Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication

Document Type



This dissertation examines communication processes surrounding political scandal. It demonstrates that scandal coverage is improperly calibrated to the severity of scandal accusations, with trivial but salacious sex scandals tending to receive inordinate amounts of press attention while deeper forms of financial corruption go unreported or underreported. Patterns of scandal coverage, in turn, result in real-world effects on public perceptions and electoral outcomes. Specifically, sex scandals generate such intense media scrutiny that accused officials often resign their offices rather than generate unwanted publicity. Financial scandals are often downplayed, resulting in little or no ramifications for the accused. Recognizing basic differences in scandal typology is key to understanding press coverage and political ramifications of scandal. Previous efforts to explain and predict scandal coverage tend to take a “one size fits all” approach, assuming that different types of scandal create basically the same type of effects on public opinion and electoral outcomes. Rather than taking an “all scandals are created equal” approach, this study sheds new light on how different types of scandals – sexual and financial – are covered by the press, how voters react to news of these scandals, and how differential coverage decides electoral fortunes. Chapter 1 outlines factors that influence press coverage of political scandals. A variety of economic and partisan incentives, and institutional journalistic routines are considered. Chapter 2 analyzes over five years of scandal news from the Pew News Coverage Index (NCI), showing differential patterns of coverage across a wide range of scandals. Chapter 3 uses a survey-based experiment to determine the influence of financial and sexual misconduct on judgments of accused officials. Using aggregated data collected on members of the U.S. House from 1996 to 2012, Chapter 4 explores how the interplay of press coverage and scandal type relate to electoral outcomes. Chapter 5’s conclusion suggests that patterns of scandal coverage actually make it electorally safer for public officials to be accused of bribery or extortion than cheating on a spouse. The findings present a challenge to journalistic accounts of official misconduct, suggesting the need for scandal reporting to actively address scope and severity.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Goidel, Robert Kirby