Politicians in power — presidents, prime ministers, Cabinet-level officials and legislative leaders — usually dominate the news. And that’s usually assumed to be good for those in power. Scholars who study political communication refer to it as the “incumbency bonus”: Politicians from incumbent parties appear more frequently in the news than challengers from the opposition. Thus, the visibility in the media of President Trump is an extreme case of a more general phenomenon.
But is it really an advantage? As Trump’s current ratings illustrate, the relationship between media coverage and popularity is not that simple.
How we did our research
In a recent study of the causes and consequences of incumbents’ media dominance, we carefully tracked news coverage in Denmark over a 20-year period, manually coding mentions of political actors in more than 100,000 news stories. The results show that in Denmark, on average, incumbents appear in the news twice as often as their challengers.
Would this also be the same in the United States? Although research indicates that the incumbency bonus varies across countries, the news dominance of government actors seems to be a near universal phenomenon.
But we also found that most news coverage of incumbents is negative. The news media blame the government for the nation’s problems, making the coverage that incumbents receive more of a burden than a bonus. In fact, our results indicate that the more government actors showed up in the news, the worse they did in opinion polls.
From a U.S. president’s viewpoint, this is bad news. The news media will be critical — not because they dislike any individual president but because he occupies what is probably the most powerful seat in the world.
In a case of divided government, the media might put some of the blame for the nation’s problems on the party holding the legislative majority. However, the power attached to the presidency is still so extensive that the president is likely to suffer as well.
Elections are different from routine times
Yet the potential damage related to this incumbency “bonus” could actually be smaller when it matters the most: during elections.
Why? When elections loom, the competition between contenders is naturally of interest and challengers therefore become more newsworthy. Government actors still appear more frequently in the news, but less so.
This is partly because the journalistic norm of balance is more relevant to election coverage than to watchdog journalism. Focusing on incumbents and their political responsibilities is normal between elections, but news organizations believe campaign news should inform the public about the candidates and parties running for office in a fairly balanced way.
This view of incumbents’ news dominance — and its consequences — suggests that the news media does function as it believes it should, at least somewhat: as a critical social watchdog, fighting abuse of political power and informing the public about the performance of those in office.
Which is not to say that that relationship is simple. Other criteria shape the content of the news. Some favor simplicity and scandal over stories that are politically relevant and complex. The incumbency bonus is but one of several important features of the messy, vital relationship between politics and the press in a democracy.
Christoffer Green-Pedersen is professor of political science at Aarhus University. Peter B. Mortensen is professor of political science at Aarhus University. Gunnar Thesen is associate professor of political science at the University of Stavanger.