Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:

Peter Dreier, E.P Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and Urban & Environmental Policy Program director, Occidental College, (323) 259-2913, dreier@oxy.edu

Christopher Martin, professor of journalism, UNI Department of Communication Studies,
(319) 273-7155, martinc@uni.edu

Note: Read “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong” online at www.uepi.oxy.edu/acornstudy

Accurate reporting sidelined as mainstream media repeats allegations of Republican Party operatives and politicians

Recently released study finds widespread inaccuracy in the reporting of an alleged “voter fraud” scandal involving ACORN

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — An independent study by two prominent academics, released this week, found repetition of unverified allegations and distortions was the rule in national reporting of a purported “voter fraud” scandal involving the community organizing group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) during the 2008 presidential campaign.

This self-funded study, “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong” by Christopher Martin of the University of Northern Iowa and Peter Dreier of Occidental College, reveals a classic case of the agenda-setting effect in which both conservative and mainstream media outlets propelled the Republican agenda with a barrage of unfounded allegations of alleged “voter fraud.”

The study found that both conservative and mainstream media reported allegations by Republican Party operatives and politicians without seeking to verify these claims or to provide ACORN with equal opportunities to challenge the accusations of voter fraud.

The analysis of the narrative framing the ACORN stories demonstrates that — despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas — the news media agenda is easily permeated by persistent conservative media campaigns, even when there is little or no truth to the story.

The authors conducted a content analysis of all 647 stories about ACORN that appeared in 15 major news media organizations from 2007-2008. The news media analyzed included USA Today, The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio (NPR), and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (PBS). They also examined all stories about ACORN from three local newspapers representing cities in which ACORN has a long-time presence: the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Using the controversy over ACORN as a case study, the report illustrates the way the media help set the agenda for public debate, and frame the way that debate is shaped. It describes how what the authors call opinion entrepreneurs (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals) set the story in motion as early as 2006, how the “conservative echo chamber” orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, how the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up, and how the mainstream media reported these allegations without investigating their truth or falsity. As a result, the relatively little-known community organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82 percent of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.

In October 2008, at the peak of the campaign season, negative attacks dominated the news about ACORN with these key findings:

  • 76 percent of the stories focused on allegations of voter fraud.
  • 8.7 percent involved accusations that public funds were being funneled to ACORN.
  • 7.9 percent of the stories involved charges that ACORN is a front for registering Democrats.
  • 3.1 percent involved blaming ACORN for the mortgage scandal.

The report also found that the media, including the mainstream news media, failed to fact-check persistent allegations of voter fraud involving ACORN despite the existence of easily available countervailing evidence. The media failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities. They also failed to distinguish between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing. For example:

  • 82.8 percent of the stories alleging voter fraud failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare.
  • 80.3 percent of the stories alleging involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law.
  • 85.1 percent of the stories alleging involvement in voter fraud failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems.
  • 95.8 percent of the stories alleging involvement in voter fraud failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of voter fraud to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans.
  • 61.4 percent of the stories alleging involvement in voter fraud failed to acknowledge that Republicans were trying to discredit Obama with an ACORN scandal.

The authors reveal that the attacks on ACORN by Republicans and conservatives — and the same pattern of reportage that repeats allegations without any attempt to independently verify the facts — have persisted throughout 2009. For example, despite recently discovered e-mails revealing Karl Rove’s role in the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias for failing to prosecute ACORN on charges of voter fraud despite the lack of evidence, not a single major daily newspaper mentioned ACORN as the Republicans’ target.

Download the full report at www.uepi.oxy.edu/acornstudy

– END -

Peter Dreier, Ph.D., is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is coauthor of several books on urban policy and politics, including Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas), Regions That Work: How Cities and Suburbs Can Grow Together (University of Minnesota Press), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press). His research has been published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, Harvard Business Review, Urban Affairs Review, Journal of the American Planning Association, North Carolina Law Review, National Civic Review, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Media and Society, and other scholarly journals, as well as the Columbia Journalism Review. His research has been funded by the Brookings Institution, Ford Foundation, the Eisenhower Foundation, and other funders.

Dreier can be reached at (323) 259-2913 or dreier@oxy.edu.

Christopher Martin, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is co-author of Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, now in its 7th edition, and author of Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media. He also writes Mediacrit, a blog of news and journalism criticism (http://mediacrit.com). His research has been published in Journalism Studies, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Communication Research, and the Journal of Communication. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Communication Inquiry.

Martin can be reached at (319) 273-7155 or martinc@uni.edu.

XXX

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6 comments on “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong
  1. Debbie McDaniel says:

    There is no lie, no slander, no misrepresentation, or groundless accusation that Republicans will find too reprehensible to shout from the roof tops and our mainstream media won’t print as truth without once getting off their fat butts to verify whether or not there is even a drop of truth. The Republicans will ruin an entire country because they can’t seem to figure out that sometimes you lose and if you lose you don’t get to run things. They would rather have an entire population out of work and homes than to be out of power. The media is so craven and pathetic that they’ve stuck their heads as far up the butts of Republicans and the right wing criminals as they can just to prove they don’t favor librals. They don’t even realize this is the very behavior that has caused most of America to stop paying attention to what they write. May they all burn in hell for what they are doing to this once great country. May they all crash and burn for wanting to demolish our government and all those who love America because they can’t stand the thought they we know they are intellectually and morally bankrupt and totally loacking in what it takes to govern this country.

  2. Diane says:

    The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when ACORN actually did have representation in a media hit piece they were unable to explain that they were active in turning in the voter registration fraud.

    Either they were talked over or they never even broached the subject. It’s very frustrating to see someone as unprepared as they were trying to counter the obvious lies of the right wing.

  3. I am so disappointed in my Democratic party for voting with the Republicans to eliminate moneys from Acorn. I am thinking seriously of changing to an Independent or not voting at all.
    What a weak party.

  4. Dan F says:

    Why did Professor Dreier choose to leave out the critical information regarding his advisory relationship to ACORN? Isn’t sitting on an advisory committee of ACORN the definition of a conflict of interest in writing a fair and balanced piece on the organization? In fact, Dreier has been shilling for ACORN at least since 2003.

    Leftists are being exposed for the frauds they have always been.

  5. Dan F says:

    Read about how “distinguished” professors Drier and Martin are leftist sleezbag, frauds on the take from ACORN.

    http://biggovernment.com/2009/11/25/study-has-editor-publisher-falsely-framed-peter-dreier-as-an-objective-acorn-critic/

  6. Mark Vazquez says:

    Tactic nuber 5 from the Gingrich play book Dan? When you can’t win on facts, kill the messenger. Drier and Martin wrote a well documented and factual piece. You don’t like the facts so you must attack them. Try sticking to the story. Acorn did nothing wrong. Their big crime in the eyes of the Repubs is that they gave aid voice to the poor and non whites. How dare them. Why that’s what that known commie, liberal, socialist, marxist Jesus would do.

5 Pings/Trackbacks for "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong"
  1. [...] 2. You probably aren’t surprised to hear that “both conservative and mainstream media reported allegations by Republican Party operatives and politicians without seeking to verify these claims or to provide ACORN with equal opportunities to challenge the accusations of voter fraud”, but Peter Dreier at Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute just had to prove it. Here’s his report. [...]

  2. [...] claims or to provide ACORN with equal opportunities to challenge the accusations of voter fraud. Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong UEPI News &am… The heavy hand of Faux.News falls on America again. __________________ Brother, you can believe [...]

  3. [...] and What the News Got Wrong” (you can download the report in .pdf format here or read about it here), provide a semblance of academic respectability as they trot out Media Matters talking points [...]

  4. [...] Christopher Martin of the University of Northern Iowa demonstrated in a detailed study entitled “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the News and What the News Got Wrong,”this has long been an obsession of the right and they have succeeded in framing the issue for [...]

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