Covering Congress: Media Effects on Evaluations of the Legislative Branch



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This project takes an in-depth look at the role that media coverage of both individual members of Congress and Congress as a whole plays in shaping approval of legislators and the legislative branch. I argue that by examining what the media choose to cover and how the media cover it, we can learn more about the standards by which judgments of political performance take place. As such, I also contend that differences between the tone and substance in which the media cover individual legislators compared to how they cover the legislative branch go a long way to explaining why Americans cast favor upon those they send to Congress and cast doubt on Congress itself. The essential dichotomy examined in the project, based on Thomas Patterson's (1993) assessment of the changing nature of how the mass media cover campaigning, splits reporting on Congress into governing coverage and game coverage. Governing coverage deals more with substantive issues, policy problems, and signals that business is taking place. Game coverage, on the other hand, is more concerned with the parliamentary struggles between actors and parties to pass legislation and accrue power; it treats politicians as strategic actors always competing for advantages. Game coverage also focuses heavily on winning and losing. I argue that the over time focus on either game or governing aspects of legislating and representing will drive assessments of members of Congress and Congress itself. More specifically, I analyze how game frame coverage is likely to spur negative job approval, while governing frame coverage drives positive assessments of job performance.