Pundits often tsk-tsk about how the media’s relentless obsession with scandal is bad for us -- it makes it too hard to have a serious discussion about issues that matter. But is that really true? Does coverage of scandal really distract us from real substantive reporting? Dr. Beth Miller is a political scientist who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her research suggests scandal reporting might have some unexpected benefits.
I Kissed A Girl (Off Of Craigslist)
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mentioned to Dave Weigel that new research suggests that reading scandalous news stories may actually benefit us, at least in some ways. Dr. Beth Miller is a political scientist who studies this. She teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Beth, welcome to On the Media.
BETH MILLER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So describe your experiment.
BETH MILLER: So in the study, participants were given a series of newspaper articles about a fictitious campaign, and those articles detailed the candidate’s position on a variety of issues. And then towards the end of the study, half of the participants were given information about a candidate’s involvement in a scandal; he basically confessed to an extramarital affair with a former aide. And the other half were not. And then towards the end of the study, participants were asked what they could recall from the campaign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was fake newspapers, fake candidate -
BETH MILLER: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - fake stories, and so forth. But the policy issues were realistically dry and the scandal realistically scandalous.
BETH MILLER: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay. So, you waited from 1 to 14 days to test the students’ memories on the candidate’s policies, right?
BETH MILLER: Right,
the delay was a 1- to 14-day delay, to ensure that students were just not res – remembering from working memory, but were actually pulling from long-term memory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, the group that was distracted with the scandal stuff couldn't remember the policy issues as well.
BETH MILLER: No.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] The opposite, actually.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Explain.
BETH MILLER: So the participants in the scandal condition, obviously, could remember the scandal, but what was interesting about the study is they also were more likely to remember the policy-related information they had heard about the candidate than those who were not exposed to the scandal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this is really interesting because there are certain notions about memory. One notion suggests that the story would distract participants. But there’s this other theory of memory that talks about associative nodes. Right?
BETH MILLER: Right. The second theory or argument suggests that what scandalous information does is actually reinforce or activate previously stored information, because people are paying more attention to the scandal, which means they're thinking more about the candidate. And because memory is connected and stored together, that activation or that extensive thinking also primes the previously stored information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the mere proximity of the scandal to the policy issues made the policy issues more memorable.
BETH MILLER: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean that the media could be doing a, a truly pro-social thing by filling its newspapers with more scandals about the serious politicians who have serious ideas?
BETH MILLER: Well, I wouldn't go that far, actually. Scandals are beneficial in one way. They have a great side benefit, which is memory. But they're actually pretty negative for candidates, and they're negative in two ways. They're negative directly. The public doesn't like candidates that engage in scandal. But I argue in the paper that it has an indirect negative effect on candidates, as well, because if I'm sitting there thinking about the candidate and I remember that we don't share policy preferences [LAUGHS], then not only do I think he’s a bad person, but I also don't like his policies, and so I like him even less than I would if he hadn't engaged in the scandal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what happens if you like his policies and you don't like his scandals? I think that one of our formers presidents would come prominently -
BETH MILLER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - to mind here. Do you suffer cognitive dissonance?
BETH MILLER: Not so much. A lot of the public is really great at ignoring things that are different than their preferences. And so, when they hear that a fellow partisan has engaged in a scandal, they simply dismiss the evaluative implications of that scandalous information. So Bill Clinton does well among Democrats in '98, even though he’s engaged in a scandal, because they still like the idea that we have an economic surplus and we're in good times. So not all candidates will suffer from scandal in the same way, when there’s positive policy implications for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately you concluded, and, and I'll quote you here, “that the depiction of the public as blind to anything but scandalous information seems to be an exaggeration. The results suggest that exposure to scandalous information may have beneficial side effects not previously explored.” Some say that all this scandal has a kind of coarsening effect on the culture. Is that just another study?
BETH MILLER: Actually, I think that would be [LAUGHS] a great study. I was thinking today about the other side effects of scandal. I think with each additional John Edwards or Mark Sanford, the next politician is unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt when the media says, hey, this guy engaged in a scandal. I've been exposed to so much scandal in the past, I'm willing to accept the media’s account without a lot of scrutiny. And I think that’s problematic for American politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It kind of reminds me of tobacco, supposedly very good for short-term memory -
BETH MILLER: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - but not really good to be used over the long term.
BETH MILLER: [LAUGHING] Could be, could be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much, Beth.
BETH MILLER: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beth Miller teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Speaking of political sex scandals, the congressional cat-footer du jour is Christopher Lee, a New York Republican who flirted with and sent a shirtless cellphone photo to a 34-year-old woman he saw in the personals on Craigslist. He said he was single. He said he was in his 30s. The woman learned he was lying on both counts, and that he was a congressman, when she looked him up on Google. So she leaked the exchange and the beefcake pic to Gawker. Lee resigned. The woman he messaged was later interviewed by TheLoop21, a local black issues blog. TheLoop21 asked, what’s the lesson in all this? She replied, the lesson is if you’re going to do dirt, do it anonymously. People cheat every day, but only dumb people get caught. Sound advice. There are certain things we would all rather not remember. [ARTHUR & DAN SINGING KATY PERRY SPOOF: I KISSED A GIRL (OFF OF CRAIGSLIST)]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help from Andrew Parsons and Carlin Galietti, and it was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rob Granniss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. [FUNDING CREDITS]