FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Peter Dreier, E.P Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and Urban & Environmental Policy Program director, Occidental College, (323) 259-2913, firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Martin, professor of journalism, UNI Department of Communication Studies,
(319) 273-7155, email@example.com
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
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.