Negative Campaigning in the News: Essential for Democratic Society or Free Publicity for Politicians?

Picture of By Yi Li Char

By Yi Li Char

From Barack Obama’s attacks against Mitt Romney’s tax policy proposals to Donald Trump’s “Basement Biden” campaign, negative campaigns are easily the highlights of every presidential election for obvious reasons. Although predominantly featured in the US elections, negative campaigning has also been used by politicians in other countries such as Mexico and the Philippines. But what exactly are negative campaigns, and are they really as “negative” as they seem?

Going Negative

Negative campaigning, otherwise known as attack politics or mudslinging, is a common tactic used in modern election campaigns to attack an opponent’s policies or character, usually in hopes of decreasing support for the opponent (positive campaigning, on the other hand, entails the promotion of oneself’s ideas and policies). It should, however, not be confused with incivility and negative emotional appeals; the former being the use of derogatory terms when addressing an opponent (a tactic overused by Donald Trump in his infamous, often viral tweets) and the latter being messages that induce fear or anxiety. 

For years, media organizations have debated over the best way to cover political campaigns and the elections. This discussion, of course, includes whether or not journalists should cover negative campaigning in the news, as concerns about its consequences on society have been raised recently. Some others, on the other hand, contend that it is necessary for journalists to report such news. So, should negative campaigns be covered in the news?

A Journalist’s Job?

It shouldn’t be a luxury for the public that mass media stay true to its functions in democratic society (as defined by McNair). In particular, media’s function as a watchdog that keeps political actors under supervision is especially important in this discussion. The reason why politicians are often advised to avoid engaging in negative campaigns are due to potential backlash effects and that media, acting as the fourth estate, is always ready to be extra critical about a politician’s actions. This is even more so why journalists should cover negative campaigns in the news so that the validity of various negative campaigns could be evaluated and publicly criticized if necessary.

A negative campaign is not necessarily a false campaign; the same way how practising a neutral reporting style should not stop the press from covering negative campaigns in the news.

Furthermore, ensuring that the public is well-informed to make voting decisions that have been evaluated critically is essential for maintaining a truly democratic society. This is where media plays the important roles of informing and educating the audience. A negative campaign is not necessarily a false campaign; the same way how practising a neutral reporting style should not stop the press from covering negative campaigns in the news. In fact, mass media who fail to report all relevant information available, including the contents of a negative campaign, would then have neglected its information function in society. This is because certain details of a negative campaign covered may be important in shaping people’s attitudes towards a political actor or party, as well as influence voting decisions. After all, without political actors pointing out their opponents’ flaws, the public would not be able to receive full information about their voting options and thus see the whole picture, since no politician will intentionally expose their own weaknesses.

Policy attacks in a negative campaign, for example, could be difficult for the public to understand or recall at first glance since the event is usually not described in detail in the campaign. However, with the help of journalists explaining the important points of the mentioned event, the public will be equipped with all the necessary knowledge to build a personal opinion. As the extent to which an individual believes that they have learned something increases, the perceived importance of the subject increases as well; so educating the public about all the different ongoing campaigns (including negative campaigns) could arguably increase the public’s political efficacy and willingness to vote in the long run, which directly benefits the democratic system of society.

Media functions aside, another reason why journalists should not avoid reporting negative campaigns in the news is purely because news about negative campaigns are highly commercializable. Sensational in nature, negative campaigns align with many indicators of commercial news media logic, including mentions or elements of conflict, opinions, personalization, scandals and even entertainment. Practically speaking, media would benefit in terms of increased readership and ultimately, revenue from covering negative campaigns in the news because it seduces a larger audience to pay attention to the content. Therefore, in order to survive in the competitive industry, journalists should take the opportunity to create discussion among the public by covering negative campaigns.

What about the Societal Consequences?

Naturally, covering negative campaigning in the news could raise some concerns about its potentially detrimental impacts on society. For example, communication scholars have suggested that extensively covering negative campaigning in the news could deliver a biased image of political campaigns to the general public which may give rise to general mistrust in the political system and political cynicism. Some may even go as far as arguing that the act of providing negative campaigning with media attention itself is equivalent to supporting these campaigns by giving them “free publicity”. It does not help that a study found evidence that negative campaigns are more likely to be covered by media than positive campaigns.

However, on closer inspection of Ansolabehere and Iyengar’s well-known study (that led to the frequently-cited conclusion that negative campaigning decreases voter turnout), it seems that the public is more resilient to the effects of negative campaigning than they are often given credit for. In fact, a study even found some support for the hypothesis that campaign tone does not significantly contribute to voting behaviour. These findings imply that the consequences of consuming news about negative campaigning may not be as devastating as often portrayed after all. Besides, we should not assume that citizens are merely consumers of news media that lack agency; because while media is certainly able to shift views, ultimately, people are still critical beings that are capable of making voting decisions independently.

Final Verdict

Not only is covering negative campaigning messages in the news a journalist’s duty as a disseminator of information, interpreter and adversarial figure, it is also a means to attract more readership and generate more income in an industry that is as competitive as the journalism industry. Moreover, although there appear to be some concerns that the contents of negative campaigning may negatively impact our democratic society, the effects are likely not large enough for them to be worth worrying about. 

Given these reasons, it becomes quite clear that covering negative campaigns in the news is just as important as covering any other news in politics. In fact, media especially should encourage open discussions of criticism instead, provided that these judgments are constructive and in consideration of the greater good of society.


Cover: The Guardian

Edited by: Debby Mogot

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