Leticia Bode et al., "Words That Matter: How the News and Social Media Shaped the 2016 Presidential Campaign" (Brookings Institution Press, 2020)


The research in Words That Matter: How the News and Social Media Shaped the 2016 Presidential Campaign (Brookings Institution Press, 2020) traces the transmission of information from candidates and events on the campaign trail through news stories in traditional media, these media stories are then transmitted through the prism of social media to the voters. The thrust of the research was analyzing the way that voters understood this information and the candidates as they consumed the input from traditional and social media. Words that Matter comes out of a broad collaboration between social scientists in a number of fields at the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and at Gallup, Inc. This collaboration, which is on-going, has a number of foci, with this book coming out of work that combined expertise from political scientists, computer scientists, and data experts, concentrating specifically on social media, traditional media, and new Gallup survey data acquired over the course of the 2016 election cycle. The eight authors of Words that Matter brought distinct areas of expertise to analyze and explain not only the data that Gallup amassed through open-ended questions asking what voters saw, read, or heard over the course of a number of months leading up to the general election in 2016, but also to pull together media analysis to use as contextual framing to examine and understand the responses provided in the Gallup surveys. Ceren Budak, Jonathan Ladd, and Michael Traugott spoke to the New Books Network on behalf of the rest of the book’s authors as well, explaining this extended and unique ongoing collaboration while diving into the book’s particular research schema. Pulling together three distinct data sets, of the Gallup survey, the media analysis of the news topics that dominated days and weeks of the campaign, and the way these news stories were transmitted through social media, the authors were able to see connections and patterns over the extended period of the election season in 2016. Ultimately, the research indicated that the narrative about Hillary Clinton’s emails remained a constant point of discussion among voters who were surveyed by Gallup, regardless of what other issues were in the media stream. In contrast, the authors also found that while scandals were regularly associated with Donald Trump during the course of the campaign, those scandals ebbed and flowed, but no particular scandal had the same kind of traction among the voting public as did the email narrative. Thus, their dissection of the media’s role highlights some competing dynamics in this unique race, where both candidates were also considered through negative perceptions. There was a more negative valence over the entire campaign, and this also came through the research, even as the media wrote stories that were not negative, or not from a negative perspective, the voters still perceived the campaign season as more negative in general. The research team behind Words that Matter is continuing their work during the 2020 campaign, expanding the media scope and analyzing an even more extensive open-ended survey to try to understand the information that voters receive from a variety of media sources and how that contributes to the assessment of the campaign and the candidates.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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