Why Is News So Negative These Days?

History Q & A

Mr. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The article is derived from his recently published book, The Vanishing Voter (Knopf, 2002).

Where Have All the Voters Gone? Series by Thomas Patterson
Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?
Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?
Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?
Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

In last week’s second installment of this five-part series, I discussed how changes in the nature of campaigning have contributed to the decline in voter involvement during the past four decades. That decline extends to voting in primary and general elections and to attention to televised debates and other forms of election communication.

In this installment, I describe how changes in news reporting, including the coverage of campaigns, have diminished the appeal of election politics. Evidence for this argument comes from the Vanishing Voter Project (www.vanishingvoter.org) that I co-directed at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy during the 2000 campaign. Through weekly national surveys, we interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the course of the campaign to discover why they are disengaging from elections.

The Bad News Chorus

On the network evening newscasts during the 2000 general election, George W. Bush’s coverage was 63 percent negative in tone and only 37 percent positive. Al Gore’s coverage was no better. A good deal of Bush’s coverage suggested that he was not very smart. There were nine such claims in the news for every contrary claim. Gore’s coverage was dotted with suggestions he was not all that truthful. Such claims outpaced rebuttals by seventeen to one.1

Although the press is often accused of having a liberal bias, its real bias is a preference for the negative. The news was not always so downbeat. When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon sought the presidency in 1960, 75 percent of their coverage was favorable in tone and only 25 percent was unfavorable. By the 1980s campaign, however, election news coverage had reached a point where more than half of it was negative. Since then, no major-party presidential nominee has received on balance more positive news than negative news over the course of the campaign.2

This change is attributable in part to the poisonous effect of Vietnam and Watergate on the relationship between the journalist and the politician. A larger influence, however, has been the emergence of an interpretive style of reporting. In the 1960s, this style began to supplant the older descriptive style where the journalist’s main goal was the straightforward reporting of the facts of events. Since the facts were often based on what newsmakers had said or done, they had considerable control over the coverage they received. Much of the “good press” that Kennedy and Nixon received in 1960 came from what they themselves said about their candidacies. On the other hand, interpretive journalism thrusts the reporter into the role of analyst and judge. The journalist gives meaning to a news event by supplying the analytical context. The journalist is thus positioned to give shape to the news in a way that the descriptive style did not allow. The power of the journalists to construct the news is apparent from the extent to which their voices now dominate the coverage. Whereas reporters were once the passive voice behind the news, they now get more time than the newsmakers they cover. On the nightly newscasts, the journalists covering Bush and Gore in 2000 spoke six minutes for every minute the candidates spoke.3

The shift in the style of reporting from a descriptive to an interpretive form began in the 1960s when the television networks launched their 30-minute evening newscasts and expanded their reporting staffs in order to deliver picture-based news. The networks quickly discovered that descriptive reporting was too flat for the television medium and that viewers did not have to be told things they could see with their own eyes. Gradually, the networks developed a narrative style of reporting built around interpretive themes that gave their news stories a clear beginning, middle, and an end. Several years later, the daily newspapers followed suit. To add value to stories that their readers had already heard on the newscasts, newspapers developed an analytical style of coverage that focused on the “why” as well as the “what” of news events.

Interpretive reporting has unleashed the skepticism traditional in American journalism. This style requires reporters to give shape to the news, and they tend naturally to shape it around their perspective on politics. To the journalist, politics is not a struggle over policy issues. They see it largely as a competitive game waged between power-hungry leaders. Politicians’ failings and disputes are played up; their successes and overtures are played down.

The 1996 Republican nominating race is a case in point. The media analyst Robert Lichter examined the GOP hopefuls’ television ads and stump speeches. Over half the ads (56 percent) were positive in tone and nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of the assertions in the candidates’ speeches were positive statements about what they hoped to accomplish if elected. These dimensions of the Republican campaign were seldom mentioned in news reports. The candidates’ negative ads and their attacks on opponents filled the news. “Forget about the issues,” ABC’s Peter Jennings said of the Republican race, “there is enough mud being tossed around . . . to keep a health spa supplied for a lifetime.”4

The tone of news coverage affects people’s opinions of candidates for public office. A study of the 1960-1992 campaigns found that negative impressions of presidential candidates increased step by step with the increase in negative coverage.5 Gallup polls provide another indicator of the effect of the increase in negative coverage. Between 1936 and 1968, Barry Goldwater was the only major-party presidential nominee who had a more negative than positive public image at the end of the campaign. Since 1968, in the era of interpretive journalism, a third of the presidential nominees have been perceived unfavorably and another third have had marginally favorable ratings. Negative news is not the only reason Americans are dissatisfied with politics and elections, but it is among those reasons and, as their dissatisfaction has risen, so has their inclination to stay home on Election Day.


1 See, Robert Lichter, “A Plague on Both Your Parties: Substance and Fairness in TV Election News,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 6, no. 6 (Summer 2001): 16; Project for Excellence in Journalism data, web download, March 7, 2002.

2 Patterson, Out of Order, ch. 1.

3 Lichter, “Plague on Both Parties,” p. 17.

4 “The Bad News Campaign,” Media Monitor 10, no. 2 (March/April 1996): 3-6.

5 Patterson, Out of Order, ch. 1.

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More Comments:

Darryl E Hamlin - 11/1/2004

So, John, is Fox News "fair and balanced". Liberal is not a dirty word. Liberal simply means "one who strives for change" while a Conservative believes that things are good the way they are, and necessary changes are few and far between.

It's sheep who believe everything on Fox News, who believe that the President should not be questioned that ruin our great nation. This nation was founded on discourse and debate.

Chip GrawOzburn - 1/9/2004

I sincerely apologize for the length, but I have to get this off my chest. This so called discussion is exactly why I rarely look at this page anymore, but it also illustrates why I get frustrated with politics and many other things that involve the type of so called discussion that seems to appear everywhere. we (and I would include myself in this comment at times) worry too much about judging the people around us. We point too many fingers. Its his/her fault this happened, damn liberals/conservatives. We want to label them immediately. They are too liberal, consevative, religious, nonreligious, smart, dumb, etc, etc, etc. Lets see...to date over my life time I've been called a socialist, liberal, honky, cracker, minority loving liberal, yankee, redneck, communist, capitalist and a host of other things. All labels that evidently meant something to the individuals who directed them towards me. Here's the point. We are too quick to judge others and do not judge ourselves frequently enough. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is biased. We live, we are effected by those around us and our personal experiances. We read something (a history book or newspaper article) hopefully take it in and think about it a while and then form an opinion. The goal (agenda) shouldn't be to just challenge others opinions, but to also challenge ourselves and our own opinions. (we should be challenging ourselves more and listen more than I think most people do.) What ever happened to identify the bias in everything you read (including your own writing). If it was written by a fellow human being... its biased and has an agenda. Take one incident viewed by a dozen people and you may just get a dozen different opinions as to why and how something happened, but you may get a few who see things very similarly. If accusation becomes the norm then there is nothing but hostility then problem solving becomes nonexistent.
I am a nontraditional (older than the norm, 32 yrs old) history student at a midwestern university. The professors that I have come in contact with over the years in every subject have had views that could be labeled in a number of different ways. Liberal, Conservative, pro- this, anti- that. I can say that everyone of them tried to give as many different views on a given subject as possible when presenting materials. Many identified their own bias as a precurser to the presentation of the material at hand and have given lists of places to find additional materials both primary and secondary on the subjects covered in class. Overall, I have found that the materials and discussion in class have been excellent. When students have comments and opinions on subjects they have been explored and discussed without finger pointing and labeling. Do discussions get lively? Sure, but there is a difference between lively discussion and accusational commenting that crushes the exchange of ideas and opinions. (something that happens far too often everywhere in our society) The young adults that I have come in contact with have some good ideas and form some interesting opinions. I suspect that for many of the students it may be the first time in their lives that they have been able to form opinions concerning themselves and the world around them.... by themselves. While there opinions and views of the world change? Of course, if they don't it may be an indication that they have stopped exploring and educating themselves.
I think its too bad that in the public and political forums (such as this one) people don't seem to listen to one another. There seems to be more knee-jerk reactionary labeling and accusation. As a result the EXCHANGE of ideas and opinions moves from discussion to accusational argument, which turns most people off entirely. Hence the problem of low voter turn out and the apparent polarization of our country on most issues.

Ananymous - 10/23/2003

Seriously get over it. The media is not always a liberal tool, there are conservative news sources out there. liberals are not anti-americana dn don;t try adn balme the low voter turn out on them. Just becuase conservative Ronnie made liberal a bad word, doesnt mean its the truth. I am not asking you to become a card carrying Democrat (or liberal if you prefer), but seriously get educated!

John Michaels - 10/15/2003

news is negative b/c its run by liberals and they are the biggest waste of space in america. they move to another country b/c they are ruining ours

Mike Reynolds - 12/18/2002

Is it really any surprise that the Big 3 national TV networks are losing more viewers year after year. Their "interpretive journalism" allows them an outlet for their prejudiced views and the majority of TV watching Americans respond by simply not watching them anymore.

Mario Fante - 12/17/2002

A brief aside. Anyone who wants to see a superb first-hand analysis of war coverage of Vietnam should have a look at Robert Elegant's "How to Lose a War: Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent", from Encounter magazine (August 1981). Sadly, it is not online. But it should be.

Thomas Gunn - 12/6/2002

12-06-2002 ~1800

Hi Oscar,

Don't worry about the length of your post. There's lots of room on the servers.

I think I see what you are getting at. Current history is very difficult to teach b/c it has not yet been codified. It takes several generations for that to happen.

I think Hueisler, and myself and even Patterson probably are concerned that near term history is being distorted by the singular reporting of the negative view.

Swanson complains that history is taught with allegory, parable and myth. Then takes exception to the interpretation of the historical fact b/c of the method used to impart the underlying knowledge. Something you seem to find strength in as a teacher attempting to expand the knowledge. A frame of reference, a road map, a starting point.

Eventually history becomes cold hard fact and very dry. The theme here at HNN and that which engenders the greatest response is attempts by some historians to flavor the history with the right (read pc) spice. Both current and past. A perfect example is the Michael Bellesiles scandal.

His fraudulent scholarship is finding its way into policy that we will all live or die by. Just recently an appelate court used Michael as an historical reference in a decision. The court has erred because Michael erred. Fortunately many scholars both legal and historical are able to set the record right.

I'm happy that you realize that as bad a Viet Nam was, it was not all bad. That there were some good and noble reasons for US actions. It is to your credit that you attempt to set it in its proper context. That is what ethical historians do. Like parents, historians sometimes make mistakes: The good ones take all that they have at hand and do the best they can. The bad ones take what they have at hand and promote an agenda.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/6/2002

A long, somewhat rambling comment on these posts.

We did Vietnam in my once a week survey class earlier this week.

I started out by asking students what they had learned about the war, from any source. A few had learned a lot in school. One talked about a relative, an uncle I think, who had thrown away his medals and never talked about it. Naturally that made a haunted impression. Others talked about bascially getting a paragraph in a text, a brief once-over, and out.

We talked a bit about movie images. In retrospect, I wish we had done more on that.

Along with discussions in other classes, this led me to realize that there is almost no common memory of Vietnam in this generation, except perhaps a vague feeling that something went really wrong.

I also think that one reason the War is so vague is that most students have no idea of why it was fought and why it received support.

So when I taught it on Wednesday, one of the first things I had to do is explain that the War did have strong support at first and why it did.

(There's a certain irony in someone who opposed the War now doing his best to communicate the fear of Communism and the reasons (both real and imagined) behind that fear. C'est la vie.)

Here I think some of the conservative complaints about the teaching of the War may have some validity. Many of the text accounts I have seen so emphasized the mistakes that even though they mention popular support for the War, the reasons for it get lost.

Ironically enough, not clearly describing American anti-Communism not only makes our involvement seem insane, it also makes the difficulties that faced the anti-war movement seem utterly unreal.

I hope I got a bit of both across, but the pain of teaching is that I may never know.

One more thing, although bias is a factor here, I don't think it amounts to the "contamination" mentioned by Bill Heuisler.

In part it is the real difficulty in writing the history of one's own life time. It is so hard to know what one needs to explain.

In part, it is the reduction of history courses in public schools.

Also, our history is getting longer. (As an example, I jettisoned a bunch of the 70s and 80s this semester so that I can do a lecture on the US and the Middle East since 1945.) As the second half of the survey gets longer, more that was once taught gets cut.

Finally, about simplistic education (left or right). I don't like it when anyone reduces history to a black and white doctrine. What I see in most students is the opposite. It's an amorphous sea of facts (real and imagined) in which there is not even the idea that a strong perspective can exist.

I'm getting to the point that I almost prefer students to come it with any coherent vision of history, whether its Washington and the Cherry Tree, damn the dead white males, or darned right the World was created in 4004 BC.

It's a lot easier to teach students who have narratives in their heads. At least they understand that one thing can lead to another and that the facts can matter. Someone lost in that amorphous sea doesn't even know that.

And that's scary.

Sorry I took so long.

And why are all are comments dated Decebmer 12?

Thomas Gunn - 12/6/2002

12-06-2002 ~1400

Hi Tristan,

"[S]tandard American hogwash history; a history that never really happened", is what exactly. Isn't that what Heuisler is claiming and continuing through the college experience? Or perhaps your understanding differs from the mainstream.

I'm not sure how you decided it is my ideal to treat college students as "facist babies", must have been the gun reference got your panties in a twist. My one son is throwing off the indoctrination he received in school, and scratches his head at how he could have been so naive. My other son is beginning to recognize the contradictions in NPR.

BTW Tristan, "If this is what was gleaned from Dr. Heuisler's essay perhaps the respondents should consider going back to college with the rest of the "children' and take a class in textual analysis.", which essay do you have in mind with your comments? The one entitled, Campus contamination By Bill Heuisler, or the one entitled Why Is News So Negative These Days? by Thomas Patterson?


Tristan Swanson - 12/6/2002

It is dangerous and ludicrous to accuse Zinn, Chompsy and others for such exagerated nonsense like "debasing our children's minds." First, the influence of Zinn and Chompsky is nill in the average American clasroom from kindergarten through highschool. Instead our children are taught standard American hogwash history; a history that never really happened, but one in which Anglo-Saxons can not only sleep easy with but usually heroizes their all but heroic actions. Should we teach our children lies because we like them better?
After these lies are indoctrinated in our children from K-12 is it any wonder when exposed world-class historians and political scientists in college they are often awed and come away with changed minds? While Chompsky and Markowitz pehaps take their philosphies to an extreme, they can not be faulted for fabricating an America that does not exist nor ever did. Perhaps this gives them credibility, something sorely lacking in most standard American textbooks.
Furthermore, shame on those who see college students as "children", incompetent to evaluate competing narratives and find truth, or an approximation of truth within them. This a pedantic and ultimately sad point of view to take on our college students. Instead Thomas Gunn, seems to suggest that we should treat them like facist babies, feeding them nationalistic propaganda so they can better goose step to the star spangled banner.
What is ultimately disapointing in the responses to Dr. Heuisler, is that an essay about negative coverage in the media elicited completely off topic hyperbolic rants about intellectuals. If this is what was gleaned from Dr. Heuisler's essay perhaps the respondents should consider going back to college with the rest of the "children' and take a class in textual analysis.

Bill Heuisler - 12/3/2002

Mr. Gunn,
The answers are exposure and accountability. Publicly funded tenure apparently produces indomitable arrogance. Our collective ennui has produced a generation of reporters, scholars and politicians who sneer at patriotism and treat good and evil as though we all float in a great blowsy bubble of relativity -
not all, but way too many for the good of our nation.
For instance, some on this history site spout Howard Zinn's addled ravings as though they were somewhere near the truth. Norman Markowitz wants capitalists interned, but cashes his Rutgers paycheck unembarrassed. Avram Noam Chomsky has held court in building 20 at MIT for decades and most scholars avoid him or pay homage. But why must we taxpayers subsidize these fulsome rodents while they gnaw at our vitals?

Mr. Chamberlain,
You sound like an interesting educator; you have my permission to teach my future grandchildren. My objection is to dogmatic dictators making a damn good living by proselytizing cultural and economic suicide to our impressionable youth without fear of contradiction or rational censure. Aristotle evidently thought education thrived on dialectic based on commonly-accepted truths. You are obviously not a doctrinaire zealot and, while not agreeing on much, we can at least lament together the loss of moral and ethical anchors in much of modern education.
Bill Heuisler

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/3/2002

Mr. Heuisler,

Chill out.

You can find "nabobs of negativism" whenever you look hard enough. I saw a large number spouting on Fox News during Clinton's administration, claiming that an America that supported Clinton must be immoral. Do you count them among the self-hating Americans?

On most campuses, most of the time, those of us who teach history, or political science, or any course that deals with our nation simply try to communicate facts and the conflict of visions.

Is some of that negative? Sure thing. Our policies toward Native Americans touched the ragged edge of genocide. Whether its cause was right or wrong, we lost the Vietnam War. Money and power often displaces the will of the majority.

Is it all negative? Hell, no. Even in the most doctinaire, leftist class there is the vision of brave Americans trying to do the right thing against the odds.

For most of the rest of us, along with that bravery there is the amazing spread of our economy,sometimes cruel, sometimes as close to the horn of plenty as humanity gets. There is the magnificent insanity of our culture. There is the spread of technology from the wonders of the electric grid to the time that Lake Erie was so polluted it caught fire.

There are the culture wars that have been part of the last 100 years; the fights over issues like Vietnam; the way a decent man like Carter made a poor president (in times that might have defeated the best). The reasons that the dropping of the A-Bomb was opposed by some of the men who built it and supported by men who saw is as the best way to end World War II.

There are also the contradictions: the way most Americans disagreed with many of Ronald Reagan's policies but loved and supported him (at least until Iran-Contra) because he made them feel good about themselves again; and the similar way so many people tolerated Clinton's failings, and then took it out on Gore.

Finally, most students don't learn cynicism in College. Many arrive with hope and keep hope. Some of the best people I have seen are in this generation of students.

However, far too many arrive at a university with the cynicism that you describe and with so little history (my field) that much of the time we spend trying to get the simplest of stories across and hope that a few see those broader scope of things.

So look elsewhere for the negativism. I would suggest starting with the PR dominated election campaigns of both parties all too often designed for the gutter, in shrill local newscasters marketing themselves with their cities' body counts, and in the constant messages sent out in advertising that idealism in the face of wealth is useless.

I won't claim perfection on campus, or even in my own classroom. But if there is a big problem with self-hating Americans, it's not starting with us.

Thomas Gunn - 12/3/2002

12-03-2002 1435

So Bill, do you have a solution?

From a personal POV, one of my sons is a graduate of an infamous business school. He's been brainwashed, the good news is he's working for a living now and sees the truth they didn't tell him in school. He'll be back to normal soon. Another son thinks NPR has all the answers. He's learning the truth is not all on one side, slowly.

For me? I think I'll keep my guns.


Bill Heuisler - 12/3/2002

Mr. Patterson, your Bad News begins at our colleges.
Three examples: Noam Chomsky, Norman Markowitz and Howard Zinn - linguistics, history, Political Science - all spread unceasing, unmitigated anti-American poison.
Like flesh-eating bacteria, these professors despoil our youth and our common heritage. We pay them extravagant wages and give them sanctuary. They scorn us and our culture. They consume our largesse and debase our children's minds. How can this be?
Beginning with Vietnam, a growing revulsion for the United States has been spawned, nurtured and quickened by vicious men like these on American college campuses. Offering no elaboration or alternative or viable solution, they overtly loathe this country and speculate on its destruction.

Chomsky: MIT
"The United States has been responsible for a mountain of crimes against the Vietnamese people and thousands of others in Central America and the Middle East." He connects the Oklahoma City bombing with the CIA. His Cognitive Revolution Theories and Minimalist Language theories serve as masks for indoctrination.
Markowitz: Rutgers
A proud Communist who openly relishes the overthrow of the US government and the flight of skilled and monied Americans.
Zinn: Boston U.
A January, 2001 interview with Joe Lockard.
"It's a bad move for progressive organizations to tie themselves to the electoral system because the electoral system is a great grave into which we are invited to get lost. For progressive movements, the future does not lie with electoral politics. It lies in street warfare -- protest movements and demonstrations, civil disobedience, strikes and boycotts -- using all of the power consumers and workers have in direct action against the government and corporations. To sink too much of our energy into electoral politics is a mistake."

Voting is down? Many hate politics? Negative news? Look to the self-hatred taught on our American campuses.
Bill Heuisler