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How ‘Jarring Revelations’ Can Affect Political Campaigns

Study shows how media use can shape voters' views of candidates

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During the 2024 presidential election, media literacy among voters will be critical. Asking questions like, ‘Why is this story receiving attention?’ and ‘Is the story based on fact or opinion?’ will be important.”

Stephanie Edgerly
Media scholar and IPR associate

As the 2024 presidential election draws near, media attention will be centered on both official and unofficial campaign events, from tumultuous debates to jarring revelations and scandals. But how do these events affect voters' perceptions of the candidates, and how do their media habits influence these opinions?

For example, in 2016 Access Hollywood’s video exposing Donald Trump's derogatory remarks about women and Hillary Clinton's email server investigation dominated headlines. In a 2022 study published in Mass Communication and Society, media scholar and IPR associate Stephanie Edgerly and her colleagues examine how audiences understand such major campaign events, how they shape how voters view candidates, and how an increasingly partisan news media filters them.

The study reveals that with the reopening of the Clinton email investigation and the release of Trump's derogatory comments, liberal and conservative news consumers rated Clinton lower, while Trump's support remained steady.

“The 2016 election reflected the complex dynamics of modern campaigns. While there are specific events that receive a lot of media attention, the effects of these events are not uniform,” Edgerly said. “Instead, the impact is channeled through differences in partisanship and where people get their news.”

The researchers surveyed 4,901 respondents starting in the fall up until the day before the election, from September 20 to November 7, 2016. Each day they asked 100 respondents to evaluate their feelings about Clinton and Trump and choose whom they would vote for if the election took place that day. 

In the survey, respondents also answered questions about their news media and social media use, and how many Facebook friends and Twitter followers they believed were Democratic, Republican, Independent, or not interested in politics.

The researchers found that those on conservative media rated Trump higher and Clinton lower, while those on liberal media outlets rated Trump lower and Clinton higher. Likewise, respondents with more Republican Facebook friends and Twitter followers rated Trump higher, while those with more Democrat networks rated Clinton higher. A unit increase in conservative media use was associated with a 323% increase in odds of Trump supporters’ vote certainty while it decreased the odds of Clinton supporters’ certainty by 60%. For a unit increase in liberal media use, the odds of Clinton supporters’ certainty increased by 93% and Trump supporters’ certainty decreased by 60%.

Users of more traditional media outlets—network television and major newspapers—favored Clinton. Local news users favored Trump, and local media use was also associated with a higher certainty of voting for Trump, especially among Republicans. Increases in local media usage increased Trump supporters' certainty by 22%, while not affecting Clinton supporters' certainty. This could possibly be due to changes in local media audience composition, according to Edgerly and her colleagues. Some local TV stations are showing an increasing conservative slant in recent years. During the 2016 election, conservative news coverage on local stations intensified, with local stations often featuring Republican candidates and conservative commentators.

On October 7, 2016, Access Hollywood released the tape of Trump’s lewd comments about women, and WikiLeaks released Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails. In the following weeks, FBI Director James Comey announced the reopening of the Clinton email server investigation.

According to the researchers, the Access Hollywood tape and Podesta e-mail release did not affect either candidate’s ratings across the entire sample. The Comey announcement did, however, negatively affect Clinton's ratings among conservative and liberal media consumers.

Unlike the rating results, how certain a person was to vote for a candidate was not significantly influenced by either major campaign events, a range of media, or a combination of the two.

However, according to the Edgerly and her co-authors, undecided and Independent voters were more likely than Democrats and Republicans to change their votes. Contrary to conventional belief, Clinton did not lose the election because of the investigation, but the researchers believe that her decreased favorability among Independents may have cost her key states.

The findings support prior research showing that media use, partisanship, and specific events during a contentious race influence how voters view candidates. In addition to understanding upcoming U.S. elections, analyzing 2016 campaign effects and how they interacted with a complex media landscape is critical to understanding democratic functioning, according to the researchers.

In the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, Edgerly says we’ll see a mix of planned events, like debates, and unplanned ones, like scandals, that will dominate headlines for a few days at a time. These events can have a significant effect on voters the closer we get to election day, she says, but the impact will likely be concentrated among Independents and undecided voters and depend on where they get their news.

“During the 2024 presidential election, media literacy among voters will be critical,” Edgerly said. “Asking questions like, ‘Why is this story receiving attention?’ and ‘Is the story based on fact or opinion?’ will be important.”

Stephanie Edgerly is professor, associate dean of research in the Medill School, and an IPR associate.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Published: December 1, 2023.