Imagine reading a narrative in which the main characters are underdeveloped. Your choice will be determined by others. You do not get much dialogue. When detailed, they are referred to as "uninformed" or "distressed". This plot shows how voters have been treated in election reporting since the early 1970s.
My new book, "Voices that count and voters who do not: How journalists influence turnout (without even knowing it)" shows how voters have been devalued in the news for 50 years. It becomes clear how such reporting unintentionally affects people's desire to vote and increase media anger.
My research also shows that this can be changed. Here is the reason.
How was the research done?
The project began with an analysis of how 36,400 instances of the words "vote", "voters" and "voting" were presented in six major newspapers covering the 18 presidential campaigns between 1948 and 2016.
The project also included an experiment and focus groups that tested how people react to different representations, as well as interviews with over 50 reporters, to learn more about why journalists write their stories.
How earlier elections were covered
Journalists consider elections important. However, they acknowledge that they have difficulty reporting on them.
Take part in the presidential contest of 1948. The Chicago Tribune could not wait until the ballots were counted before Republican Thomas Dewey was identified as the winner of Democrat Harry Truman. Shocked by this error, journalists in the 1950s and 1960s were wary of their coverage of polls and their forecast of election results.
Interestingly enough, voter turnouts signaled considerable power to voters when polls did not drive the news program. In particular, the term "voices" appeared six times as often in headlines and articles as the word "voters".
This subtle choice of words may seem modest. However, the term "voices" signaled what is being done with campaigns, which directly contributes to election results and what citizens bring in electoral narratives.
As the word "voices" prevailed in the news between 1948 and 1968, readers were invited to participate, reminded of their ability to influence the political system, and explained how they could use the franchise to protect themselves and their interests to protect. In other words, news reports suggest people choose elections – and profit from elections.
The shift from "voices" to "voters"
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, less of "Voting" and "Voter" were used in the coverage. The word "voter" overshadowed the term "Votes" for the first time in 1972. The problem is not necessarily the case of the word "voter" itself. Other research has indeed found that this is a powerful term for mobilization efforts. This is about how journalists deal with it.
At the time, reporters began to uncover how campaign operators used survey data to anticipate voter preferences. News organizations also welcomed surveys to provide timely, reliable and sophisticated electoral stories. At the same time, reporting focused less on the relationship between candidates, voters and political positions than on political actors in American life.
While "voices" meant public participation, feedback, and participation, "voters" were a means of writing stories about the electoral horse race and strategists who care about their interests. "Voters" were also often portrayed as frustrated because money played a role in politics in response to bad candidates threatened by voter purges or intimidated by voter identification laws. This presentation has far less strengthened the role of voters in the political process.
What could change that?
How could voter coverage coverage speak in a way that does not diminish interest in or lead to frustration with the media?
To answer this question, in 2008 we ran an experiment as part of an online survey by Polimetrix (now YouGov). All respondents read a story about presidential primaries in 2008, but the story varied in significant ways.
A group of respondents read a generic story about the 2008 primaries. A second group read this story, but it also included a paragraph in which voters were represented as active participants by describing how "votes" were requested and " Voters' were called to action. A third group read a story in which voters were portrayed more as spectators ("voters must face hard horse racing") and poll results.
People who read the story of "active participants" – both Democrats and Republicans – expressed a desire to vote and were less frustrated than readers reading the story of the "audience."
The difference between the words "votes" and "voters" may seem banal. When reporting on the campaign, however, these two words may contain different messages about who votes. If voters are implicitly given a more robust role in elections, democracy – and the news agencies that write about it – can benefit.
Sharon Jarvis (@DrSharonspeaks) is one Associate Professor of Communications and Deputy Director at Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas in Austin.