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Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning

Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning

by W. Russell Neuman, Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler

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Photo opportunities, ten-second sound bites, talking heads and celebrity anchors: so the world is explained daily to millions of Americans. The result, according to the experts, is an ignorant public, helpless targets of a one-way flow of carefully filtered and orchestrated communication. Common Knowledge shatters this pervasive myth. Reporting on a


Photo opportunities, ten-second sound bites, talking heads and celebrity anchors: so the world is explained daily to millions of Americans. The result, according to the experts, is an ignorant public, helpless targets of a one-way flow of carefully filtered and orchestrated communication. Common Knowledge shatters this pervasive myth. Reporting on a ground-breaking study, the authors reveal that our shared knowledge and evolving political beliefs are determined largely by how we actively reinterpret the images, fragments, and signals we find in the mass media.

For their study, the authors analyzed coverage of 150 television and newspaper stories on five prominent issues—drugs, AIDS, South African apartheid, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the stock market crash of October 1987. They tested audience responses of more than 1,600 people, and conducted in-depth interviews with a select sample. What emerges is a surprisingly complex picture of people actively and critically interpreting the news, making sense of even the most abstract issues in terms of their own lives, and finding political meaning in a sophisticated interplay of message, medium, and firsthand experience.

At every turn, Common Knowledge refutes conventional wisdom. It shows that television is far more effective at raising the saliency of issues and promoting learning than is generally assumed; it also undermines the assumed causal connection between newspaper reading and higher levels of political knowledge. Finally, this book gives a deeply responsible and thoroughly fascinating account of how the news is conveyed to us, and how we in turn convey it to others, making meaning of at once so much and so little. For anyone who makes the news—or tries to make anything of it—Common Knowledge promises uncommon wisdom.

Editorial Reviews

Argues that something is amiss in the nexus between the political process, the news media, and the citizenry of the US, based on the fact that only about half the eligible people voted in 1988, and on in-depth interviews in which people said they had no interest in issues they had no control over and which did not affect their lives. Rather than assign culpability, offers a new theory of political communication, called constructionism. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
American Politics and Political Economy Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

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Common Knowledge

News and the Construction of Political Meaning

By W. Russell Neuman, Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler, Benjamin I. Page

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-57440-0


Knowledge in Common

In this book we examine how citizens in a democracy come to make sense of the political world around them. The study combines several research techniques, not ordinarily used together, to explore the fragile connection between public and private life that Walter Lippmann characterized as "the world outside and the pictures in our heads."

Lippmann's Public Opinion, from which that phrase is drawn, was first published in 1922. The book is still widely read and cited, because the questions he raised about the role of public communication in mass democracy are so fundamental. Lippmann argued that the citizen's political world is, by necessity, a pseudo-environment, created for the most part by the mass media who gather, organize, and filter the events of the day because

the real environment is altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. (Lippmann, 1965 [1922], p. 11)

Lippmann recognized that reconfiguring the political world into a manageable shape is not a deterministic one-way process of media information and persuasion. On the contrary, the creation of the pictures in our heads is an interaction between the extraordinarily diverse "habits, tastes, capacities, comforts and hopes" of each private citizen and the formal traditions of public and media discourse. This interaction between media messages and what the individual already knows and believes about the world is the focus of our study.

In the 1920s Lippmann's attention centered on how the press and the public confronted the First World War. He examined how the war was reported in the newspapers of the day and wondered what a typical American citizen could be expected to learn from those reports about the complex political, economic, and military events in Europe. Sharing Lippmann's concern for the role of communications in the democratic process, we turn in the 1990s to an expanded media environment and a fresh set of issues. We are concerned with what Americans think about the problems they confront in the last decades of the twentieth century — the threat of nuclear arms, race politics in South Africa, the impact of the stock exchange on the national economy, the scourge of drug addiction, or the epidemic of AIDS. Our study asks what people know about these critical policy debates and how well each of the media — television, newsmagazines, and newspapers — can help them to understand the political "world outside."

We are challenged by a stream of research which finds that what people learn from the news media is so dismally disappointing that the United States has become a "nation at risk." This research tradition follows a familiar pattern that we identify as the facts-and-figures fallacy. The analyst selects a few items routinely reported in the news media which have a certain self-evident importance and proceeds to demonstrate just how few survey respondents are actually familiar with the information. Recently, for example, the Markle Commission on the Media and the Electorate expressed concern about voter competence based in part on the inability of many survey respondents to volunteer the name of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee even in the midst of the campaign. The gloomy conclusion was that such findings signal "a widespread, glacial indifference, given the near-saturation media coverage of the Democratic convention" and "frontpage attention" to the candidates (Markle Commission, 1989).

Other kinds of evidence about what people learn from their news encounters is sketchy and conflicting. We know, for example, that the average viewer of the evening news can recall without prompting only about one out of the nineteen news stories covered in a typical newscast, but when the viewer is presented with a list of topics, news recall rises to 50 percent (Neuman, 1976). Studies show that self-reported newspaper reading correlates about .35 with a variety of political information indices, while reported TV news viewing correlates only .08 on average, or in some data, negatively (Robinson and Davis, 1990). In a 1990 national survey, only 14 percent of a sample could identify the democratic Czechoslovakian leader Vaclav Havel, but 70 percent knew how Nicolae Ceausescu died, and 82 percent knew where General Manuel Noriega took refuge during the American invasion of Panama (Times Mirror, 1990a). Clearly learning is not a simple function of exposure. Why Ceausescu and not Havel? In our view, the vagaries of name recognition, even of prominent politicians, is a poor measure of the health of a democracy or even the health of its system of political communication.

The Construction of Common Knowledge

Ours is a different concern. We take as our starting point, what people do know about public affairs — the common knowledge of mass politics. Much past research in political communication has focused on opinions: people's preferences and predilections about political candidates or controversial issues. Common knowledge, however, refers more broadly to what people think and how they structure their ideas, feelings, and beliefs about political issues. Drawing upon a mixture of survey research, content analysis, in-depth interviews, and experiments on learning, we attempt to provide a methodologically integrated and theoretically coherent picture of what constitutes political common knowledge and how the mass media and the public interact to construct common understandings of "the world outside."

In exploring how citizens learn from the news, we start from the premise that the communication task of journalism is indeed a most difficult enterprise. Political communication does not take place in a classroom. There are no study guides, no grades at the end of the term to motivate attention. People pay attention to whatever catches their interest and actively ignore, reorganize, and interpret the news that comes their way (Zukin and Snyder, 1984; Jensen, 1986; Robinson and Levy, 1986; Gunter, 1987; Swanson, 1987; Dahlgren, 1988; Petty, 1988; Bogart, 1989; Langer, 1989).

Just as the mass audience lacks the motivations and discipline of attentive students, news professionals lack the situational advantages of the classroom teacher. Journalists communicate with an audience they cannot see or hear. It is a one-way conversation. They operate in a professional world inhabited mainly by news sources, public-relations specialists, and other journalists. Their social world is also dominated by social and economic elites (Sigal, 1973; Hess, 1981). It is what Gamson calls the world of "public discourse" (1992). Even a brief opportunity to talk with members of the mass audience who read and view their stories is predictably rare, a product of happenstance, because two-way conversations with the audience for news has not become a part of journalistic practice (Gans, 1979; Levy, Robinson, and Davis, 1986; Kiolbassa, 1989).

The majority of citizens operate in a world outside the rarefied realm of public discourse. It is a personal world, with an equally pressing set of career and family demands, economic and health problems, personal dreams and aspirations. For brief moments in a citizen's hurried day, there is an intersection of these two worlds. Stepping out of the shower in the morning one might hear an interview with a former hostage on the "Today Show," glance at the front page of the morning newspaper over coffee, hear the headlines on the car radio, or catch some of the evening news after dinner. The interconnection of public and private worlds is often unscheduled, incidental, and haphazard. The evolution of common knowledge is not a simple matter of transferring the content of the news, in whole or even in part, to the public.

Public Discourse and Common Knowledge

For the language of public discourse to be meaningfully interpreted in private life, it requires translation. Take, for example, this typical television news story on the harrowing epidemic of AIDS. CBS anchorman Dan Rather introduces the piece:

In as stern a message as any yet heard about AIDS, a scientific panel today called for a multi-billion dollar a year campaign against the killer disease. CBS News medical correspondent, Susan Spencer, explains why today's report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is bound to draw some unfriendly fire.

The correspondent explains that the panel is calling for a two billion dollar program of education and research over the next five years. She explains that there may be controversy over the proposal to distribute free sterile needles to prevent the spread of AIDS among drug users who share needles. She introduces soundbites from three medical experts; Dr. David Baltimore's from the National Academy of Sciences is typical: "We are quite honestly frightened about the future prospects here and we ask that there be strong leadership." She concludes:

The two billion dollars the Academy cites would cover only education and research, not treatment costs, which it has been estimated will be as high as sixteen billion dollars a year by 1990. The Academy today called that figure conservative. Susan Spencer, CBS News, Washington.

It is a classic news story in form and focus for any of the news media. It is driven by the day's events, official news as delivered by authoritative sources at press conferences (Cohen, 1963; McDougall, 1968; Epstein, 1973; Sigal, 1973; Tuchman, 1978; Gamson, 1984; Lewis, 1984; Manoff and Schudson, 1986; van Dijk, 1988). There is a passing reference to a policy dispute, the proposal about free needles which is "sure to cause an uproar." And there are references to two billion and sixteen billion dollars, figures difficult to comprehend other than that they are very large. The story does not make clear, however, where this vast amount of money is coming from or where it is going.

What would a typical viewer remember from such a news story? Not necessarily a great deal and probably not the names of the agencies or officials, or the dollar amounts cited. This news story represents only a fleeting connection between media discourse and evolving public knowledge of the tragic epidemic. The ephemeral nature of a given news encounter, however, does not mean that individuals are unable to think deeply about the problem of AIDS.

In the depth-interview component of our research, we asked our respondents to describe the main idea of a series of political issues including AIDS (see the Appendix for more detail). Their free-ranging responses offer a dramatic contrast between the media's public discourse and the private conceptions of the mass audience. Few of our respondents volunteered federal epidemiology statistics or projected medical research budgets. But most had a great deal to say, such as one seventy-three-year-old retired businessman. He described the AIDS epidemic in highly emotionally charged and moralistic language. For him, AIDS is intimately tied with issues of religion and public discipline. He associates AIDS with San Francisco, in his view a modern Sodom or Gomorrah. He understands the fundamental medical dynamics of the disease, but his thinking about appropriate policy responses to the crisis is structured by much more than just the medical issues:

Q: How would you explain the issue of AIDS to someone who didn't know anything about it?

A: Well, of course, it depends on who you're talking to. If you're talking just about the disease, I think you can only say that it's something that causes a breakdown within the body, that portion that manufactures whatever you need to resist disease ... and makes you subject for almost any kind of disease ... and it can be fatal because you don't have any resistance. So, I think that would perhaps explain fairly well for a laymen ... But there is another aspect to this and that it's against the law of man. What brought this about, this homosexual lifestyle. That's against the law of man. It's against the law of God.

He goes on to describe the origins of AIDS in the lifestyles of the hippies and gays in "Frisco," which he and his wife had visited briefly on a vacation trip.

They were dirty. They had not just long hair, but dirty, dirty, straggly greasy looking hair and they didn't shave and the girls were just as bad as the guys and the guys were walking, hugging each other like lovers holding hands ... I would never go back to Frisco after that ... That's my feeling about it. I don't have that much sympathy for them [those afflicted with AIDS]."

He describes himself as not having any direct contact with drug users or gays or individuals with AIDS, but his conception of AIDS is clearly not dependent solely on media messages and information. He constructs a concept of AIDS from fragments of what he hears and what he already believes. His thinking is schematic, and richly so. He shows little sign of being a prisoner of mass media information, caught in the media's cuing and framing of public issues, even in domains where he has minimal direct experience. He draws heavily on personal experience, conversations with others, and non-news media and rails at the press for missing, as he sees it, the main point of the AIDS epidemic: the decline of American moral and religious life. This man's response shows us clearly that understanding how individuals frame issues in the news is critical to understanding both what will be recalled from the flow of news and how such information influences opinion about what ought to be done to respond to these public issues (Jensen, 1986; Graber, 1988; Gamson, 1992).

To study the dynamic interaction among individuals, with their personal interests, beliefs, and experiences, the issues with their varying degrees of complexity, and the media with their different journalistic traditions, we must draw on a variety of investigative techniques. How much does political sense-making depend on the individual, or on the topic, and how much on the way the information is communicated? In the following chapters we will seek to answer those questions, as well as the broader question of how bits of information gleaned from the news fit into a person's larger framework of understanding important topics of public debate. We will focus on the resonances and disjunctures between public and private discourse about politics and introduce a typology of issue frames used in the media and by the mass citizenry. We will compare how different media — television, newsmagazines, and newspapers — present information to the public. We will concentrate on specific news stories and examine the information people pick out of the formal presentation of news to enrich their conceptualization of public issues.

Before we take up our study, however, we review three research traditions that have shaped the study of political communication: (1) the tradition of media-effects research, (2) the uninformed voter paradigm, which contrasts an ill-informed voter against an idealized model of rational choice, and (3) a recently evolving literature on political cognition in the mass public. Information from these studies can be arrayed according to the degree of audience passivity or activity and the concomitant media responsibility assumed by the researchers. Generally theories on media effects emphasize the persuasive and manipulative powers the media exercise over a relatively uninterested, unknowing, and gullible audience. Research on voter sophistication and knowledge has focused on the low level of knowledge among American voters, a level that results not necessarily from media manipulation as much as from public apathy and disinterest in politics. Research on public choice and political cognition has assumed a more active audience stance. These research approaches help us to move to a new conceptualization of political communication in which the audience is seen as constructing meaning from a rich media environment.

The Research Agenda in Political Communication

Much of the research in this area intimates dissatisfaction with the state of political interest, information, or sophistication of the electorate. The blame for the "nation at risk" divides along a continuum of culpability, anchored by the media at one end and the people at the other. We explore various strands of the literature that focus on the negative impact of "media effects" and the disappointing performance of the uninformed voter. We show how concepts such as the "cost" of information and the "bounded rationality" in which real world political choices are made help us to avoid the endless debates over whether the glass is half-full or half-empty that characterize much of the research on big/little media effects and the oh so/not so uninformed voter. We lean heavily on the contributions of cognitive psychology in developing an approach to political communication that takes account of the construction of news and the citizen's understanding of media messages.


Excerpted from Common Knowledge by W. Russell Neuman, Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler, Benjamin I. Page. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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