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Democracy in a Dim Light: Milquetoast Local Newspapers, Votes for Only Looking the Part, and Online News Cycles


This dissertation examines the ability of the media to monitor politicians and the ability of voters to acquire politically relevant information. The dissertation is primarily made up of three separate papers. The first paper (Chapter 2) asks why citizens routinely fail to vote out of step representatives out of office and what institutions can help voters hold politicians accountable. To the extent that politicians exploit voters' lack of information to win at the ballot box despite shirking in Congress, the press could foster democratic accountability by sounding the alarm on out of step representatives and alerting otherwise inattentive voters that it is time for change. In the first paper in my dissertation I collect an original dataset of local newspaper coverage of candidates in the 2010 House election in order to find out whether newspapers play this role for voters and act as a watchdog of incumbent representatives. After working with research assistants to provide human classification of a random subset of these articles, I use a text as data machine learning approach to measure the content of the much larger volume of articles that we cannot read. After validating an ensemble ``SuperLearner'' by demonstrating out-of-sample classification accuracy that for many features approaches human inter-coder agreement, I show that challengers receive less coverage than incumbents in competitive districts, horse race coverage displaces policy coverage, and newspapers do not sound the alarm on out of step incumbents. Newspapers do provide a whiff of scandal when representatives are referred to the House Ethics Committee for potential ethics violations, but they do not criticize representatives accused of some form of corruption at significantly higher rates. Even in congressional districts that closely correspond to newspaper markets, journalists act as neither watchdog nor lapdog, but instead provide overwhelmingly neutral coverage, failing to criticize incumbents who vote against a majority of their constituents on landmark legislation.

The second paper (Chapter 3) provides experimental evidence that candidate appearance influences vote choice. According to numerous studies, candidates' looks predict voters' choices---a finding that raises concerns about voter competence and about the quality of elected officials. This potentially worrisome finding, however, is observational and therefore vulnerable to alternative explanations. To better test the appearance effect, we conducted two experiments. Just before primary and general elections for various offices, we randomly assigned voters to receive ballots with and without candidate photos. Simply showing voters these pictures increased the vote for appearance-advantaged candidates. Experimental evidence therefore supports the view that candidates' looks could influence some voters. In general elections, we find that high-knowledge voters appear immune to this influence, while low-knowledge voters use appearance as a low-information heuristic. In primaries, however, candidate appearance influences even high-knowledge and strongly partisan voters.

The third paper (Chapter 4) examines which major events in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign saw only a brief spike in coverage and which became a more permanent feature of campaign coverage. In particular, I analyze coverage of six major events in the presidential campaign to test the hypothesis that news outlets of all persuasions will cover major events as news, but only partisan outlets will continue to discuss negative stories about their opponents long after the event that made the topic news. Broadly, I find that all outlets do indeed pick up major stories temporarily, but that the more tradition news news organization in my study does not stick with a higher level of coverage of any topic after a seven day window following the related event. Partisan outlets, in contrast, either continue to cover negative stories about the opposing candidate at a higher rate or were already on the story before a related event caused everyone else to temporarily pick up the story.

Finally, Chapter 5 discusses the implications of my findings for democratic accountability and the health of American democracy. I conclude that for the most part democracy is conducted in a dim light.

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