Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

How ACORN Was Framed: Political Controversy and Media Agenda Setting

Peter Dreiera1 and Christopher R. Martina2

a1 Occidental College. E-mail:

a2 University of Northern Iowa. E-mail:


Using the news controversy over the community group ACORN, we illustrate the way that the media help set the agenda for public debate and frame the way that debate is shaped. Opinion entrepreneurs (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals, often working through web sites) set the story in motion as early as 2006, the conservative echo chamber orchestrated an anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, the Republican presidential campaign repeated the allegations with a more prominent platform, and the mainstream media reported the allegations without investigating their veracity. As a result, the little-known community organization became the subject of great controversy in the 2008 US presidential campaign, and was recognizable by 82 percent of respondents in a national survey. We analyze 2007–2008 coverage of ACORN by 15 major news media organizations and the narrative frames of their 647 stories during that period. Voter fraud was the dominant story frame, with 55 percent of the stories analyzed using it. We demonstrate that the national news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign by opinion entrepreneurs alleging controversy, even when there is little or no truth to the story. Conversely, local news media, working outside of elite national news media sources to verify the most essential facts of the story, were the least likely to latch onto the “voter fraud” bandwagon.

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College (

Christopher R. Martin is Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Northern Iowa (


The authors wish to thank Ana Bonilla and Taylor Kaplan for their research assistance on this project.