Information & Democracy

This project, currently funded by the National Science Foundation, examines the role of mass media in the functioning of representative democratic government. The project is in collaboration with Christopher Wlezien; with related papers in conjunction with Fabian Neuner, Dan Hiaeshutter-Rice, and Lindsay Dun. A book, Information and Democracy: Public Policy in the News, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

The project focuses on the frequency, accuracy, and clarity of policy cues in media content, and explores how the public uses these cues to inform their preferences for policy in the US. We begin with the following propositions: (a) a responsive democratic public requires only basic levels of knowledge about policy and policy change, (b) the necessary information is (in some domains) readily available in media content, and (c) citizens pick up on these cues and adjust their preferences for policy accordingly. This project tests these propositions, leveraging differences in media coverage across policy areas (and news outlets, and regions) to understand variation in the opinion-policy link.

We suspect that there are areas where media coverage provides a reasonably accurate view of policy, and others in which media content is lacking. The accuracy of public perceptions of – and preferences for – policy should benefit or suffer accordingly. By exploring this variation, Information and Democracy provides a unique, “big” data-driven investigation into how (and when, and why) representative democracy works.

The centerpiece of the project is an automated content-analytic dataset of millions of news stories, television news transcripts and Facebook posts on US public policy, across a range of spending areas, over the past 35 years. News content is drawn from full-text databases (primarily Lexis-Nexis) and analyzed using dictionary and machine-learning approaches in R and Lexicoder, the reliability and validity of which is tested through human coding. These content-analytic data are examined alongside existing budgetary time series and opinion polling. Analyses offer the first large-scale exploration into the kinds of policy information that do, and do not, appear in media coverage. They also provide a direct comparison of media coverage of policy and actual policy across a broad range of media outlets, and policy domains.

Recent project papers include:

Degrees of Democracy: Politics, Public Opinion & Policy

The Information and Democracy project is a follow-up to the Degrees of Democracy project with Christopher Wlezien.  In that work, we used comparative data on public opinion and policy to examine the characteristics of policy domains and countries that mediate opinion-policy relationships.

One focus was issue salience. Some policy domains are more important than others. More people care about them and they, thus, are more likely to pay attention to politicians’ behavior in the areas. Politicians, meanwhile, are more likely to pay attention to public opinion in these areas. In effect, we expect a certain symmetry between public responsiveness to policy and policy responsiveness to opinion across policy domains.

Political institutions also matter. We not only need a certain level of accurate media coverage and political competition, we need government institutions that make it easy for the public to become informed about what policymakers do, and give an incentive to policymakers to represent public opinion. We argued, for instance, that the division of powers among government institutions has big effects: (1) that vertical division of powers, or decentralization, makes it more difficult for the public to gauge and react to individual governments’ levels of policy, and thus dampens public responsiveness; and, (2) that the horizontal concentration of powers, or parliamentary government, makes politicians less responsive to changes in public opinion.

The book and project papers are included on the Public Opinion & Policy page.