Patrick on Atkinson, 'Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking'

Mary Layton Atkinson
Justin Patrick

Mary Layton Atkinson. Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2017. 228 pp. $27.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-44192-4.

Reviewed by Justin Patrick (University of Toronto) Published on Jhistory (April, 2019) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version:

Mary Layton Atkinson’s Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking provides quantitative and qualitative evidence to suggest that when a bill is perceived as being rife with conflict, support for it decreases. Atkinson and her research team compiled and coded a dataset of 831 New York Times articles published between 1980 and 2010, using content analysis to examine the degree to which conflict-laden language is used. This is coupled with two experiments where sample groups, one consisting of university students and the other consisting of a general sample of the American population, read snippets of text designed with various journalistic frames to see if conflict-laden language impacts their views on policy issues. Atkinson also includes analyses of case studies from American politics to illustrate how public support for certain bills, such as those relating to healthcare reform, diminished as news articles focused more heavily on points of conflict in the policymaking process. The study has significant implications for understanding how the way journalism is conducted can affect public perceptions, as Atkinson calls for a move away from the conflict frame to focus more on a bill’s content and implications for public life.

The first chapter outlines Atkinson’s hypothesis and theoretical framework, which proposes that the current situation in the United States involves policy debates that stimulate news coverage that focuses on the procedural aspects of the legislative process as opposed to legislative content. This reinforces public frustration with the policymaking process and fosters opposition to the bills being debated. An interesting subhypothesis is that those who are less engaged in politics and those who are less educated will be more affected by conflict framing than those who are more engaged and more educated. Chapter 2 delves into the analysis of New York Times articles, assessing the number of pieces that focus on conflict as opposed to other frames that highlight themes like economics, power dynamics, human impact, and societal values. The chapter concludes that a significant number of news articles covering policy focus on conflict as opposed to other frames. Chapter 3 outlines the subject tests, which suggest that those exposed to conflict-frame journalism have less faith in the policymaking process and less support for the legislation being debated than those exposed to other frames, with the effects exacerbated among those without postsecondary education and those less engaged in politics. Though the sample totals are not explicitly mentioned in the narrative, the tables provided appear to indicate slightly less than eight hundred for the student sample and the more general sample, respectively. Chapter 4 is a case study analysis of support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which outlines that most articles covering the topic used the conflict frame. Poll data indicates that support for the amendment decreased over time in states where debate was especially contentious while overall support for gay marriage remained relatively stable. Chapter 5 compares the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform efforts with the Affordable Care Act, both of which follow similar trends as the Federal Marriage Amendment in terms of conflict-laden coverage and waning public support. Chapter 6 analyzes coverage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill which passed with bipartisan support, to find that fewer news articles were written about it compared with other bills. Atkinson compares the total number of New York Times articles published about contentious bills versus bills that passed easily between 1981 and 2012 to find that those with more conflict and heated debate have significantly higher totals. In addition, public support for the high-conflict bills decreased over the course of the policymaking cycle. Chapter 7 is a brief conclusion, which is followed by a series of appendices containing details on coding, texts provided to sample groups, and additional statistical calculations.

The main limitation of the book is that by taking a mixed-methods approach with three different forms of analysis, the quantity and scope of each is restricted. Although studying 831 New York Times articles is impressive, it is but one newspaper of many in the United States. It would be beneficial to examine if the conflict narrative is consistently prevalent in other major American newspapers, or if the trend remains the same in mid-sized and local newspapers. Furthermore, are there any newspapers that are making a conscious effort to defy the conflict frame norm? Similarly, it would be ideal if larger samples of experiment participants were used. For the student sample, just drawing from one public university could increase the risk of bias, as the politics of the state it is located in and the nature of its student culture could impact participant perceptions. While the case studies are illuminating, I could not help but feel that analyzing the effect of the conflict frame could be expanded into a book for each case to thoroughly examine news articles from various newspapers across the United States. The expanding upon the content analysis and experiments could also likely garner each their own book. While understanding the constraints of research due to factors such as time and resources, would it have been better for Atkinson to focus on one form of analysis and go more in-depth as opposed to incorporating all three?

I believe the answer to this question is that Atkinson’s mixed-methods approach provides a more potent argument for the ability of the conflict frame to manipulate public perceptions of policy issues to the point where citizens oppose proposed legislation that would benefit them. While multiple books would allow opportunities to delve into more detail, it is likely that such an approach would erode the concision of the main argument. As it stands, the book appears to be a call to action for journalism studies researchers to build from Atkinson’s work with larger and more diverse sample sizes. It is also a call to journalists in the field to be cognizant of how they frame news articles surrounding policy, as the book’s broad scope but concise length would likely make it digestible for working professionals just as well as academics. In other words, the book has great potential to stimulate practical changes to the way journalism in the United States is conducted. Future research that could help advance Atkinson’s call further would be normative works outlining ideal ways of framing articles, be it by using a frame other than the conflict frame or incorporating multiple frames into a single article, as well as comparative analyses that examine issues and best practices of journalistic framing in other countries. 

Citation: Justin Patrick. Review of Atkinson, Mary Layton, Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

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