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Cycles of Spin
Strategic Communication in the U.S. Congress

Part of Communication, Society and Politics

  • Date Published: December 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521135801


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About the Authors
  • How do politicians try to shape their news coverage? Sellers examines strategic communication campaigns in the U.S. Congress. He argues that these campaigns create cycles of spin: leaders create messages, rank-and-file legislators decide whether to promote those messages, journalists decide whether to cover the messages, and any coverage feeds back to influence the policy process. These four stages are closely related; decisions at one stage influence those at another. Sellers uses diverse evidence, from participant observation and press secretary interviews, to computerized content analysis and vector auto regression. The result is a comprehensive and unprecedented examination of politicians' promotional campaigns and journalists' coverage of those campaigns. Countering numerous critics of spin, Sellers offers the provocative argument that the promotional messages have their origins in the actual policy preferences of members of Congress. The campaigns to promote these messages thus can help the public learn about policy debates in Congress.

    • Uses unusually diverse evidence, including the author's experiences working in Daschle's office; in-depth interviews with 41 Senate press secretaries; sophisticated statistical analysis; and computerized content analysis of thousands of statements by politicians and 1.3 million news stories to support an original argument about strategic communication in Congress
    • Offers a provocative argument, countering the conventional wisdom that political 'spin' detracts from substantive discussion and public understanding, demonstrating the substantive policy origins of politicians' messages and suggesting how these messages can actually help the public learn more about politicians' policy priorities
    • A sophisticated political analysis that is accessible to undergraduates
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Cycles of Spin is the most theoretically nuanced and empirically rich study of Congressional communication strategies I have ever encountered. Sellers' ability to trace how message strategies are developed and rolled out by Congressional leaders, and then to follow the impact of those strategies on news coverage and the subsequent debate in Congress, opens the inner circles of spin for all to see. The unprecedented scope and variety of data gathered for this study are matched with an original theoretical framework that considers both the collective action problems faced by party leaders and the news norms that shape media reporting of policy debates. Sellers' book is essential reading for understanding how Congress works in the age of the continuous news cycle. I will be assigning it to undergraduate and graduate students alike.' Scott Althaus, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

    'In this superb book, Patrick Sellers fills a major gap in the literatures about political communications, Congress, and representation. Sellers combines innovative statistical analysis, close personal observation of party message activities in Congress, and thoughtful case studies to provide the first comprehensive study of the strategic communications that occur between lawmakers, the media, and citizens. It is a major study that should be read by any serious scholar of American politics. … First and foremost, Cycles of Spin is a book about how representation plays out on the ground. Teasing out the complex interrelations that exist between agenda setting and position taking in Congress, media coverage of lawmaking, and the policy attitudes of ordinary citizens is very difficult because the causal relations almost always are reciprocal. Sellers meets this challenge through innovative statistical tests of the 'feedback' that occurs between these actors. The work is very nuanced and rooted in an insider's understanding of party strategizing and the news business. And the book is extremely well written. It belongs on graduate student reading lists, but also would work well in upper-level courses about Congress and political communications.' C. Lawrence Evans, College of William and Mary

    'In Cycles of Spin, Sellers expertly constructs an elegant model describing how members of congress create and promote their policy messages and predicting how successful those messages will be in gaining news coverage. Cycles of Spin fills a considerable gap in the study of strategic communication, illuminating the incentives and institutional constraints that shape how congressional leaders craft messages, why rank and file members either join the messaging effort or defect, and how news coverage feeds back into the policy debate.' Regina Lawrence, Louisiana State University

    ''Communications is central to politicians work,' Seller writes at the beginning of this important book. In an era when the media paint politicians' words as mostly mendacious, empty rhetoric and scholars emphasize the centrality of message wars to politics, Sellers shows empirically how politicians' strategic communication impacts the policy process. He traces and analyzes the 'Cycles of Spin,' demonstrating how congressional leaders select issues and craft messages, how they and their members promote their messages, how reporters respond in terms of coverage and how this then feeds back on the internal policy making process. This is by far the most comprehensive and persuasive study of strategic communication in Congress and must-reading for anyone interested in Congress and in the contemporary policy making process.' Barbara Sinclair, University of California, Los Angeles

    'This is the most extensive study of media and policy agenda setting and framing in the U.S. Congress to date. It draws on a wealth of evidence that includes notes from weekly meetings of the Senate Minority Leader with Democratic legislative directors, more than 22,000 public statements by members of Congress, more than one million news stories from 12 national outlets and local newspapers in 43 states, and interviews with press secretaries of 41 Democratic senators. Professor Sellers' thorough analysis of this evidence specifies more precisely the actual relationships among politicians and journalists – and the effect of these relationships on public debate and policy outcomes. Highly recommended for all interested in political agenda setting and framing.' David H. Weaver, Indiana University

    'Patrick Sellers gives spin a good name. Rather than denigrating it as a vacuous exercise, he argues that spin is substantive and relates to legislator policy preferences. This is a valuable and well-written book for those interested in political communications. Students will love it.' Darrell West, The Brookings Institution

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    Product details

    • Date Published: December 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521135801
    • length: 270 pages
    • dimensions: 227 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.37kg
    • contains: 6 b/w illus. 6 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. The cycle
    2. Building blocks
    3. Creation
    4. Promotion
    5. Coverage and feedback
    6. Completing the cycle.

  • Author

    Patrick Sellers, Davidson College, North Carolina
    Patrick Sellers is currently a Professor of Political Science at Davidson College. He has also taught at Rice University and Indiana University and worked in the U.S. House and Senate in Washington, DC. He is coauthor (with Brian Schaffner) of the forthcoming book Winning with Words: The Origins and Impact of Framing. His research has appeared in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Communication, and other leading journals.

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