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In This Article Indexing

  • Introduction
  • Primary Texts
  • Foundational Works
  • Causes
  • Confirming Studies
  • Expansions and Refinements of the Theory

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.xE-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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

LAST MODIFIED: 04/24/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0090

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