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Keywords:

  • media;
  • rights and morals;
  • candidate character;
  • issue interpretations

In recent American political discourse, elections and debates tend to be presented by the news media as collisions of basic principles, with opposing parties advancing beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. When news coverage of an election campaign focuses on issues that emphasize rights and morals, voting behavior may be affected in two ways: Citizens become likely to form and make use of evaluations of the integrity of the candidates, and citizens become motivated to seek an issue-position “match” with candidates on those issues for which discourse is ethically charged (particularly when they hold a similar interpretation of the issue). These ideas were tested in an experiment in which labor union members and undergraduate students were presented with news stories about the contrasting positions of fictional candidates for elective office. Across three political environments, all information was held constant except for systematic alteration of a different issue in each environment. These three issues (abortion, gun control, and health care) vary in the types of value conflicts emphasized in news coverage. The results shed light on how individuals process, interpret, and use issue coverage in choosing among candidates.