insight on all this, the Council for Excellence in Government commissioned the Center for Media and Public Affairs to look at how news coverage of government has changed over time. This study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, seeks to clarify the relationship between the media and the federal government by providing an empirical portrait of trends in government news coverage since 1981. The result is Government: In and Out of the News, and the findings offer a unique perspective on what "makes" news, and sheds some light on journalism trends regarding news "sources" and the always controversial "tone" of news coverage.

1981, 1993, and 2001:

Touch Points in Time

The first years of three presidential administrations (Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush) are used as the study's time frame. They were specifically chosen because each marked a partisan change in the executive branch. This allowed comparison of all three partisan changes of power over the past quarter-century, with the substantial policy and personnel shifts that accompanied them.

The sample comprised nine media outlets: the three broadcast network evening news shows (ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News), two nationally-influential newspapers (the Washington Post and the New York Times), and four well-regarded local newspapers with regional influence (the Austin American-Statesman, the Des Moines Register, the San Jose Mercury News, and the St. …

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