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The Right to Know: Media Coverage, Election, and Informed Voting in Democracies
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Some media practitioners criticized the coverage of Donald Trump, warning that the media became complicit in his rise to the top of the presidential race in 2016. The criticism is likely to be valid, given the significant influence of the media in the Age of Information and Communication Technologies. Therefore, this paper is designed to revive the discussion on the question: What should the media cover to help people know better about candidates and make informed voting decisions during electoral campaigns? Some communication scholars might argue that the media enjoy constitutional protections, and they are political players loaded with financial burdens. Subsequently, it is inappropriate to tell the media what to cover. However, because of the considerable political power the media can exert on voters nowadays, it deserves to explore, explain, and extrapolate the history of the arguments on how media coverage of issues and candidates should be balanced, to preserve the people’s right to know in a democracy.

Keywords: democracy, election, informed voting, media coverage, right to know 


The Right to Know: Media Coverage, Election, and Informed Voting in Democracies

Dan Rather, former CBS News anchor and famous journalist, criticized the coverage of Donald Trump. He said that the media became complicit in the rise of Trump to the top of the presidential race in 2016. “What I worry about is, in a way, the media is a political partner, a business partner of Donald Trump,” Rather said. “The media wants the ratings,” he added. “Trump delivers the ratings. In a way, they’re business partners.” Rather did not propose that the media should have stopped covering Trump, but he suggested that the media should have tried to balance the amount of coverage allocated to different candidates (Fang, 2016).

Balancing media coverage is worth worrying about only if the media are politically influential. Scholarly work suggests the media have always been influential politically, especially in the current Information Age, because the media are stunningly successful in telling voters what issues and candidates they should think about (Cohen, 1963). Concerning issues, literature shows that news, documentaries, and advertisements are able to shape and even change voters’ perceptions (Feldman & Sigelman, 1985). The media are effective as the most important sources for campaign information, and the public will ponder only those issues reported in media coverage, according to McCombs and Shaw (1972).

In their initial investigation, McCombs and Shaw examined media coverage of the presidential campaigns in the United States of America in 1968. They focused on the agenda-setting function of the media through two elements: awareness and information. McCombs and Shaw assessed the relation between what voters said were key issues and the importance allocated to these issues in media content addressed to the voters during the campaigns. They concluded that the media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be major issues of campaigns (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

For McCombs and Shaw, agenda-setting refers to the idea that there is a strong positive correlation between the importance the media assign to certain issues, based on relative placement and/or amount of coverage, and the importance the audience allocate to these issues. In late 1980s, Iyengar and Kinder (1987) were able to show that even small doses of television news coverage were enough to alter the relative importance viewers assign to the issues of the day. McQuail and Windahl (2013) showed that agenda-setting refers to the role the media play in creating public awareness about salient issues.

But the media also tell the public what issues to use as criteria to evaluate candidates for office. This phenomenon is known as priming. It refers to “changes in the standards that people use to make political evaluations” (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987, p.63). Priming occurs when media content suggests to audiences that they ought to use specific issues to evaluate candidates, like those issues related to the performance of leaders and governments. Priming is about enhancing media effects by offering the audience a message of a prior context that will be used to interpret a subsequent message about a public figure. Miller (2005) defines priming as effects of a specific, prior context on the interpretation and retrieval of information. Media content may provide more time and bigger space to certain issues, making these issues more vivid and accessible in people’s minds that they use them to evaluate candidates for office.

Priming is often understood as an extension of agenda-setting, and much of the attention that has been devoted to agenda-setting research in the past was focused on the concept of priming. There are two reasons for this: (1) Both effects rely on a memory-based model of information processing, which assumes that people form attitudes based on the most salient (i.e., the most accessible) information, when they make decisions (Hastie & Park, 1986). In fact, judgment and attitude formation is directly correlated with “the ease with which instances or associations could be brought to mind” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, p.208). (2) Based on the common theoretical foundation, priming could be a temporal extension of agenda-setting (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). By making certain issues more salient in people’s minds (i.e., agenda-setting), the media can also shape the considerations that people employ when making judgments about political candidates (i.e., priming). The time-based sequence of agenda-setting and priming assumes that the media can make certain issues, or certain aspects of issues, more accessible (i.e., easily recalled) for voters, influencing the standards they use to form attitudes, and subsequently, make voting decisions.

Methods of Media Influence

In addition to setting the agenda of issues and telling the public what criteria to use in evaluating candidates, the media also use different techniques to shape people’s perceptions of what candidate merits consideration, a matter that impacts the choices voters make at the polls (Brady, 1989). These techniques start with newspapers endorsing candidates, which have been known to influence perceptions as well as the vote (Erikson, 1976).   

The media can have a tangible impact on voters’ perceptions of a candidate’s viability. If the media would say that a candidate is doing well, people are more likely to accept that assessment. Brady (1989) points out that people use the media to learn very quickly who is ahead and who is behind. This is a function of what the media cover, and it is not surprising that the public know more about viability than other substantial campaign issues (Robinson & Sheehan, 1983), and voters may cast their ballots on the basis of how well the media say a candidate is doing (Bartels, 1988).

The media can also provide clues about a candidate’s viability through how much coverage they allocate to the candidate. More media coverage makes a candidate appears worth looking at, and most people will assume that the candidate most worthy of their consideration is the one most heavily covered by media (Patterson, 1980). Issues or candidates emphasized by the media matter, regardless of the differential volume of media coverage. People remember the issue or candidate receiving the most media coverage, regardless of how much coverage is allocated to other issues or candidates (Atkin, Galloway, & Nayman, 1976).

Therefore, unless the media communicate balanced messages on issues and candidates, the media may curb voters’ ability to make good voting decisions; yet, if media coverage is appropriately balanced, then voters will have the opportunity to be informed in the right way, and they will mirror the quality of information offered to them by making correct choices. The people’s right to know gets an enormous importance from this critical point. If the media devote too much coverage to inappropriate issues or candidates, voters may make decisions based on inaccurate perceptions. Thus, it is worth exploring what messages the media should communicate to voters in a democracy in election time, considering the voters’ right to know.

The Right to Know

Voting is a form of expression, and freedom of expression must embrace principles through which citizens can practice this right correctly and actively. “The rights of all in freedom of expression must be reconciled with other individual and social interests” (Emerson, 1970, p.3). Freedom of expression is an outcome of input-output process, and without the correct accurate information in, the outcome is distorted on both the individual and social levels. This input-output process represents a system, because it has a “unity of purpose and operation” (Emerson, 1970, p.4).

A sort of fundamental accordance, or a minimum area of agreement, is crucial for any group of people to form a society that can operate, and to guide themselves in a functioning democracy. An often-quoted source concerning the constitutional and political history of America is James Madison, who is known as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He stated, “A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” (Madison, 1822). This system of knowledge in a democratic society relies on four main pillars:

First, “freedom of expression is essential as a means of assuring individual self-fulfillment.” Second, “freedom of expression is an essential process for advancing knowledge and discovering truth.” Third, “freedom of expression is essential for participation in decision making by all members of society.” Fourth, “freedom of expression is a method of achieving a more adaptable and hence a more stable community, of maintaining the precarious balance between healthy cleavage and necessary consensus” (Emerson, 1970, p.7).

As correct and active voting relies on knowledge, and as voting resides at the core of freedom of expression, Emerson argues that the right to know fits readily into the whole system of freedom of expression, and that “the concept [right to know] includes two closely related features: First, the right to read, to listen, to see, and to otherwise receive communications; and second, the right to obtain information as a basis for transmitting ideas or facts to others” (Emerson, 1976, p.2). Therefore, I argue that the right to know in a system of freedom of expression serves the right to communicate decisions through voting in an input-output process.  

Balancing Media Coverage in Democracies

Democracy requires the media to cover each candidate’s positions on issues and character, in addition that the media must let people know what each candidate’s prospects are, and the media must tell the public what the candidates are doing from day to day (Patterson, 1980). The public has a legitimate right to know all these pieces of information, because “there are many advantages to recognizing the right to know as a legal right independent of, or perhaps supplemental to, the more traditional right of the speaker to communicate” (Emerson, 1976, p.2), through the press, which is at the heart of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Media coverage of elections should be ranked in terms of issues first, character second, horserace third, and campaign events last (Bartels, 1988). The media should treat all candidates equally; and as the race progresses, the media should consider the process for clues about how to assign coverage.

In a speech in 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, “The flow of ideas, the capacity to make informed choices, the ability to criticize, all the assumptions on which political democracy rests, depend largely upon communication” (Barnouw, 1990, p.299). Alger (1989) argues that choice is a condition of democracy, “Choice is at the core of democracy; the absence of choice means that democracy is lessened to one degree or another, depending on the nature of the lost choice,” (p.7). He puts the conditions to specify what voters must learn from the media in order to make choices in an informed manner: First, people should get information about candidates’ qualifications to conclude whether each is qualified for the job s/he is seeking. Second, the media should provide a background about candidates’ positions on issues, as well as their ideologies in general. Third, the media should provide some idea regarding candidates’ characters. Fourth, in order to determine whether a candidate fits the office s/he is running for, some description of the office itself should be reported by the media. Fifth and finally, issues of the day must be fully discussed by the media so that candidates can be evaluated in a meaningful context.

Brady and Johnston (1987) have a different assessment as they ask a different question: What do voters need to know (not right to know) to play an active role in a reliable election? Their answer is that a minimal requirement for election’s success is the availability of “information about the character, purposes, electability, and leadership abilities of the candidates” (p.133). They argue that character is important because it is linked to a candidate’s ability to govern; his or her “purposes” or policy positions should be clearly known to enable voters know where a candidate will take the country; and electability gives voters some idea whether a candidate deserves their support or consideration; while leadership abilities pertain to both a candidate’s character and viability. Brady and Johnston argue that voters seek to know whether a candidate has both the character and support necessary to be an effective leader. Brady and Johnston’s recommendations are compatible with Alger’s points: substantive information of either character or policy must be covered, but Brady and Johnston differ from Alger in stipulating that the media should give attention to each candidate’s viability as well.

But democracy requires not only an appropriate balance of the coverage of issues, character, and viability, but also an appropriate balance of the coverage of candidates in amount, as well as tone (Brady, 1989). Having said this, the reality is, “For the most part, both media [CBS and UPI] granted equal access to ‘equal’ players: dismissing the also-rans and the minor parties; giving considerable and equal attention to the frontrunners; giving extraordinary attention to anybody doing better than expected” (Robinson & Sheehan, 1983, p.69). So, for those who believe that democracy relies on the people’s right to know and to make an informed choice accordingly, this reality is unfair, as the range of choices will be minimized when the media restrict coverage to a number of candidates only, rather than all of them.

This is the problem Dan Rather identified (Fang, 2016) that the media focused on Donald Trump, making him the most salient candidate in the presidential race of 2016. Looking at this problem through a global frame beyond Trump, if the voters are uncertain about the direction in which they would prefer their country to go, the fewer the issues and candidates in media coverage, the fewer the policy options the voters will be exposed to, a matter that jeopardizes the voters’ ability to choose correctly and actively. The most recent example of this is the British vote to leave the European Union, when the media gave extended time and space to specific politicians. “These politicians assume that the dog will never catch the car and they will have the best of all worlds — opposing something unpopular but not having to deal with the implications of the public actually voting to get rid of it. But they so dumb down the debate with lies, fear-mongering and misdirection, and with only a simple majority required to win, that the leave-the-E.U. crowd carries the day by a small margin. Presto: the dog catches the car. And, of course, it has no idea now what to do with this car. There is no plan. There is just barking.”

Democracy is about the availability of choice, and “it is in the competition among alternatives that the public is made aware of the choices in directions for governance” (Alger, 1989, p.69). Since choice is that crucial to a functioning democracy, it is essential that the media do not constrain that choice with coverage limited to only some of the issues and candidates. “As a general proposition, if democracy is to work, there can be no holding back of information; otherwise ultimate decisionmaking by the people, to whom that function is committed, becomes impossible” (Emerson, 1976, p.14).


Mohammed Al-Azdee is an associate professor of mass communication at the University of Bridgeport (UB), Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA. Born and raised in Iraq, he did his undergraduate studies at the University of Baghdad. During the Iraq War, Dr. Al-Azdee worked for USA Today and Newsweek. His achievements in journalism led him to the United States as a Fulbright scholar where he earned his MA from the Indiana University (IU) School of Journalism–Bloomington in 2008. The same year, the same school granted him a scholarship to enroll in the doctoral program. He earned his PhD in 2012 and started working for UB. As a communication scholar, Dr. Al-Azdee’s research focus is the intersection amongst media, politics and religion, and he has been a recipient of awards from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), the International Communication Association (ICA), the Center for the Study of the Middle East, and the United States Department of State. In 2011, Dr. Al-Azdee was recognized as best author at both AEJMC and ICA. He was recently elected as research chair of AEJMC. Articles by Dr. Al-Azdee have been published in the Foreign Policy Journal, the International Affairs Forum, the Mass Communicator, the International Journal of Development Research and Quantitative TechniquesQuestions of Journalism, Media & Mass Communication, and the Journal of Global Development and Peace. Dr. Al-Azdee is a faculty member of the UB College of Public and International Affairs (CPIA), where he teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses.


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