Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

From the Inner Ring Out: News Congruence, Cue-Taking, and Campaign Coverage

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

From the Inner Ring Out: News Congruence, Cue-Taking, and Campaign Coverage

Article excerpt

Studies of the organizational and behavioral characteristics of the American news media, as well as studies of media effects, often presume a basic institutional unity among news organizations. These studies typically analyze a small set of prestige media, and then make or infer conclusions with respect to the non-prestige media or the news media in general. The intention here is to verify empirically the extent to which the non-prestige "outer ring" media in fact take cues from the prestige "inner ring" news organizations. Using content analyses of forty-one daily newspapers from the 1992 presidential election campaign, we find that the outer ring newspapers sometimes replicate the issue agenda of the inner ring newspapers, but that they exercise significant discretion with respect to the favorability of their coverage of the presidential candidates and specific issues.

Many students of the American news media as well as Washington reporters assume that the news media effectively constitute a political institution. Some refer explicitly to the news media as an institution (Cater 1959; Cook 1994; Evensen 1992; Patterson 1993; Powe 1991; Smith 1988; Sparrow 1994; Wicker 1975), while for others the assumption is implicit in their work on the role of the news dailies and broadcast news in the American political system (Bennett 1996; Fallows 1996; Gans 1979; Page 1996; Sigal 1973). Yet this ascribed coherence has been asserted rather than proven. It may be, as some contend, that the news media are not unified but rather riven by differences in quality, ideology, and purpose; it is certainly the case that news organizations in the United States vary considerably with respect to their market sizes, locales, and political or ideological orientations. To what extent, then, can we think of the "news media" in the aggregate, as a monolith?

The lack of empirical inquiry into the singular quality of the news media may be an artifact of the strong deductive theory that has been applied to the subject: the logic of "cue-taking." Leon Sigal (1973), Chris Argyris (1974), Jeremy Tunstall (1971), and others (Grossman and Kumar 1981; Schudson 1982; Sparrow 1994) postulate that journalists operate in conditions of uncertainty, taking their cues about what to cover and how to cover it from the reportage of those individuals and news organizations perceived as being reliable in the past. Journalists writing, editing, or producing news in uncertain conditions refer and defer to their respected and better-placed colleagues. As a result, the argument goes, a small group of journalists and news organizations, especially those in Washington, D.C., and New York City, is in a position to make the news with respect to issues or events of political salience e.g., foreign policy, the national economy, and presidential elections (Crouse 1973; Gans 1979; Grossman and Kumar 1981; Hess 1981; Sigal 1973; Wicker 1975). Timothy Crouse's discussion in The Boys on the Bus remains exemplary: "Not only did other reporters read (Johnny) Apple's articles for unique information, they also looked to him for guidance whenever they had to cover a story where there were no handouts, no speeches, and no easy answers." As one campaign worker observed during the 1972 Iowa Democratic caucuses:

Johnny Apple of The New York Times sat in a corner and everyone peered over his shoulder to find out what he was writing. The AP guy was looking over one shoulder, the UPI guy over the other and CBS, NBC, ABC and The Baltimore Sun were all crowding in behind.... No one knew how to interpret those figures, nobody knew what was good and what was bad, so they were all taking it off Apple. He would sit down and write a lead, and they would go write leads. Then he'd change his lead when more results came in, and they'd all change theirs accordingly When he wanted quiet to hear the guy announce the latest returns, he'd shout for quiet and they'd all shut up. (Crouse 1973: 79) The testimony from other political journalists covering electoral campaigns is consistent with this description. …

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