Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking

Mary Layton Atkinson

Mary Layton “Mel” Atkinson is an assistant professor in the department of political science and public administration at UNC Charlotte.

From the Affordable Care Act to No Child Left Behind, politicians often face a puzzling problem: Although most Americans support the aims and key provisions of these policies, they oppose the bills themselves. How can this be? Why does the American public so often reject policies that seem to offer them exactly what they want?

By the time a bill is pushed through Congress or ultimately defeated, we’ve often been exposed to weeks, months — even years — of media coverage that underscores the unpopular process of policymaking, and Atkinson opines that this leads us to reject the bill itself.

She argues that journalists and educators can make changes to help inoculate Americans against the idea that debate always signifies dysfunction in the government. Journalists should strive to better connect information about policy provisions to the problems they are designed to ameliorate. Educators should stress that although debate sometimes serves political interests, it also offers citizens a window onto the lawmaking process that can help them evaluate the work their government is doing.  

Atkinson’s research focuses on the policymaking process with an emphasis on the roles that public opinion, issue framing, and media coverage play in shaping policy debate. She also studies the roles gender and race play in shaping legislative agendas in the United States and Europe.

Prior to her academic career, Atkinson worked as a writer for a K Street communications firm in Washington D.C. and as a campaign manager. She now studies the impact of the slogans and sound bites she once helped to create. Atkinson teaches an introductory American politics course and upper-level courses on women and politics, and issue framing.