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Lesson Idea: Media as Linkage Institution to the Electoral Process


Examine the various functions of the media as a linkage institution connecting citizens to the electoral process in several different campaign seasons, with particular attention to the evolving role of social media.


  • linkage institution
  • gatekeeping
  • agenda-setting
  • score-keeping
  • horse-race journalism
  • watchdog function


STEP 1. 
Start the class with a writing assignment. Tell the students to choose the statement below that they most agree with. Give students one to two minutes to write down their thoughts to support their choice. Briefly discuss students’ preconceptions of the media and coverage of the electoral process from announcement of candidacy through elections.

  • The media's primary role relating to elections is to filter information out to the public which in turn influences what the public believes to be important issues.
  • The media's primary role relating to elections is to inform the public of which candidate is winning or losing, often focusing on polling data.
  • The media's primary role relating to elections is to monitor the conduct of government officials, for example, through fact-checking.

STEP 2. 
Explain that political scientists and theorists have described the media's traditional role in the electoral process using one or more of the descriptions above. Have students match each of the three statements above to one or more of the vocabulary terms listed above. Brainstorm about historical examples of the media in each of these roles.

STEP 3. 
Divide students into groups of four, and have one member of each group take responsibility for watching clips and answering accompanying questions for one of the topics specified below.



The Media and the Modern Presidency (3:50)


  • Describe the change in media focus over the past several decades.
  • Explain why the media image and the marketing of the President is important in the modern age. 

VIDEO CLIP 2 - Media Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Campaign (1:32)


  • According to Stephen Farnsworth, in what ways in a President always running a “marketing campaign?”
  • What does the speaker see as the main problem in media coverage of the 2016 Republican primary campaign?
  • Do you agree that there is not enough political news, and only a small hole allotted by the media for the political campaign? Explain.



Criticism of Media (2:23)


  • How does Ms. Felchner respond to the criticism that the media engaged in horse race journalism in the 2008 presidential campaign?
  • What factors can push a media organization towards more horse race type of coverage, e.g., frequency of publication, whether the campaign is primary or general election?

VIDEO CLIP 2 - The Nature of Media Coverage in the 2016 Presidential Election(1:40)


  • Looking at the 2016 Democratic primary reporting, what criticisms does the speaker make about media coverage of Bernie Sanders?
  • Why does the speaker believe the press has failed to report more substantively about Hillary Clinton?



VIDEO CLIP 1 - Political Coverage of Candidates


  • Explain the circumstances surrounding the scandal involving Gary Hart.
  • What was Gary Hart’s perspective and focus on in his campaign during this time?
  • Explain Gary Hart’s response to the press coverage of these events.
  • How did the coverage of political candidates change as a result of this event?

VIDEO CLIP 2 - Effectiveness of Media Fact-Checking (2:35)


  • Under what circumstances can "naming and shaming" by the media be effective in checking behavior or statements by politicians? Give an example from this video.
  • Why did the speaker feel the ABC News article did a particularly effective job in fact-checking Sarah Palin's "death panels" claim?



VIDEO CLIP 1 - Social Media and the 2012 Election


  • Describe the role of social media in a campaign.  Why do voters find it more trustworthy than traditional media?
  • How has social media changed campaign strategies to influence voters?  Is this an effective strategy, why or why not?

VIDEO CLIP 2 - Role of Social Media in 2016 Presidential Campaign Coverage (2:16)


  • How has Donald Trump used social media to "program" how the media covers the campaign?
  • How does Hillary Clinton use Twitter differently than Donald Trump?

While watching the videos, each student should take notes and answer questions. When all of the students are done, they should share with their group members. Finally, the group should come to a consensus and answer these fundamental questions:

  • Which media role do you believe is predominant in today's political campaign season?
  • Which role (or roles) best serve a functioning democracy, and why?
  • Is social media a positive or negative addition to the public's understanding of the electoral process?

5.  Each group should make a short presentation to the class about their conclusions. Return to the original statements in the beginning of class, and ask students to consider whether they’ve changed their minds about how the media links citizens with the electoral process, and their new insights about the media's role in promoting democracy.