Reporters' Politics &
Their Use of Political Sources
in State Government Reporting
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5115 Vilas Communication Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
E-mail address: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Mass Communication and Society Division,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
1998 convention, in Baltimore, Maryland
Reporters' Politics and
Their Use of Political Sources
in State Government Reporting
This study examines the relationship between statehouse newspaper reporters and
their sources. A content analysis was conducted using a total sample of 864
articles written by 28 reporters in four states. The reporters also were
surveyed. No significant relationships were found between reporters' political
orientations and their use of political sources. However, reporters were found
to use more sources that supported the status quo, specifically the political
party in power in each state.
Ask what the measure of a reporter is, and the answer will be, "She's only as
good as her sources." Ask a reporter to reveal his sources, and the answer will
be a quick and resounding "No." For a profession that prides itself on
objectively reporting the facts, these statements seem to point beyond the facts
to a strong relationship between a reporter and his or her sources.
While much has been written about the effects of training and news routines on
how journalists go about their jobs, journalists still manage to turn out often
markedly different stories when sent to cover the same town meeting. While some
differences may stem from editorial processes or the impact of the news
organization, another factor is reporters' source selections. "Reporters are
judged professionally by the sources they keep," Schudson wrote in the
introduction to his 1995 book, The Power of News (p. 91). After a source makes
the first cut of being interviewed, the source must advance further, beyond the
final cut (and stay off the cutting room floor, so to speak) to be included in
the published article. Journalists tend to cultivate a stable of preferred
sources who get interviewed frequently and often make this final cut. A variety
of factors shape the constitution of this preferred source listing, including
the status/prestige of the source, perceived expertise and articulateness of the
source, and the past reliability of the source. An additional concern is how
the reporter's own world view (or political orientation) affects the source
The media live under a constant barrage of accusations that they are too
"liberal." This study attempts to answer that question regarding one sample of
reporters in political reporting. This study put reporters under the microscope
to examine their personal political orientations and the sources they use in
newspaper articles concerning state government in four Eastern U.S. states.
Data from interviews with reporters about how they do their job, as well as
surveys about their interests, political orientations, and points of view, were
gathered for analysis with the source content of articles written by these same
reporters. While most media studies of news sources use the organizational or
professional levels of analysis, this study looks at sources from the level of
analysis of the individual reporter and tries to link reporters' personal
preferences with their source usage.
One of the key principles operating in journalism today is the "Ideology of
Objectivity." Reporters profess a dedication to fair, accurate, and balanced
reporting, which, they would add, amounts to objective reporting. Although
objective reporting remains difficult to define, reporters rely on an
operational definition of sorts, which allows them to fall back on routine
procedures as a defense of their objectivity. If these procedures are followed,
the argument goes, a reporter can carry out objective newsgathering. While
previous research has shown certain biases inherent in the objectivity practices
themselves (Tuchman, 1978), this study attempts to pierce those routines to see
how reporters vary in their practice of journalism and to see how this results
in different patterns of source usage in published articles. A preference for
particular sources may be correlated with a reporter's political characteristics
and orientations, which would amount to individual effects produced by each
Any individual effects produced by individual reporters also may be seen as a
form of influence--or bias--in the news. If reporters prefer to use different
sources when covering similar stories, the results would show a difference or
bias. In addition, a pattern of such continued use may be viewed as a
consistent bias in a certain direction. While that direction could be political
(conservative or liberal), it also could be in favor of the status quo, or in
favor of a specific issue or organization, for instance.
Objectivity and Bias
Before looking at how individual reporters may stray from the notion of
objective newsgathering, it is important to probe the concept of objectivity
itself and to understand the multiple level of forces operating to create the
environment in which individual reporters work.
An analysis of the ideal of objectivity must include its origins, functions, and
value in modern journalism. While "objective" or "straight" news reporting is
considered standard today, it hasn't always been de rigeur. The first American
publishers produced partisan newspapers. They eventually gave way to more
unbiased versions when advertising to a broad audience was introduced along with
the start-up of news wire organizations that served many individual newspapers.
Yet the ideology of objectivity is used for more than "keeping journalists
honest," as some would say; it operates to maintain the level of privilege,
legitimacy, and credibility that the profession has built up in this century.
By claiming objectivity for their banner, journalists could elevate themselves
from their "trade" status to that of a profession. Many practices were
generated to support the notion of objectivity among journalists. For instance,
Tuchman recounts a reporter's search for a quotation from a source that would
portray the reporter's own view of a news story. However, news routines and
conventions allow that information attributed to a source other than the
reporter is to be considered objective.
Bias in the news is not necessarily the result of conscious efforts by
journalists; the practices have become so well accepted that Tuchman calls them
"strategic rituals" (1972). Another convention is the reliance on officials as
authoritative sources (Sigal, 1973). For instance, when covering a protest
demonstration, reporters seek out official sources, such as police and
representatives of the institution under protest, for comment and often ignore
the issues that led to the protest (McLeod & Hertog, 1992).
While the media strive on a daily basis to weed out the influence of bias and
achieve objectivity, these terms are rarely defined. Bias and objectivity can
be seen as antonymns, although that does not really assist the explanation.
Schudson seems tired of the endless definitions that describe what being
objective is not when he straightforwardly states: "Yet the belief in
objectivity is just this: the belief that one can and should separate facts
from values" (1978, p. 5). Some consider objective reporting to be "valueless"
and Schudson agrees that the use of values would constitute bias in newswriting
Operational Definition. For some, objectivity is more an operational practice
than a concept that can be defined. Tuchman (1978) chose to isolate the regular
practices reporters follow, which they claim keeps them objective in their
newswriting. She narrows these processes down to five that make up an
operational definition of objectivity: (1) showing conflict; (2) showing
supporting evidence; (3) use of quotation marks; (4) structuring a story with
the most important items first, usually in the style of the inverted pyramid,
and; (5) using labels, such as "news analysis" as a method of distinguishing
between articles with opinion and those without it.
Professional Bias. Even if the above rituals are followed faithfully, the
ensuing results may miss the mark of objectivity. Appending his definition of
objectivity, Schudson (1995) finds four types of "professional bias" in the news
media. They are: (1) the proclivity for "negative" news; (2) reporters'
efforts to remain "detached" from their stories; (3) the reliance on "technical"
information (such as poll results and insider political maneuvering rather than
the discussion of issues), and; (4) the use of official sources for
corroboration or verification of information. Identifying Sources of Influence
on News Production
Despite the professional emphasis on objectivity, much of the research
literature to date reveals certain structural and even intentional biases that
may enter into news reporting. Research on news production has often focused on
identifying the origin of biases in news coverage. The sources of these biases
can be located using a variety of levels of analysis from the micro-individual
level to the macro-socio-cultural level. Ultimately, this study investigates
the individual level sources of influence over news production.
As can clearly be seen, Tuchman and Schudson concentrate on bias and
objectivity on the professional level, which leaves a clear opening for research
into bias and objectivity on the individual/reporter level. Professional
influences on reporters are but one of six levels or types of influences that
can affect reporters (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). These influences are:
Socio-cultural, including the country's ideology, language, resources, economic
system, among other items;
Organizational, including the size of the news organization, the size and
demographics of its market and audience, the ownership, style of management,
organizational mission, and conventions of that organization;
Medium, including modes of conveyance, such as print, photography-only, video
or film, and audio-only; technology, newsgathering techniques, and conventions
of each medium;
Professional, including codes and conventions, training, journalistic mission,
among others; and
Individual, consisting of education, life experience, journalistic experience,
years on the beat, personal political beliefs, socio-economic background, and
specific job. (The impact of personal political beliefs will be examined in
Reality, perhaps the most difficult level to define, is much debated by
scholars. McKinzie (1994) argues that reality consists of agreements determined
to allow everyday living. Regarding the news, Sigal (1973) suggests that news
provides a sampling of reality sifted through the perspectives of the news
Each level is characterized by a perspective on its place in the world,
sometimes termed "world view," and each level also carries a set of codes and
conventions that have developed as routine practices and beliefs followed at
that level. For instance, on the organizational level, members of one news
organization would hesitate or refuse to share information with members of a
competing organization based on the convention of competition in journalism.
The competition convention is a belief that readers or viewers will be more
attracted to one news organization's product if it consistently breaks news
stories ahead of other news organizations. A similar convention would be found
on the individual level where reporters judge other reporters' abilities based
on who "scoops" whom more often.
A few examples of bias at the individual reporter level have been noted in the
literature. One newspaper transferred an education reporter to the copy desk
due to her political activism in a gay rights group (Stein, 1993). And former
Wall Street Journal business reporter A. Kent MacDougall shocked the
journalistic community in 1988 when he declared that he had been a radical
socialist during his 10 years at that paper (Reese, 1990).
Of course, the final level of analysis is reality itself. Unfortunately, what
can be agreed upon as our external reality is actually quite small, according to
Walter Lippmann (1922). "Wherever there's a good machinery of record, the
modern news service works with great precision," Lippmann wrote, referring to
voting in elections or scores in sports games (1922, p.38). But the rest of the
time, "The newspaper occupies the position of the umpire in the unscored
This study looks at concrete political similarities reporters covering a state
government may share with the sources typically found roaming the halls of a
statehouse. Each reporter's political orientation will be compared with a
content analysis of the types of sources found in a random sample of that
reporter's recent articles.
This study focuses on reporters who cover the "statehouse beat," which
typically includes the state legislature (e.g., House and Senate), the governor,
election campaigns for these offices, the state budget, departments of state
government (e.g. Delaware's Department of Administrative Services), and,
depending on the state and the newspaper's organization, decisions and
appointments/elections to the state Supreme Court. Some of these reporters also
wrote articles about election campaigns for U.S. Senate and Congressional
In order to make fair and consistent comparisons among reporters' news
production processes, the sample came from reporters who covered similar beats.
The statehouse beat was selected because of the wide variety of issues, people,
and events usually considered newsworthy to statehouse reporters. The wide
variety of news topics provides an opportunity to analyze reporters' source
selections across a number of areas, such as elections, politics, finances, and
health and human services. This facilitates an in-depth analysis of reporters'
source repertoires. In addition, due to the obvious political nature of the
statehouse beat, the effect of reporters' personal political beliefs on their
choice of political sources is revealed. Because of the visibility of many of
the articles that are generated on this beat (e.g. the governor's annual State
of the State address), reporters on this beat usually have several years'
While some studies have focused on Washington, D.C., reporters (e.g. Soley,
1992), who are sometimes considered the elite of the press corps, this study
looks at statehouse reporters because they are more representative of the
majority of political reporters nationwide. In addition, the 28 reporters who
participated in the study worked at 18 different newspapers ranging in size from
the 18,000-circulation Star Democrat of Easton, Md., to the national Washington
Post and New York Times.
Research Questions and Hypotheses
After considering the literature available on the news production process, a
remaining question points to whether the values, characteristics, and
orientations that reporters bring to the news production process will influence
which source types they turn to most often for information. As a result,
reporters will develop "source repertoires," or regular sets of sources with
whom they deal most often for information when preparing news articles.
The first set of hypotheses tests the greater frequency with which a reporter
will use sources holding similar political beliefs as the reporter. For
example, a reporter with conservative beliefs on social and economic issues
would cite more sources from the conservative point of view. In line with the
preceding hypothesis, a subsequent hypothesis tests whether reporters continue
to use more "official" sources than non-official or non-traditional sources. In
this same vein, the final hypothesis suggests that reporters would use more
sources that uphold the political status quo than sources that challenge the
political status quo.
Reporters' Political Orientations
The first set of hypotheses looks at whether reporters use more sources with
whom they share political beliefs or more sources with whom they disagree on
political matters. Gans (1979) asserted that reporters seem to be drawn to
sources with whom they agree or share values. Soley (1992) found that
Washington journalists who used sources that fit the typical mold actually fit
that mold themselves. For instance, many of the journalists in the Washington
press pool share similar backgrounds and educations with the expert sources they
rely upon; these journalists also may have worked with these expert sources in
the news business. For most statehouse reporters, connections with sources may
not be as blatant as those Soley identified among Washington journalists. But
the connections may prove noteworthy nonetheless.
Hypothesis 1A -- Political Orientation and Use of Conservative Sources.
Reporters who say they are more conservative on economic and social issues will
use more sources who are identified with more conservative interests on those
Hypothesis 1B -- Political Orientation and Use of Liberal Sources.
Reporters who say they are more liberal on economic and social issues will use
more sources who are identified with more liberal interests on those issues.
Supporting the Status Quo
The second set of hypotheses deals with the potential effect of source usage on
maintaining or destabilizing government operations. The journalistic convention
of relying on officials as authoritative sources could lead to hegemonic
considerations, such as support for those in power or the status quo. When
working on the statehouse beat, that practice could lead to using more sources
who are legislative leaders than sources who are members of the minority parties
or other people who oppose the current leadership. Since our capitalistic
society strongly supports our democratic practices, the status quo also could be
supported via greater representation of business interests in news articles than
the interests of workers (represented by labor or union advocates) or the
community (represented by non-profit agencies).
Hypothesis 2A -- Use of Government and Non-Government Sources. Statehouse
reporters quote/paraphrase more officials of government and government-type
agencies than people unassociated with politics or government or its agencies.
Hypothesis 2B -- Use of Business and Labor Sources. Statehouse reporters
quote/paraphrase more business representatives than representatives of unions or
labor and community service organizations combined.
Hypothesis 2C -- Political Affiliation of Sources Used. Statehouse reporters
quote/paraphrase more legislative leaders from the political party in power than
legislators from the minority party.
Following a pilot study, 28 reporters, who work for 17 newspapers covering the
state capitols in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, made up the
sample. Reporters were selected for participation in the study based on their
availability, willingness to participate, and length of time on the beat (at
least one legislative session). The sample breakdown was as follows:
yDelaware (3) -- Delaware State News (1) and Wilmington News Journal (2)
yMaryland (6) -- The Capital (Annapolis) (1), (Easton) Star Democrat (1),
The Sun (Baltimore) (2), and the Washington Post (2)
yNew Jersey (7) -- Asbury Park Press (2), New York Times (1), Philadelphia
Inquirer (2), Trenton Times (2)
yPennsylvania (12) -- (Allentown) Morning Call (2), Erie Daily Times (1),
Harrisburg Patriot News (2), Philadelphia Daily News (1), Philadelphia
Inquirer (3), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1), Tribune Review (of Pittsburgh)
(1), and York Daily Record (1)
In personal interviews, reporters discussed information about their
backgrounds; experience as a journalist on the statehouse beat; interest in
politics and other news topics; and how they use sources in preparing news
articles, among other topics. Reporters then were asked to fill out a survey
designed to elicit information concerning their personal politics, journalistic
mission, and organizational influences on their use of sources.
Fifteen reporters were registered Democrats; three were registered Republicans;
and eight were not registered with any political party. Two did not answer the
question. Two items asked reporters to rate separately their political views on
economic and social issues on a range of Very Liberal, Liberal, Somewhat
Liberal, Neutral, Somewhat Conservative, Conservative, and Very Conservative.
These items were used to measure reporters political beliefs, which would be
compared with the make-up of their source repertoires. The Pearson correlation
coefficient for items Economic views and Social Issues views was .5143 with p
=.005. In addition, reporters were asked for their political party registration
and if they voted in the last election (November, 1994). Two subsequent items
asked reporters to rate other reporters with whom they come in contact regarding
their political views on economic and social issues using the same scale.
Forty articles written by each reporter with single bylines were selected from
among their work starting in 1995. Thirty of those articles were randomly
sampled from among the initial 40 retrieved to be coded for the content
analysis. The content analysis of articles was designed to measure three items
necessary for this analysis: type of source, source frequency, and number of
quotations per source. The researcher coded 654 of the 854 articles in the
study; three other coders coded a total of 200 of the 854 articles analyzed.
A reliability measure was gathered for 114 articles (13 percent) that were
double-coded by four graduate students. Of the 26 possible source types, 14 were
found to have a reliability measure of at least .65 using Krippendorf's Alpha.
The variables considered reliable include the specific political sources needed
for this study, such as Republican and Democratic Governors and Legislators,
Lobbyists, Union Representatives, Community Organization Representatives, three
types of spokespersons, and several other source types.
Based on their answers to the survey questions listed above, reporters
indicated where they placed themselves in a political range for two general
areas. Reporters rated their political leanings separately for economic and
social issues. The scale ranged from 1 = Very Liberal to 4 = Neutral, to 7 =
Very Conservative. For economic issues, the mean was 3.8, or just .2 below
Neutral and toward Liberal. The mode was 3 with eight reporters declaring
themselves "Somewhat Liberal" on economic issues. For social issues, the mean
was 2.9. The mode was 3 with nine reporters declaring themselves "Somewhat
Liberal" on social issues and eight reporters declaring themselves "Liberal"
(Table 1). When asked how other reporters felt on economic issues, the mean was
3, which was "Somewhat Liberal." When asked how other reporters felt on social
issues, the mean was 2.6, which falls between "Somewhat Liberal" at 3 and
"Liberal" at 2. The mean for "Interest in Politics" was 6.25 with 7 being "Very
Strongly Interested" and 6 being "Strongly Interested." Only two of the 28
reporters surveyed did not vote in the previous election in November, 1994.
These results were used to analyze data from the content analysis.
Average Political Leanings of Reporters
Type of Issues
Political leanings were based on a 7-point scale, where 1 was
very liberal and 7 was very conservative; neutral was 4.
Hypothesis IA - Political Orientation and Use of Conservative Sources
This hypothesis predicted that reporters who are more conservative are more
likely than liberal reporters to use conservative sources. A political index
was created combining reporters' self-ratings of political beliefs on economic
issues and on social issues. This political index is a measure of conservatism
since the scale goes from Very Liberal = 1 to Very Conservative =7 (Neutral=4),
therefore the hypothesis predicts a negative relationship. A regression was run
with the political index as the independent variable and the number of
Republican and Business Sources/Paragraph as the dependent variable. The b =
-.05, F = .071, and R2 was .03, which is not significant at the .05 level
Summary of Regression Analysis - Reporters' Index as Predictor
Repub. & Business Sources/pp
N=28 Not significant at p < .05
Hypothesis 1B - Political Orientation and Use of Liberal Sources
This hypothesis predicted that reporters who are more liberal are more likely
than conservative reporters to use liberal sources. The political index again
was used as the independent variable in a regression with the dependent variable
Number of Democratic and Labor Sources/Paragraph. The b = -.007, F = .0013, and
R2 was .005, which is not significant at the .05 level (Table 3).
The variables Total Number of Democratic and Labor Sources/Paragraph and Total
Number of Republican and Business Sources/Paragraph also were run as dependent
variables in regressions with reporters' separate answers to the items that made
up the political index scale. None of these regressions produced significant
results. Considering the small sample size, the data for Hypotheses 1A and 1B
were tested post-hoc using non-parametric measures that also did not show
Summary of Regression Analysis - Reporters' Index as Predictor
Democratic & Labor Sources/pp
N=28 Not significant at p < .05
Hypothesis 2A - Use of Government and Non-Government Sources
This hypothesis predicted that reporters would quote more government sources
than non-government sources. Sources were divided into two groups based on
their connection to government. The reliable government sources were:
Republican Governor, Democratic Governor, Republican Legislator, Democratic
Legislator, Democratic Governor's Staff, Other Legislative Staff, Government
Employee, Republican Spokesman, and Democratic Spokesman. The reliable
non-government sources were: Lobbyist, Organization Representative, and Union
Representative. A t-test using these two groups yielded t = -15.48 at p < .001
with 27 df. This hypothesis was significant at p < .001 (Table 4).
T-test for the Difference in the Number of Government Sources/Paragraph
and the Number of Non-Government Sources/Paragraph
Government Sources Non-Government Sources
Average #/ .1081 .032 s.d. .0151 .009 s.d.
Paragraph N = 28
t = 15.48, df = 27, p. < .001 Significant
Hypothesis 2B - Use of Business and Labor Sources
This hypothesis predicted that reporters would quote more sources with business
connections than sources connected with unions, labor movements, or community
non-profit organizations. The source type for business is Business
Representative. Sources that fit the labor category were Union Representative
and Organization Representative. A one-tailed t-test using these two groups
yielded a t = -1.74 and p = .05 with 27 df, which is significant (Table 5).
This hypothesis was supported in the opposite direction than predicted:
Reporters quoted more labor and community organization representatives than
business representatives. However, these results should be considered
skeptically since the Business Representative source category was not found to
T-test for the Difference in Business and Labor Sources Used per Paragraph.
Business sources Labor sources
(n = 28) (n = 28)
Per Paragraph .0087 .008 s.d. N = 28 .0127 .009
t = -1.74, df = 27, p. = .05 Significant
NB: Business Representative source type was not found to be coded reliably.
Hypothesis 2C - Political Affiliation of Sources Used
This hypothesis predicted that reporters would quote more sources from the
political party in power than sources belonging to the political party in the
minority. The political party in power for each state was determined by the
party of the governor. Since the governor often sets the legislative agenda by
sending down budget and other legislative packages early in the legislative
session, the governor may be seen as driving the legislative process; the
legislature often reacts to or follows the governor's lead. As a result, the
governor and his or her party are the party in power.
The reporters sample was divided into two groups: those who worked in a state
with a Republican governor (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and those who worked in
a state with a Democratic governor (Delaware and Maryland). A t-test was done
for these two groups considering the Number of Democratic Sources/Paragraph.
The t-value was 1.71 with 26 df and p = .05, which is significant (Table 6).
Using those same two samples of reporters based on the governor of each state,
another t-test was run using Number of Republican Sources/Paragraph. The
t-value was -3.27 with 26 df and p = .003, which is significant (Table 7).
Next a ratio of Republican sources/total paragraphs to the total number of
political sources/total paragraphs (Republican + Democratic sources) was created
for each reporter. Using the same two samples of reporters (based on governor's
political party), a t-test was conducted using the new ratio of political
sources. The t-value was -5.31, df = 26, and p. < .001, which is significant
T-test for the Difference in Number of Democratic Sources Used per Paragraph
Democratic Governor Republican Governor
(n = 9) (n = 19)
Sources Per .0709 .031 s.d. .0415 .047 s.d.
N = 28
t = 1.71, df = 26, p. = .05 Significant
T-test for the Difference in Number of Republican Sources Used per Paragraph
Democratic Governor Republican Governor
(n = 9) (n = 19)
Sources Per .0241 .012 s.d. .0499 .022 s.d.
N = 28
t = -3.27, df = 26, p. = .003 Significant
T-test for the Difference in Ratio of Republican Sources per Total Political
Sources per Paragraph
Democratic Governor Republican Governor
Rep. Sources .2648 .117 s.d. .5876 .163 s.d.
Dem + Rep.
N = 28
t = -5.31, df = 26, p. < .001 Significant
This study set out to uncover any connections between reporters' personal
political orientations and their source usage. The strengths of this study are:
(1) empirically testing reporters' source usage with content analysis and
quantitatively looking at the reporter on the individual level of analysis; (2)
including reporters from four statehouses who represent a range of different
size newspapers that circulate in five states and some nationwide.
Based on the literature using qualitative and personal observational methods,
in addition to anecdotal evidence, some influence was expected between
reporters' predilections and the sources they used in their articles. The point
was to test empirically those expectations using content analysis. However, no
relationships were found. Hypotheses 1A and 1B, which predicted that reporters'
politics would lead to greater use of sources holding similar beliefs, were not
significant. The low power of this study may be a large factor in not finding a
significant relationship. On the other hand, it suggests that if there is a
relationship between reporters' personal orientations and source usage, the
relationship is not large or it would have been found even with low power.
Contrary to popular belief, this analysis shows that reporters, in a small
sample, did not let their personal orientations guide their selection and use of
sources in state government reporting.
The remaining hypotheses in this study speak less to personal orientations of
reporters than to a professional predilection: support of the status quo and/or
those in power. Previous quantitative and qualitative evidence for reporters'
greater use of government sources instead of non-government sources was
confirmed. Hypothesis 2A was supported; a significant relationship was found
for using more government sources than non-government sources in the average
article. As one Maryland reporter put it, "There are standard government
sources who are going to be the people that anyone points you in the direction
of." Although this may seem like an obvious effect to find in state government
stories, it is worth replicating considering that Sigal's (1973) seminal work is
based on evidence from three decades ago. Since that time, newspapers have made
a push to develop more stories including points of view of the "average citizen"
as well as other non-government sources (sometimes referred to as source
diversity), such as community organizations (Rosen, 1996). One reporter with 26
years' experience noted, "There's a trend to try to get a better mix of
non-governmental people ... people who are actually going to be affected by
what's being done. And it's a real pain in the butt -- Half the time they
haven't a clue what's going on." Despite this emphasis on getting more
"ordinary citizens" into the news pages, institutional sources maintained a
greater presence and one that is statistically significant.
It should be noted, however, that more government source types were coded
reliably than non-government source types (including the "ordinary citizen"
source type). But consider that many of the source types not found to be
reliable had few if any appearances in the double-coded sample. It is a
confounding Catch-22: If there had been more examples of Ordinary Citizens in
the sample, that source type may have been reliably coded. Or if there had been
more examples of Ordinary Citizens in the sample, coders would have been able to
more easily identify them, thereby leading to a reliable coding. For now, the
ordinary citizen remains elusive in this sample.
Hypothesis 2B, which predicted that reporters would use more business sources
than non-business sources, was not supported, although a surprising significant
relationship was found in the opposite direction. These results should be
regarded with some skepticism, however, since the Business Representative source
type was not coded reliably. Part of the difficulty in coding the Business
Representative source type may be that coders had to recognize a business name
or label and realize the source should be coded as a business; unlike
legislators who must always be identified with their official title, for
example, business representatives are not usually identified in articles as a
"business" source type, per se. In confusion, coders may have chosen the
"Other" category, thereby reducing the potential for a reliable "Business
Representative" source type.
Another reason for this finding may be that labor and community organizations
produced more sources than the single source type business. Perhaps reporters
are reaching out to more non-traditional source types, especially community
organization representatives, in an effort to represent more of their readership
in news articles. While it may be more difficult for statehouse reporters to
physically find ordinary citizens to comment in articles, community
organizations that send representatives to the state capitol make it easier for
reporters to find and use them. Labor, like businesses through the local
Chamber of Commerce, traditionally is represented by official lobbyists for area
unions, such as AFSCME. This result also could be interpreted as demonstrating
that business interests do not have a commanding presence in the arena of state
government where they are often thought to be powerful, especially via their
campaign contributions during election years. Or perhaps business interests try
to avoid the spotlight by staying out of the pages of state government news and
concentrating their public relations efforts on the business pages.
When reporters were divided into two groups based on political leadership --
those who worked in states with Republican governors and those with Democratic
governors -- three significant relationships were found (Hypothesis 2C). In
articles about state government in states with Democratic governors, more
Democratic sources were used. In articles about state government in states with
Republican governors, more Republican sources were used. Thirdly, in states
with Republican governors, when considering the total number of political
sources used by those reporters, the ratio of Republican to total political
sources (Republican + Democratic) was significant. This demonstrates that more
sources were used from the party of the governor than the other major political
party in a state. This could be interpreted as a lack of balance in political
reporting. Sources from the governor's party were not balanced with sources
from the other major political camp. It also could be interpreted that
reporters do not feel the need to balance the governor's prominent role as the
top political official in a state with comments from the other major political
This is an important finding because it gives justification to the power of the
incumbency. Not only the governor, but his or her party, receives more source
coverage from the regular reporters on their beat. These statehouse reporters,
more than any others, should have the easiest access to politicians who could
balance sources from the governor's party; yet these reporters chose not to use
them in numbers equal to those of the governor's party. This would appear to be
an added benefit of publicity for incumbents who try to develop good public
ratings and ultimately earn re-election.
In another consideration of sample size, more reporters who participated in
this study happened to work in states with Republican governors than Democratic
governors, thereby contributing more articles to consider for some hypotheses.
The finding in Hypothesis 3 that Republican sources were used significantly more
than the total of Democratic and Republican sources (in states with Republican
governors) demonstrates that reporters may give more weight to the information
provided by sources in power than those considered out of power.
It is interesting to note that the 12 reporters who worked in Pennsylvania's
state capitol made up the greatest plurality in this sample. While the number
of their stories in the sample could account for this finding, they were working
in a state government where the legislature was ruled by strong Democrats. An
equal number -- if not more -- of Democratic sources and Republican sources
would be expected if reporters were trying to balance quotes from political
sources. Many articles (especially from the Philadelphia Daily News) concerned
Democratic legislative leaders from Philadelphia, who often were battling
Republican legislative leaders or the then-new Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. Yet
the number of Republican sources outweighed the Democratic sources used,
strongly supporting the prediction that reporters rely on sources in power more
than those out of power. One Pennsylvania reporter noted that his job was
affected by Ridge's election. "You have a change in parties, you have to
develop a whole new network of sources. Now Republican." It follows that
perhaps more Democratic sources were used when Democrat Bob Casey was governor
of Pennsylvania and both houses were run by Democrats. Also interesting to note
is that Ridge's press secretary at the time was a former Pennsylvania statehouse
reporter, one of their own, as pointed out by one current reporter. Does that
mean he got better press for his boss among his former cronies? That is one
influence to consider, although a backlash against a reporter who switched
sides, so to speak, might be anticipated, too.
This finding that the majority party's vision may get more press until the
minority party manages to gain control is very important when considering the
information conveyed to readers in a two-party system of government.
Considering that a majority of the reporters surveyed rated themselves as
slightly liberal on economic issues and with leanings toward the Democratic
Party, it does not appear that reporters' personal political orientations had
anything to do with this political bias in the coverage. Instead it may be a
function of reporters' routines of coverage that results in members of the
leading party receiving more space as sources in news articles than those who
are out of power. Of course, it is easier for the pundits to criticize the
media for quoting more liberals rather than saying that they quote those
maintaining the status quo: the majority party.
Reporters are well aware of the easy criticism that they are too liberal.
Interestingly, reporters in this study did not fit the stereotype of liberal
reporters. Although on average they were more liberal on social issues, on
economic issues they put themselves almost at the neutral point on the scale.
In contrast, Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) found that journalists in 1992 on average
were more likely to consider themselves Democrats and label themselves left of
center rather than middle-of-the-road.
Judging from their answers to the survey question about the political views of
other reporters, even the 28 reporters in this study believe their colleagues to
be more liberal than they think of themselves. While not fitting the stereotype
themselves, reporters appear to believe their colleagues fit them. The
hypothesis that more Democratic sources were quoted when the Democrats were in
power was supported despite any efforts by reporters to dispel the image of
working for the more liberal party, the Democratic Party. But reporters should
not feel as much pressure to quote Democrats in the minority when Republicans
are in the majority because reporters are not criticized for being too
conservative (except by more critical forces who note that reporters generally
support the status quo in their coverage). One reporter explained, "I try to
make sure that the different sides in an issue are reflected. And I try to
include one contrarian view ... just to make sure that another side is
All of these conclusions should be put in perspective considering the
methodological limitations of the study. Due to the amount of time, travel, and
effort required for interviewing, surveying, and then gathering and coding
articles for each reporter in the sample, the sample only reached 28, which
carries a low power. The number of source types that were reliably coded could
have been higher; unfortunately, several of the source types were not found in
any of the 114 articles double coded in the reliability sample. As a result,
they were not deemed reliable and were removed from the possible source types
for consideration. Several source types were difficult to code as well. For
example, "Democratic Insider" may require too much knowledge of the political
scene in a state to be reliably coded by a graduate student from another state.
Perhaps additional coder training would have increased reliability of source
types, too. In addition, although this study only considered human sources, a
"document" source type, such as that used by Voakes, Kapfer, Kurpius, and
Shano-Yeon Chern (1996), would have added information that demonstrated how
often reports, legislation, laws, etc., were cited as sources.
Some interesting questions were raised that should be followed up in future
studies. Using this data set, the concept of reporter source repertoire should
be studied to see if individual reporters relied on particular types of sources
more than others. Certainly it would prove useful to expand the sample size of
this study to increase the power for examining reporters' processes on the
individual level. In addition, it would help the representativeness of the
sample to include reporters from other parts of the country, such as the West
In light of the findings regarding use of sources from each major political
party, it would be interesting to follow these reporters through an entire
gubernatorial administration and/or to follow these reporters as they cover an
administration run by the opposing party. For three of the four states in this
study (not Maryland), a back-comparison could be carried out for reporters who
had been on the job for at least the end of the previous administration -- which
was run by the other major party. For example, both Republican Gov. Christie
Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania replaced
This study made headway into the area of news production by demonstrating that:
reporters in a small sample did not let their political orientations guide their
selection and use of sources in state government reporting; institutional
sources maintained a greater presence and one that is statistically significant
among state government news stories; and, not only the governor, but his or her
party, received more source coverage from the regular reporters on the beat.
Future research should expand on these findings to broaden our knowledge about
how news workers bring information to their audience which ultimately uses that
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