Get access

The Mass Media and the Public's Assessments of Presidential Candidates, 1952–2000


Martin Gilens is associate professor of politics, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. Lynn Vavreck is assistant professor of political science, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095. Martin Cohen is assistant professor of political science, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA 22807.


Media critics blame contemporary news for increasing levels of apathy and ignorance among the electorate. We agree that the amount of policy-oriented information in news coverage of presidential campaigns has declined and the level of news consumption has fallen. Yet, based on 50 years of data on media content and public attitudes, we find that over this period of time Americans have just as much to say about the major-party presidential candidates, what they have to say is more policy oriented, the association of vote choice with policy considerations has strengthened while the association with character considerations has weakened, and factual knowledge about the presidential candidates’ issue positions has not declined. We assess the role of education, party polarization, and paid advertising in explaining trends in Americans’ political knowledge and engagement. We show that the public's steady level of information and increased focus on policy in presidential politics reflects the high level of policy content in paid ads, which have compensated for the shift of news coverage toward candidate character, scandal, and the horse race.