News coverage of US politicians less influential to public

News coverage of US politicians and their rhetoric appears to have less influence on the public as compared to other news coverage, a researcher says.

Instead, citizens are more apt to be swayed by news stories about grassroots protests and local events, said Corwin Smidt, assistant professor of political science.

“What this says is that maybe politicians can’t use the bully pulpit to influence public opinion through the news media as much as many people thought they could,” Smidt said.

Smidt studied media coverage of two national issues – gun control in 2000 and health care reform and 2009 – and in both cases found that stories focusing on Washington debate had little to no effect on public opinion polls.

But news coverage of protests seemed to strike a chord. For example, coverage of the Million Mom March in 2000, designed to rally support for stricter gun-ownership laws, was highly influential in shaping the public agenda, according to the study.

While some believe the news media sets the public agenda, he said that may not necessarily be the case.

“The news media are still the gatekeepers – in that if they don’t cover something we probably won’t hear about it – but everything they cover does not have the same effect,” Smidt said.

“It actually may be the storyline within the news that provokes opinion,” he added.

The study has been published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

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