As Californians tackle an ever-perplexing question this year – how to get people to vote regardless of age, race or class – important clues can be found in recent research out of George Washington and American universities.
Turns out, it’s partly about newspaper coverage.
Associate professor Danny Hayes from George Washington and professor Jennifer Lawless of American identified two trends directly affecting voter engagement: lack of competition in some protected congressional districts and declining political coverage where newspaper staffs have shrunk.
Hayes and Lawless analyzed U.S. House district races during the 2010 midterm elections, both the competitive nature of the races and the newspaper coverage that resulted, to determine how that affected public engagement and voting.
Not surprisingly, the less competitive a race, the less newspaper (or any) coverage. Outside of House races, you can see that in last year’s coverage of the California gubernatorial election. Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t bother to campaign, so weak was the threat from Republican challenger Neel Kashkari. While The Sacramento Bee and others gave attention to the race, there’s no question coverage was not as deep as during a close election.
“Journalists bear a lot of responsibility for deciding what kind of contests get attention and what kind gets ignored,” Hayes said. “In districts that see less coverage, voters are less likely to cast a ballot in a House race … Our findings suggest when there’s not very much coverage of House elections, people are more likely to ignore that part of the ballot because they don’t know that much.”
We’ve seen efforts to have citizens fill the information gap. The Huffington Post’s work to provide organized distribution of non-journalist coverage through OffTheBus is one example; its most high profile success was when Mayhill Fowler, a Bay Area blogger who was at a 2008 event for then-Sen. Barack Obama after donating money to his presidential campaign, reported this quote about the working class from Obama’s speech: “It’s not surprising then they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy for people who aren’t like them.” That quote was picked up around the country.
The concern identified by Hayes and Lawless, though, isn’t about national politics. Information galore is readily available for voters boning up on the biggest political contests. It’s the local races, whether congressional or city hall or even a special district or judicial race, where it has become increasingly difficult to become informed.
Last October and November my household received a handful of campaign mailers every single day in the weeks leading up to the election. If you are watching television in real time and exposed to commercials, you also are getting some information about elections. Neither source is consistently honest, as The Bee showed through the fall in its Ad Watch fact-checking coverage. If anything, the barrage turns off voters.
“Journalists can give perspective on a race that is different from the candidates themselves,” Hayes said, pointing out that despite early hope the Internet would improve electoral democracy by giving voters broader ability to research candidates, “most voters don’t do that because most aren’t that interested.”
“So many people learn about politics only because they get the local newspapers and they see political information on their way to the sports,” he said. “The Internet doesn’t help that or solve that problem because if I care about recipes or sports, I don’t have to see politics online” on the way to niche websites.
The Hayes and Lawless research, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge, and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” included coverage of three 2010 races in the Sacramento region – the 7th Congressional District race between Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and then-challenger, Democrat Ami Bera; the 4th Congressional District race between incumbent Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, and Democratic challenger Clint Curtis; and the 5th Congressional District race between incumbent Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui and Republican challenger Paul Smith. That year, all three incumbents won.
Hayes and Lawless found that the bigger the newspaper’s coverage region, the less likely all congressional district races would be thoroughly covered – especially if they weren’t competitive. That theory held true in Sacramento in 2010, when the competitive Bera/Lungren race was closely covered, with less coverage in the Matsui race, a solidly Democratic district, and the McClintock contest, where his re-election was expected.
Local television stations typically don’t fill any gaps, Hayes said. “There’s just almost no coverage of House elections on television,” he said, unless scandal erupts or a race is particularly competitive.
Hayes’ concern about citizen engagement is all about local elections.
“When you get to local races, it’s very different. Our evidence suggests that will have consequences for citizen engagement at the local level. It might decline.”
Actually, it already has.
Hayes-Lawless suggests two steps to protect democracy that both make sense: Work needs to be done to ensure competitive political races (a big job). And newspapers that find themselves unable to provide necessary coverage should get creative, partnering with other companies, academia or foundations focused on citizen engagement to ensure voters are informed. It’s worth the effort.
We understand the professors’ point at The Bee. We’re committed to political coverage. We produce Voter Guides in print and online; fact-check advertising and politicians’ statements; and endorse in contests throughout the four-county area. We also spend no small amount of time thinking about how we can better cover our democracy. It is, in our view, fundamental to our mission.