New UMass Amherst Study Gives Media an A for Scandal, an F for Politics

AMHERST, Mass. - The average American voter knows a lot when it comes to the latest scandals swirling around President Clinton, but next to nothing about his policies, according to a study released today by a research team at the University of Massachusetts.

The study suggests that the media are largely to blame.

The survey found that heavy television viewers tend to believe that the potential criminal charges against the President involve sexual hanky-panky, not perjury, and say they are tired of excessive attempts to titillate their imaginations with stories of sex scandals in office.

The public also believes the President is much more liberal than he actually is.

The study was designed and implemented by University of Massachusetts communication professors Justin Lewis, Michael Morgan, and Sut Jhally. "We saw Clinton’s approval rating continue to climb in the wake of the recent sex scandal, and we wanted to find out why," says Lewis. "What we found is the media coverage is having a backlash effect, even as it misinforms the public about the most basic facts of the President’s political agenda."

Lewis further adds that "while it’s not surprising that people find scandal more entertaining than politics, the extent of the lack of knowledge about Clinton the politician is dramatic and disturbing." For example, while 81 percent of respondents to the survey were aware of Gennifer Flowers’s claims to have had an affair with (then Governor) Clinton, and 75 percent were able to identify Linda Tripp’s role in the Monica Lewinsky affair, only 13 percent knew that Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Bill, and only 26 percent had even a vague notion of where he stands on health-care reform.

The study also found that although the public is highly informed about the latest scandal, 77 percent say that the media are spending too much time on the story. And there is evidence that heavy TV viewers have been served up a surfeit of sex. "When asked what crime Clinton was alleged to have committed, heavy viewers talked about sex, not perjury," says Morgan.

While some of the questions received scores as high as could be expected in this kind of survey (93 percent could identify Monica Lewinsky and 89 percent Paula Jones) even some of the less salacious details of Clinton scandals were more familiar than most of his policy positions. More than half of the sample were able to answer an open-ended question about the name of Kenneth Starr’s initial investigation (Whitewater), yet even when given a choice of just two answers, only 23.5 percent were able to identify the position taken by the Clinton Administration in the recent international treaty on the banning of land mines (the Administration opposes the treaty).

Significantly, the only scandal-related question that a majority had trouble with was the only overtly political one: only 38.5 percent were aware that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is a Republican. Of the six purely scandal-related questions, 62 percent of respondents gave five or six correct responses. For the nine policy-related questions, less than 20 percent got more than four correct.

The authors argue, however, that the study’s most interesting finding is not that people are uninformed but that they are misinformed. The study shows that when Clinton has taken a position on the liberal side of an issue, people get the answer right. So, for example, 69 percent knew that he is generally in favor a woman’s right to an abortion, and 74 percent knew that his State of the Union address advocated spending the budget surplus on social security rather than tax cuts. However, when Clinton has adopted more conservative positions, people are not only unaware of this (between 13 percent and 31 percent get the answer right in these cases) but they tend to assume he has taken a liberal position.

More people say Clinton refused to sign the Welfare Bill than knew he signed it. More think he backs a national, universal health-care system than know he favors working with the existing system of private insurance. More think he favored the land mine treaty than knew he opposed it. More assume he opposed the deregulatory Telecommunications Bill than knew he supported it. More significantly overestimate the proportion of Democratic Party funds coming from labor (rather than business) than those who correctly identify business as the biggest donor; and finally, more say he is identified with the liberal wing of his party than know his affiliation is to its more conservative "new Democrat" wing. And according to the study, more educated people are more likely to get these kinds of questions wrong than less educated ones. As Jhally puts it: "One does not need a Ph.D. in social science to see that there is something going on here."

Why do people see Clinton as more liberal than he really is? The authors suggest two reasons: first, the media’s tendency to emphasize conflict rather than agreement leads people to assume that Clinton has acted as a liberal in response to a conservative Congress; second, the Republican strategy of labeling Clinton a liberal appears to have stuck in people’s minds. But, as Lewis suggests, "this success does not seem to have put people off Bill Clinton – his current approval rating suggesting that while the public may disapprove of his character, they like his policies. Even if, as it turns out, they don’t know what those policies are."

The study is based on a sample of 600 respondents across the United States. The sample was broadly representative in terms of age, gender, education, political persuasions, and media habits. Interviews were conducted by telephone during the first week of February. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.

Lewis, Morgan, and Jhally have been conducting research on public knowledge since they did a study of the Gulf War in 1991. Lewis is currently working on a book about public knowledge and the media.