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Communication Indexing
by
Regina G. Lawrence

Introduction

“Indexing” is a theory of news content and press-state relations first formulated as the “indexing hypothesis.” At its core, the indexing hypothesis predicts that news content on political and public policy issues will generally follow the parameters of elite debate: when political elites (such as the White House and congressional leaders) are in general agreement on an issue, news coverage of that issue will tend to reflect that consensus; when political elites disagree, news coverage will fall more or less within the contours of their disagreement. Put differently, those issues and views that are subject to high-level political debate are most likely to receive news attention that is wide-ranging; issues not subject to debate receive less critical attention. Indexing theory thus attempts to predict the nature of the content of news about political and policy topics. This notion of “indexing” may not be intuitively obvious at first glance, but it can be understood in terms akin to how economists use the term—as a single number calculated from an array of numbers. Thus, just as a price index tracks variation in prices for various goods and services over time, indexing theory predicts that as the degree of conflict among officials over some political or policy topic grows, so too does the degree of conflicting views found in news coverage of that topic. Conversely, at times when officials are not debating the topic, the range of views included in the news will be correspondingly smaller. Views not voiced within current elite debate will thus tend to be marginalized in news as well, particularly in times of elite consensus, yet topics treated to little critical news coverage in one time period may be treated to more expansive and critical coverage in others. According to Bennett’s foundational article, the indexing hypothesis “applies most centrally to how the range of . . . legitimate, or otherwise ‘credible’ news sources is established by journalists” (p. 107). Indexing thus offers not only an empirical theory of how daily news is constructed but also a normative framework for analyzing press performance in democracy. When the democratic process is functioning well, news that is indexed to elite debate probably offers a reasonably good representation of public opinion. But when elites do not act in good faith or when political pressures hamper elite debate, a press that merely indexes that debate may not be operating in ways that support a healthy democracy.

Primary Texts

The indexing hypothesis was first formulated in Bennett 1990. He has continued to refine and update his discussion of indexing in his widely read text Bennett 2011.

  • Bennett, W. Lance. 1990. Toward a theory of press-state relations. Journal of Communication 40.2:103–125.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1990.tb02265.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal article that first introduced and tested the indexing hypothesis. Bennett analyzes four years of New York Times coverage of the US-funded counterrevolution forces in Nicaragua to test the hypothesis that news coverage follows the contours of elite debate and has little relation to public opinion.

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  • Bennett, W. Lance. 2011. News: The politics of illusion. 9th ed. New York: Longman.

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    Although the scope of this book is broader than indexing theory alone, it provides a very readable overview of the theory along with examples from recent current events.

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Foundational Works

Bennett’s indexing hypothesis drew upon previous works on press-state relations. Sigal 1973 was among the earliest works showing the dependence of reporters upon official sources. A few years later, Gans 1979 and Tuchman 1978 expanded on those early insights through ethnographic research; both showed a heavy and routinized reliance of journalists upon officials as sources for daily news. Hallin 1986 is a study of news coverage of the Vietnam War that theorized “spheres” of discourse, ranging from topics upon which there was tight official and media consensus, topics subject to “legitimate controversy,” and subjects and viewpoints treated as off limits. This primarily descriptive attempt to explain how news and public discourse are organized set the stage for the later, more predictive theory of indexing.

  • Gans, Herbert J. 1979. Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage.

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    Gans analyzed news content and observed news organizations at work to understand their organizational routines. Among other findings, Gans showed that “source considerations” are a key determinant for journalists in determining the newsworthiness of a story, and that “the economically and politically powerful can obtain easy access to, and are sought out by, journalists” (p. 81).

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  • Hallin, Daniel C. 1986. The uncensored war: The media and Vietnam. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Examines news coverage of the Vietnam War, documenting the significant shifts from bipartisan consensus and supportive news coverage to partisan conflict and more critical press coverage as the war wore on. In this book, Hallin introduced the notions of the “sphere of consensus,” the “sphere of legitimate controversy,” and the “sphere of deviance,” “each of which is governed by different journalistic standards” (p. 116).

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  • Sigal, Leon V. 1973. Reporters and officials: The organization and politics of newsmaking. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Sigal’s path-breaking study considered journalistic “conventions for choosing which information to include in the news and which to ignore” (p. 3). Key among these is reliance upon “authoritative sources,” namely, officials.

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  • Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.

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    Along with Gans’s work, Tuchman’s ethnographic study of news organizations guided a generation of research on press norms and routines. Tuchman focused on “the social organization of time and space” through news-making routines. These routines include casting the “news net” around institutional beats (the White House, Congress, etc.), such that occurrences on those beats—often staged and promoted by officials—more readily become “news.”

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Causes

Scholars have theorized a number of mutually reinforcing reasons for indexed news. Institutionalized norms and routines in the news business guide reporters and editors to cover policy issues by reference to what key officials are saying and doing on a daily basis (Cook 2005). The US media’s “beat” system that stations reporters at institutional listening posts encourages and reifies the journalist-official source symbiosis (Cook 1994). Indexing is also compatible with a prevailing American understanding of the norm of objectivity, which enjoins journalists to report “both sides” of every issue. Reporters often practice objectivity by finding whatever debate exists among prominent politicians. Thus clear two-sided contests over policy or elections fit easily with prevailing news norms, and so the establishment press generally does a good job of covering these kinds of occurrences (Sparrow 1999). The norms of newsroom culture reinforce these reporting routines, because reporters are rarely reproved by their editors for quoting officials, though they may run into resistance if they rely too much on nonofficial sources. Meanwhile, as Lewis and Reese 2009 observes, the catchphrases and frames promulgated by powerful officials can become an easy shorthand language for journalists trying to describe complicated realities. Thus there are few immediate costs for indexing the news to elite debate, and it offers a relatively easy and defensible approach to constructing daily news. Moreover, Cook 2006, Sparrow 2006, Ryfe 2006, and others working in the “new institutionalism” paradigm show that most mainstream news organizations tend to gravitate to similar stories covered in similar ways, which multiplies the indexing effect. All these dynamics are intensified in times such as the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 when patriotic fervor runs high and high government officials aggressively attempt to manage the news, as documented by Bennett, et al. 2007 under Expansions and Refinements of the Theory. Finally, as Bennett 1990 (Primary Texts) originally observed, the indexing routine rests on the normatively appealing assumption that elected officials, chosen by the public through democratic means, are the most appropriate source from which to gather “legitimate” viewpoints.

  • Cook, Timothy E. 1994. Domesticating a crisis: Washington news beats and network news after the Iraq invasion. In Taken by storm: The media, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf War. Edited by W. Lance Bennett and David L. Paletz, 105–130. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Comparing US news to French news, Cook showed how US coverage of the 1990–1991 Gulf War was determined by beat-based reliance on official sources from the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon.

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  • Cook, Timothy E. 2005. Governing with the news: The news media as a political institution. 2d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Examines the development of the US news media as a relatively coherent “institution” within the political system, arguing that “journalists’ activities are not merely constrained, they are enabled if not constituted by” the media’s institutional position (p. 15). Shows “the centrality of governmental participation in the very process of newsmaking” (p. 15).

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  • Cook, Timothy E. 2006. The news media as a political institution: Looking backward and looking forward. Political Communication 23.2:159–171.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600629711Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes contributions of the “new institutionalism” approach to the study of news. Particularly relevant to the study of indexing is Cook’s explanation, grounded in sociological and historical approaches, of “variance in news coverage around a general tendency toward homogeneity in the news” (p. 159).

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  • Lewis, Seth C., and Stephen D. Reese. 2009. What is the war on terror? Framing through the eyes of journalists. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 86.1:85–102.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769900908600106Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Though the focus of this article is on framing rather than indexing, the authors’ interviews with reporters at a major national newspaper show how journalists can internalize ideas promoted by powerful officials. The study shows that reporters “adopted the War on Terror language of the Bush administration out of convenience” and felt constrained to “use the phrase as shorthand” (p. 97).

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  • Ryfe, David Michael. 2006. The nature of news rules. Political Communication 23.2:203–214.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600629810Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents a theoretical account of how news content from across different news organizations often ends up looking very similar, despite considerable journalistic autonomy, rooted in “regulative rules” that tell journalists how news ought to be produced.

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  • Sparrow, Bartholomew H. 1999. Uncertain guardians: The news media as a political institution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    In his exploration of news across a variety of issues, Sparrow finds processes consistent with indexing, though not under conditions of “policy monopoly” (p. 66). In many cases, he concludes, “the news media are incapable of protecting the public interest against the corrupt and self-interested behaviors of politicians” and other powerful groups (p. 140).

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  • Sparrow, Bartholomew H. 2006. A research agenda for an institutional media. Political Communication 23.2:145–157.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600629695Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Here Sparrow presents an account, grounded in organizational theory, of an “institutional regime of news” that extends across individual news outlets, leading to news that is often remarkably homogenous.

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Confirming Studies

A number of empirical studies have uncovered dynamics such as those described by the indexing hypothesis. The Zaller and Chiu 1996 analysis of news coverage of US foreign policy debates between 1945 and 1991 found strong correlations between the direction of elite debate and the tone of press coverage. Another confirming study (Entman and Page 1994) found that although coverage of the conflict in the Persian Gulf in 1990–1991 contained criticism, news criticism highlighted debates about political decision-making processes marked by significant elite conflict rather than substantive policy debates, which elites largely avoided. Similarly, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Domke, et al. 2006 found a remarkable constriction of debate in the news that mirrored the atmosphere in Washington. Mermin 1999 studies coverage of eight US military interventions and finds evidence for a strict and normatively important version of the indexing hypothesis—the marginalization version, in which “critical viewpoints not articulated in Washington are ignored or relegated to the margins of the news” (p. 6).

  • Domke, D., E. S. Graham, and K. Coe. 2006. Going public as political strategy: The Bush administration, an echoing press, and passage of the Patriot Act. Political Communication 23.3:291–312.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600808844Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that in the constricted atmosphere following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “news indexing occurs in a manner that is both particularly parsimonious and politically potent: When the White House and congressional leadership line up together . . . news coverage will be heavily one-sided” (p. 308).

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  • Entman, Robert M., and Benjamin I. Page. 1994. The news before the storm: The Iraq War debate and the limits to media independence. In Taken by storm: The media, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf War. Edited by W. Lance Bennett and David L. Paletz, 82–104. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Tests the indexing hypothesis under “nearly ideal conditions,” after President George H. W. Bush announced a US troop escalation in the Persian Gulf that kicked off relatively intense congressional debate. “Even under these nearly ideal conditions,” the authors argue, “media distance from the administration had definite boundaries” (p. 96).

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  • Mermin, Jonathan. 1999. Debating war and peace: Media coverage of U.S. intervention in the post-Vietnam era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Examines eight US military interventions since Vietnam to offer “systematic evidence of the impact of foreign-policy debate in Washington on the spectrum of foreign-policy debate in the news” (p. 5). Observes that “when there is no policy debate in Washington, reporters offer critical analysis inside the terms of the Washington consensus” (p. 9).

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  • Zaller, John, and Dennis Chiu. 1996. Government’s little helper: U.S. press coverage of foreign policy crises, 1945–1991. Political Communication 13:385–405.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.1996.9963127Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares news coverage of thirty-nine foreign policy crises to measures of official debate based upon votes and speeches recorded in the Congressional Record. Finds strong correlations between the state of official debate and news slant but also refines indexing theory by hypothesizing that the press indexes coverage to the views of different political actors at different moments.

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Expansions and Refinements of the Theory

Bennett, et al. 2007 expanded upon and refined the concept of indexing to describe a “semi-independent” press (see also Bennett and Livingston 2003). The establishment press, they argue, generally indexes daily political news to the officials or groups they perceive have the greatest power to affect the situation they are reporting on, the greatest ability to engage institutional processes, and the best communications operations. The authors also proposed three factors that can offset indexing. First, unexpected and dramatic news events that throw officials off message and create a larger news hole can encourage news outlets to expand beyond their usual routine of news topics and sources (see Lawrence 2000), dynamics that are ever more common in an era when inexpensive mobile communications technologies allow reporters to effectively parachute into breaking-news situations. Second, when nonofficial political advocates organize skillful oppositional communications strategies, they may temporarily win the kinds of coverage usually granted to officials, who generally have the upper hand in terms of news management resources. Finally, the time-honored practice of investigative journalism—though in decline in an industry with shrinking resources—runs directly counter to the kinds of routine daily reporting that support indexing, as illustrated by the Hamilton, et al. 2010 study of Harrison Salisbury’s reporting from Vietnam that was highly critical of the Johnson administration’s claims. Together, these factors that enable and counteract indexing can explain long-term variability in news coverage, from news that is less independent to news that is more independent from governmental news management.

  • Bennett, W. Lance, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston. 2007. When the press fails: Political power and the news media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Develops the indexing model by examining how national news coverage of the George W. Bush administration shifted from the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, through the controversial scandals at Abu Ghraib and other US detention facilities abroad, through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Identifying key factors that enable and undercut indexing, the authors show how news first closely followed and later significantly deviated from the administration line.

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  • Bennett, W. Lance, and Steven Livingston. 2003. A semi-independent press: Government control and journalistic autonomy in the political construction of news. Political Communication 20.4: 359–362.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600390244086Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Advances the concept of the US press as only semi-autonomous from government, depending upon contextual circumstances. Proposes “looking at news construction as a negotiated process involving both routine high levels of official management and circumstances under which events offer journalists opportunities to write more independent political scripts” (p. 359).

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  • Hamilton, J. M., Regina G. Lawrence, and Raluca Cozma. 2010. The paradox of respectability: The limits of indexing and Harrison Salisbury’s coverage of the Vietnam War (with John Maxwell Hamilton and Raluca Cozma). International Journal of Press/Politics 15.1:77–103.

    DOI: 10.1177/1940161209353598Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the reporting of the New York Times’ Harrison Salisbury during the Vietnam War, which mounted a direct challenge to the Johnson administration. The Salisbury case suggests that dedicated reporters backed by their news outlets can step beyond the usual limits of indexed news, though the heavy pushback from the administration and from other news outlets around the country also reveals enforcement mechanisms.

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  • Lawrence, Regina G. 2000. The politics of force: Media and the construction of police brutality. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Examines news coverage of instances of police use of force in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, revealing how indexing dynamics can be temporarily offset in the aftermath of spontaneous news events.

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  • Livingston, Steven, and W. Lance Bennett. 2003. Gatekeeping, indexing, and live-event news: Is technology altering the construction of news? Political Communication 20:363–380.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600390244121Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds that, although technology enables more remote reporting than ever before, official sources are still predominant. “When an unpredicted, nonscripted, spontaneous event is covered in the news, the one predictable component of coverage remains official sources” (p. 376).

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Limitations of Indexing

Indexing should not be expected to work uniformly in all contexts. Most notably, indexing may be more or less likely depending upon the particular domain of coverage and may be less likely in some non-US media systems. Each of these limitations is discussed in turn below.

Policy Domain

Indexing seems most likely to occur in the context of national security, foreign policy, and war, in which an administration’s control over information and the pressures for reporters and news organizations to appear patriotic are highest; research has shown, for example, that national security reporters are particularly likely to prefer to use current or former government officials over other kinds of expert sources (Hallin, et al. 1993). The news is probably less tightly indexed to top elites in domestic policy contexts because the institutional frameworks for these stories are often more complex and because long-running domestic controversies can breed long-running journalistic narratives (Lawrence 2010). Bennett and Klockner 1996, for example, compared news coverage of the Iran-Contra controversy of the 1980s with coverage of abortion and found much wider and more robust range of views in the latter. Other studies such as Callaghan and Schnell 2001 and Jerit 2006 suggest that in reporting domestic policy debates, such as those over gun control and social security, reporters bring some viewpoints or “frames” into the news independently of those their sources are trying to promote. And, in the context of national elections, indexing may hardly apply. As Zaller 1998 argues, in campaign reporting US journalists appear to follow a “rule of product substitution” in which journalists’ resistance to campaign messaging increases the more a campaign tries to control what journalists report about their candidate. In election news, news norms encourage reporters to more actively resist the news-making efforts of powerful sources.

  • Bennett, W. Lance, and John D. Klockner. 1996. The psychology of mass-mediated publics. In The psychology of political communication. Edited by Ann N. Crigler, 89–109. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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    Compares news coverage of the Iran-Contra controversy with coverage of the abortion issue. Attributes the greater range of views in the latter to the long-running social debates over abortion law, in contrast to the former controversy in which members of Congress found it costly to oppose President Reagan’s clandestine policy of support for Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries.

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  • Callaghan, Karen, and Frauke I. Schnell. 2001. Assessing the democratic debate: How the news media frame elite policy discourse. Political Communication 18:183–212.

    DOI: 10.1080/105846001750322970Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines news coverage of gun control from 1988 to 1996 and finds that the news presented a “distribution of framing perspectives different from that of politicians and interest groups” (p. 183), and that introduced and emphasized a “culture of violence” (p. 183) theme not promoted by their sources.

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  • Hallin, Daniel C., R. K. Manoff, and J. K. Weddle. 1993. Sourcing patterns of national security reporters. Journalism Quarterly 70:753–766.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769909307000402Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Finds a preference among national security reporters for government officials as sources.

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  • Jerit, Jennifer. 2006. Reform, rescue, or run out of money? Problem definition in the social security reform debate. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 11:9–28.

    DOI: 10.1177/1081180X05283781Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares the prevalence of various claims about Social Security in political speeches and in news coverage and finds that “contrary to theories of indexing, reporters and journalists exhibited considerable independence in how they described Social Security’s financial problems” (p. 9).

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  • Lawrence, Regina G. 2010. Researching political news framing: Established ground and new horizons. In Doing news framing analysis: Empirical and theoretical perspectives. Edited by Paul D’Angelo and Jim A. Kuypers, 265–285. New York: Routledge.

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    Primarily a review of the current state of framing research, this essay links framing and indexing theory, arguing that news reflecting elite-preferred frames is most likely in contexts of war and national security and less likely in other contexts.

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  • Zaller, John R. 1998. The rule of product substitution in presidential campaign news. Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 560 (November):109–126.

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    This article argues that “reporters react to candidates’ attempts at news management by creating alternative forms of news—most of it negative—that they can market to the public in place of candidate-supplied information” (p. 109). Demonstrates that campaigns practicing more aggressive news management tactics suffer more negative news coverage.

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Comparative Analysis

Indexing has primarily been studied in the context of American politics, and the theory is premised on particular features of the American political system and news media, particularly the commitment to the objectivity norm, which differentiates the US media from many other media systems (see Hallin and Mancini 2004). As Bennett 2010 has recently argued, “The U.S. press system may be unusually prone to the collapse of political oppositions due to the lack of proportional representation and the difficulty of maintaining party positions and discipline in an unwieldy two party system” (p. 14). Some recent work has tested for indexing dynamics in countries other than the United States. Robinson, et al. 2009 finds support for indexing dynamics but also for more press independence in the British media. Jones and Sheets 2009 compares the labeling of events at Abu Ghraib in the major newspapers of seven countries and concludes that in most, indexing is not an adequate explanation for the coverage. Shehata 2010 finds evidence of indexing to the dominant political party’s views in Swedish newspapers, though also finds evidence of “product substitution.”

  • Bennett, W. Lance. 2010. The press, power, and public accountability. In The Routledge companion to news and journalism studies. Edited by Stuart Allan, 105–115. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

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    Offers an updated account of indexing theory, including its applicability to other media systems, and argues that “the conditions seem ripe for some sort of political indexing to operate in different democracies” (p. 13).

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  • Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. 2004. Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511790867Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offers a nuanced model of three general types of media systems found in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe. Points out that the US press still holds to a notion of objectivity that differs from the European notion of the press as an “honest witness” rendering “social judgment” (p. 41).

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  • Jones, T. M., and P. Sheets. 2009. Torture in the eye of the beholder: Social identity, news coverage, and Abu Ghraib. Political Communication 26.3:278–295.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600903053460Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares how the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison story was defined by journalists in seven countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United States). Argues that patterns of coverage are best explained by social identity theory rather than by indexing.

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  • Robinson, P., P. Goddard, K. Parry, et al. 2009. Testing models of media performance in wartime: UK TV news and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Journal of Communication 59.3: 534–563.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01435.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study of British news coverage of the 2003 Iraq war finds that “coverage generally conformed to the elite-driven model, reinforcing the [US-led/British-supported] coalition” (p. 534) but also finds evidence of more independent coverage regarding casualties and humanitarian concerns.

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  • Shehata, A. 2010. Marking journalistic independence: Official dominance and the rule of product substitution in Swedish press coverage. European Journal of Communication 25.2: 123–137.

    DOI: 10.1177/0267323110363654Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This content analysis of 835 newspaper stories from two Swedish newspapers finds that “official actors dominate news coverage both in terms of source use and story initiation” (p. 123) but also finds evidence for a rule of product substitution—that is, the replacement of politician’s messages with alternative messages.

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Controversies and Areas for Future Research

The indexing hypothesis faces several key criticisms, including whether it exaggerates the extent of elite dominance of the news and whether it portrays journalists as unrealistically passive. Each of the critiques is discussed in turn below, along with the need to extend indexing studies into nontraditional and online media.

Extent of Elite Dominance of the News

Indexing theory might overestimate the extant of elite dominance of the news, depending upon how that dominance is measured. According to the findings of a study of news about the Iraq War by Harp, et al. 2010, for example, official voices typically dominated the news, but civilians, particularly Iraqi citizens did shape the story. A more exhaustive study, Hayes and Guardino 2010, supports the indexing model in broad terms but also found that “while domestic dissent on the war was minimal, opposition from abroad was commonly reported on the broadcast network” (p. 61). Thus a question raised by these studies is whether foreign sources are brought into war and foreign policy reporting as a way of “balancing” the coverage when US elites are speaking with one voice (see also Althaus 2003). A related question for ongoing research is the adequacy of various measures of the extent of official dominance of the news. In some studies (Althaus 2003, e.g.), press independence is identified through sentence-level content analysis, while other studies use a less fine-grained analysis. Thus findings regarding indexing may depend in part on the use of microlevel research methods versus broader analytical tools. Also, with the advent of new communications technologies and an ever-greater array of outlets and platforms, scholars need to explore if and how indexing dynamics are playing out in alternative and online media, testing Bennett’s forthcoming claim in The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication that despite these and other changes in the media and political environment, “key aspects of conventional press-state relations formed during the high modern era of the last century remain largely the same” (p. 24).

  • Althaus, Scott. 2003. When news norms collide, follow the lead: New evidence for press independence. Political Communication 20:381–414.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600390244158Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This rigorous study of evening television news about the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf Crisis “finds no clear evidence” that news criticism of Bush administration policies “was triggered by or even dependent upon changes in the amount of opposition coming from official circles.” Althaus contends that how journalists apply norms of “balance” and emphasis on conflict creates entry points for more oppositional voices than indexing predicts (p. 382).

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  • Harp, D., J. Loke, and I. Bachmann. 2010. Voices of dissent in the Iraq War: Moving from deviance to legitimacy? Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 87.3–4:467–483.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769901008700302Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This content analysis explores the range of dissenting voices found in Time magazine coverage between 2003 and 2007. It finds that although “most dissent originated from official sources, American and Iraqi civilians did have space to voice their dissatisfaction” (p. 467). In addition, “journalists themselves became increasingly vocal in their condemnation of the war” (p. 467).

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  • Hayes, D., and M. Guardino. 2010. Whose views made the news? Media coverage and the march to war in Iraq. Political Communication 27.1: 59–87.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600903502615Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Systematic analysis of news coverage of Iraq on evening television news throughout eight months before the US-led invasion finds that administration officials were the most-quoted sources and thus that “coverage supported a pro-war perspective” (p. 59). But although voices of domestic dissent were limited, opposition from abroad was more commonly reported.

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Journalists as Passive Actors

Another important critique of indexing theory is that it portrays journalists as too passive and reactive, rather than as active shapers of the news. Althaus 2003 (Extent of Elite Dominance of the News) contends that national journalists report from an insider’s awareness of elite debates that are not necessarily aired in public. Therefore, the news may include more debate than would seem warranted under indexing theory. Though Althaus’s study does suggest some degree of indexing at work, particularly regarding “fundamental criticisms of U.S. policy” (p. 392), he also finds that “changes in the amount of governmental criticism coming from official circles did not tend to produce parallel changes in the amount of critical news coverage” (p. 381)—a significant challenge to the indexing notion. Similarly, Potter and Baum 2010 likens indexing theory to a “conveyor-belt analogy” in which the news is an “accommodating conduit for elite messages.” In their view, indexing theory discounts the media as “an independent, strategic actor in the policy-making process” (p. 455). More specifically, Groeling and Baum 2008 combines the basic assumption that journalists seek conflict over consensus as news topics with another basic assumption that journalists value intraparty conflict more than “cheap talk” in which elites from opposing sides criticize one another. Together, these two assumptions about what journalists value as “news” create a very different model in which journalists do not merely reflect elite debate but actively choose among claims to fashion stories that are more compelling. From the perspective of these works, indexing theory does not account for journalists’ ability to choose and even to amplify elements of debate that make for better news. (However, Aday 2010’s study of Iraq War coverage does not find a preference for “bad” news strong enough to counteract indexing tendencies.) A final important challenge to indexing is found in Entman 2004 and its theory of cascading activation, which expands on and also contests elements of the indexing hypothesis. Cascading activation presents a more nuanced model of the news in which journalists and lower-level sources may shape the story line more actively than indexing suggests and in which more variables are brought into the analysis. The two theories are not sharply opposed, however, particularly because both propose that in foreign policy contexts, the news generally follows the official lead. Aday 2010, for example, wonders if “it may be that the choice between indexing and cascade activation is something of a false one, and the latter is inclusive of the former” (p. 158).

  • Aday, Sean. 2010. Chasing the bad news: An analysis of 2005 Iraq and Afghanistan war coverage on NBC and Fox News Channel. Journal of Communication 60.1: 144–215.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01472.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examining coverage on both networks, Aday tests the “possibility that the media overplay[ed] bad news from Iraq as the war continued into 2005, as the Bush administration and its allies claimed” (p. 144). He finds that “while both channels focused a fair amount on negative storylines, overall the news actually underplayed bad news from both countries” (p. 144).

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  • Entman, Robert M. 2004. Projections of power: Framing news, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Proposes a more nuanced model of news, called “cascading activation,” in which the key frames for national security issues generally originate from the White House and “cascade” through other elite sources, journalists, and the public, with feedback loops that offer means for frame adjustment and contestation. Counterframes may emanate from alternative sources on the lower rungs of this hierarchy, depending on a complex web of variables.

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  • Groeling, Tim, and Matthew A. Baum. 2008. Crossing the water’s edge: Elite rhetoric, media coverage, and the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon. Journal of Politics 70.4: 1065–1085.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381608081061Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contends that according to the indexing hypothesis, “the media are largely passive and nonstrategic, faithfully reflecting the actual substance of elite debate.” Argues that, instead, “the nature and extent of media coverage of U.S. foreign policy crises is driven less by political elites constraining journalists than by commonly held professional incentives and norms that lead journalists to strongly prefer certain stories over others” (p. 1065).

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  • Potter, Philip B. K., and Matthew A. Baum. 2010. Democratic peace, domestic audience costs, and political communication. Political Communication 27:453–470.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2010.516802Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This theoretical piece does not focus primarily on indexing but rather on the mechanisms that might enable the “democratic peace”—the tendency of democratic nations to be less likely to go to war than autocratic nations. Argues that a press that slavishly observed the indexing norm would undermine the democratic peace by undermining its mechanism: an observant and knowledgeable public that could hold its leaders accountable.

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LAST MODIFIED: 04/24/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0090

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