Media and Political Engagement
Professor: Elizabeth A. Skewes
Office: Armory 104B
Office hours: Tuesdays, 1 to 4 p.m.; and by appointment
Class: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Armory 206A
Using the fall 2006 election as its focus, this course will examine the content of political coverage, the influences on that coverage, and the impact of political news on the public. It will deal with the role that the media should play in informing and engaging citizens in the political process, and at whether the media is living up to those responsibilities.
The primary goal of this class is to for you to become a more astute observer of political communication and its role in public life. We will begin by looking at the duties of the media when it comes to the democratic process. We will address questions of media bias, conglomeration and ownership as they affect political reporting, and we will examine the routines of political journalism and discuss how those "news routines" impact the kind and quality of political information we get. We will examine similarities and differences between types of media.
In addition to gaining a better understanding of political communication, there are several more specific goals for this class. They include:
Developing your ability to read and view news criticallyLearning to think about broader media issues and how they affect newsDeepening your understanding of how campaigns try to use the media to deliver their messages, and of what the media choose to cover and why
The main textbook for the class isPolitical Campaign Communication: Inside and Outby Larry Powell and Joseph Cowart (2003, Allyn and Bacon). Readings from the text are noted by the initials PC and the corresponding chapter number(s) on the course schedule.
Additionally, because the course is intended to help you become skilled, critical analysts of contemporary political communication, you will be expected to keep up with the news in various forms of media throughout the semester. Most of the class discussions and written assignments are based on this expectation, so if you fall short, your final grade will be reduced significantly. Keeping abreast of current political events also will make the class more meaningful and interesting, as well as contribute greatly to the quality of class discussions (which do factor into your final grade).
During the semester, you will be expected to read, watch, listen to and examine the following forms of media on a regular basis:
Read the political coverage in a regional general circulation newspaper, such as theDaily Camera,theRocky Mountain News,or theDenver Postat least three times a week (this does not include theColorado Dailyor theOnion)..Read campaign coverage in a national daily newspaper, such as The New York Times, USA TodayortheWashington Post, at least three times a week.Watch a television newscast (local or national) at least twice a week.Listen to a talk radio program at least once a week.Log on to an Internet discussion group that focuses on politics (you can participate or "lurk") once a week, and visit at least one new political Web site each week.Pay attention to what you see, read and hear across the various media, considering differences based on the medium, its target audience, and the content and form of the message.
Other readings will be placed on reserve in Norlin or handed out in class. If you miss a class, it is your responsibility to make sure that you haven't missed receiving a handout.
Campaign Participation (20 percent):
A key element of this class will be your participation in the campaign process. As part of the course requirement, you are expected to volunteer one day a week for a candidate for office or for an organization supporting or opposing an issue on the fall ballot. You can choose whichever candidate and/or issue that you like, but it will be to your advantage to consider "top of the ticket" races, such as the gubernatorial race or the 7thDistrict Congressional seat, since those will generate more news coverage. The same is true for those who choose to volunteer for an issue campaign – you can choose whichever issue and side you prefer, but choosing a more controversial ballot issue, such as the domestic partnership benefits initiative (Referendum I), will give you more news coverage to work with.
You will be required to keep a "field experience journal" in which you write about your volunteer work – the tasks that you are doing, the role of those tasks in the wider campaign strategy, the work of others around you and how that benefits the campaign, and media strategies that you see being developed by the campaign. When you turn in your journal, you should include an analysis of what you've seen and done that links those activities to campaign practices and media practices. This analysis should link your observations in the field to the readings and class discussions.
Short Papers (2 at 10 percent each):
You'll be writing two short (four to five pages) papers, the first due on Thursday, October 12, and the second due on Thursday, November 16.
The first paper will be an analysis of the use of sources in news coverage of the campaign for which you are a volunteer. This means that you will need to be following the news coverage and saving examples of it to draw upon for your analysis. While you may be tempted to use Lexis-Nexis or some other database for this research, I would not recommend it since there can be a delay between when a story appears in a local or regional publication and when it gets loaded onto the Lexis-Nexis database.
You can refer to online versions of regional publications, but understand that these sometimes differ from the final print versions of the same story, and that some online stories are not edited as carefully as the print versions. Finally, an online version doesn't allow you to assess the impact of design and layout, so you may want to pick up some state and local news publications a couple of times a week so that you can get a sense of how design and layout might affect readers.
The first paper should look at who reporters are using as sources in stories – candidates? Their campaign managers? Other campaign spokespeople? The opposition? Citizens? And how much of the story appears to be coming from the reporter him/herself? Your analysis should give some sense of who the dominant sources are, who is quoted infrequently, and who is missing. It should include some discussion of why sourcing matters, what shapes who gets quoted, and what the impact of sourcing is in readers. You can ground your observations in scholarly research by using readings from class and what you find in outside research in books and journals on political communication.
The second paper will be an examination of media coverage of your campaign that focuses on the topics that are being covered. Does media coverage focus on political polls, on campaign strategy, on ideas and substantive debate, on character, or on something else? For voters tuning in starting September, which is when many people begin to focus on the fall campaign, what do they learn from the media about the candidates and issues? Does news coverage provide meaningful information that voters can use to make rational choices? And why or why not? Again, this paper should be grounded in scholarly research from class and what you find in outside research in books and journals on political communication.
Term Paper (40 percent):
This paper, due on Tuesday, Dec. 12, is a culmination of your analysis of media coverage of the political campaign you worked on during the semester. As such, you can draw on the research that you did on your first and second papers, as well as your field experiences. However, this paper, which should be 15 to 20 pages including references, should look at the amount of coverage the campaign received (you may want to compare the amount of coverage of your campaign to some other notable campaigns on the same ballot), any differences between mediums (print, television, etc.), the topics covered, the tone of news coverage, and issues of balance and fairness in the news coverage. How well did the overall news coverage serve the electorate? And what do you think it means for political participation and civic engagement?
Research Presentations (10 percent):
In the last two weeks of class, you will be presenting the findings of your term paper research to the class. These will be oral presentations of your work, and you can use visuals (front pages or section fronts, short broadcast clips, etc.) to help illustrate your key findings. If there are several people working on the same candidate's campaign or on the same issue campaign, you might want to team up and present as a group. We'll talk about this option once each of you identifies your choice for volunteer work.
Class Participation (10 percent):
Because the class will rely heavily on discussions of the readings, several videos that will be shown during the semester, news coverage of the campaigns and your fieldwork, participation in class discussions is critical. While you may not have something to say on every issue or at every class, each of you will be expected to be active participants in class discussions.
You are expected to attend all classes. We will be addressing some material that cannot be repeated. If you do miss a class, make arrangements with one of your classmates to get any notes or information you may have missed.
Classes will start on time. Arriving late is disruptive to the class and will negatively affect your participation grade.
Submission of Written Work:
All written work needs to be submitted in hard copy form – not e-mail (unless you first get permission from your professor) – and must be typed using appropriate MLA or APA citation and bibliography style.
Plagiarism, Fabrication and Cheating:
Plagiarism is presenting the ideas or words of others as if they were your own. Copying someone's work verbatim without attribution is plagiarism, but so is using a unique idea or creative approach and claiming as your own. There are a number of on-line sites that discuss plagiarism and provide examples. Among them are:
University of Colorado—
Purdue University –
Indiana University –
Hamilton College –
But quite simply, if it's not your own idea or words, don't use it (except as a quote or paraphrasewith attribution). It is a violation of journalism ethics and of academic honesty. If you are caught plagiarizing or cheating in some other fashion, you will receive a failing grade in the class. You also will be reported to the university's Honor Code Council.
Students with disabilities who qualify for academic accommodations must provide a letter from Disability Services and discuss their specific needs with me, preferably during the first two weeks of class. Disability Services determines accommodations based on documented disabilities. Disability Services is located in Willard 322 can be contacted at by phone at 303-492-8671. Their website is at http://www.colorado.edu/disabilityservices.
Students who, for religious reasons, will be unable to attend a class or meet a deadline need to contact me as soon as possible so that we can make appropriate adjustments to their schedule.
The university has adopted a policy that requires civil and courteous classroom behavior. For more on the policy, see the CU website at: http://www.colorado.edu/policies/classbehavior.html
Date Topic Reading
8/29 Introduction and class overview
8/31 The practice of political communication PC, 1
9/5 The role of journalism in society Kovach & Rosenstiel
9/7 Participation in public life PC, 2
9/12 Crafting the candidates PC, 3 & 4
9/14 Field experiences
Work journal #1 due
9/19 Campaign communications PC, 6 & 7
9/21 Campaign spin
Clip fromRoad to the Presidency
9/26 Deciding what's news PC, 11
9/28 War Room
10/3 Deviance and newsworthiness Shoemaker & Reese
10/5 Field experiences
Work journal #2 due
10/10 The critical event and the gaffe PC, 14
10/12 The content of campaign coverage PEJ studies
Short paper #1 due: sourcing
10/17 The shrinking sound bite Patterson
10/19 Political polls and news PC 10
Date Topic Reading
10/24 The stump speech and media coverage PC 9
10/26 Journeys with George
10/31 The ad wars TBA
11/2 Field experiences
Work journal #3 due
11/7 Election Day
11/9 Patterns in news coverage of election results Camera, Post, RMN, etc.
11/14 Spinning forward: Speculation in the press Camera, Post, RMN, etc.
11/16 The role of bloggers and the Internet on mainstream media TBA
Short paper #2 due: topics
11/21 Thanksgiving week – no class
11/23 Thanksgiving week – no class
11/28 The youth vote in 2004, 2006 and beyond TBA
11/30 Tanner '88
12/5 Student presentations
12/7 Student presentations
12/12 Student presentations
12/14 2008: A model for better news coverage
Note: This syllabus and schedule is subject to change. Any changes
will be announced in class.