The Influence of News Media on Political Elites

The forthcoming article “The Influence of News Media on Political Elites: Investigating Strategic Responsiveness in Congress” by Kevin Arceneaux, Martin Johnson, René Lindstädt and Ryan J. Vander Wielen is summarized here:

It is hard to imagine democracy in action without a free press. News media provide a crucial link between elected representatives and the people they represent. Scholars tend to focus on the influence news media have on members of the mass public. Yet we should also consider how news media influence the behavior of elected representatives. After all, politicians are consumers of news, too.

The incremental roll-out of Fox News in the late 1990s helped us investigate the influence of news media on elected representatives’ behavior by creating something akin to a natural experiment. Between the introduction of Fox News in 1996 and its nationwide availability by 2002, some U.S. House districts had cable systems with Fox News in the channel line-up, while others did not. Moreover, the roll-out of Fox News was unrelated to the political characteristics of voters in the districts. This allows us to compare the voting behavior of U.S. House members who had Fox News in their districts to those who did not; and it also allows us to compare the voting behavior of U.S. House members before and after Fox News entered their districts.

We focused on votes in the U.S. House that divided the parties, with the majority of Democrats and Republicans taking opposing positions, because these are the sorts of issues on which the influence of news media is expected to be most evident. Our analysis of these votes finds that Fox News did, indeed, influence the voting behavior of U.S. House Representatives, but not in a uniform fashion.

First, the influence of Fox News was most apparent in the months approaching Election Day. At this point in the election cycle, Fox News caused Republican members of Congress to be more likely to side with their party on partisan votes and caused Democratic members to be less likely to side with their party. Thus, Fox News bolstered Republican coalitions on partisan votes toward the end of the election cycle. However, we find no evidence of differences in voting behavior across members with and without Fox News in the early months of the election cycle. This pattern of voting is consistent with the explanation that members of Congress respond to the news media in a strategic way. They are more responsive to news media when voters are paying attention (i.e., closer to Election Day).

Second, the influence of Fox News strengthened as the composition of congressional districts became more Republican. These findings imply that politicians do not respond to news media in a vacuum. Rather, the effect of news media on political elites depends in large part upon members’ electoral landscapes.

Our research demonstrates that elected representatives respond to news media, but their response is constrained and contingent. Our findings also suggest that the steady polarization of the U.S. Congress during the late 1990s cannot be blamed on Fox News. If anything, Fox News may have done more in its early days to bring members of Congress together—in support of the Republican agenda.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.