The untold story : portrayals of electoral participation in print news coverage of American presidential campaigns, 1948-2004

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Han, Soo-Hye

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This dissertation was inspired by two conflicting patterns: the United States is very proud of its democratic tradition, yet has the second lowest voter turnout rate in the world. In order to better understand America’s electoral hypocrisy and the decline in voter turnout, this dissertation examined how Americans have been encouraged to think about the vote, the voting process and their roles as voters through news media. Specifically, this dissertation asked: (1) How have voters and voting been portrayed in American newspapers from 1948-2004? (2) Have these portrayals changed over time? And (3) what are some potential implications of these patterns for the electorate? To answer these questions, an extensive content analysis and a set of experiments were conducted. In the content analysis, several electoral key terms pertaining to the electoral participation (Vote, Voter, Voting, Election and Electorate--and their derivatives) were located in the Campaign Mapping Project text-base and were subjected to quantitative and qualitative coding techniques. Findings indicate that while (1) voters were increasingly mentioned in print newspapers over time, (2) they were not featured positively, (3) were cast in the shadow of elites, (4) were rarely reminded of democratic responsibilities, and (5) were not connected to the past or each other in election print news coverage. In addition to these dominant patterns, the data also revealed that voters were more likely to be featured as (1) empowered agents in the democratic system between 1948-1968, (2) subsumed under opinion polls and as pawns of elites between 1972-2000, and (3) faced with challenges in the electoral process in 2004. Two on-line experiments (one with the general population and another with college students) were conducted to test the effects of the empowered portrayal of voters found in1948-1968. Results indicated that the empowered portrayal of voters increased citizens’ participatory intentions and trust in news media (college students reported these positive outcomes and more). These findings suggest that the way print news media cover voters and electoral participation may have important socialization effects on citizens’ political attitudes as well as some important practical implications for the press and journalists.