News that Matters
Television and American Opinion, Updated Edition
By Shanto Iyengar, Donald R. Kinder
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
A Primordial Power?
On a typical weekday evening, some fifty million Americans gather around their television sets, tuned into the national newscasts of the three major networks. By a wide margin, they believe that television—not magazines, not radio, not newspapers—provides the most intelligent, complete, and impartial coverage of public affairs, and goes furthest in clarifying the candidacies and issues at stake in national elections (Bower 1985). We Americans trust television news; we see it as authoritative (perhaps in part because we see it); we have welcomed Huntley, Cronkite, Brokaw, and the others into our living rooms gladly.
Because of its wide reach and high credibility, television news obviously possesses the potential to shape American public opinion profoundly. Whether television news realizes this potential, however, is the subject of considerable and occasionally acrimonious debate. In fact, research has more often than not concluded that mass media in general and television news in particular merely strengthen or reinforce the public's existing beliefs and opinions. Indeed, Patterson and McClure (1976) concluded that television news coverage of presidential campaigns had virtually no political impact. According to their analysis, network news failed even to inform voters regarding the choices they confronted. Why? Patterson and McClure put it this way: "Since the nightly news is too brief to treat fully the complexity of modern politics, too visual to present effectively most events, and too entertainment-minded to tell viewers much worth knowing, most network newscasts are neither very educational nor very powerful communicators" (1976, 90).
We subscribe to much of this indictment. Television news is brief; it does drastically simplify the complexity of modern politics; it is undeniably visual; and it does borrow unabashedly from the world of entertainment television. We know, moreover, that viewers typically pay rather casual and intermittent attention to the parade of stories that make up the news each night (Kinder and Sears 1985, 660–64).
Nevertheless, we believe that Patterson and McClure's conclusion—that "network newscasts are neither very educational nor very powerful communicators"—is quite thoroughly mistaken. Our purpose here is to establish that television news is in fact an educator virtually without peer, that it shapes the American public's conception of political life in pervasive ways; that television news is news that matters.
Our argument begins with the observation that Americans develop opinions toward an astonishing variety of issues that lie far outside their own experience. To be sure, they are preoccupied first and foremost with the immediate concerns of private life: with earning a living, supporting a family, making and keeping friends. But at the same time, they also manage to decide whether huge federal deficits threaten the economy and whether fighting in Latin America threatens national security. They reach such judgments without benefit of direct experience: without undertaking their own economic analysis, without traveling behind the lines in Nicaragua. Because they take part in the grand events of politics so rarely, ordinary Americans must depend upon information and analysis provided by others—in modern times, upon information and analysis provided by mass media.
This dependence gives the media an enormous capacity to shape public thinking. Cohen has put this point well, and although he was writing with newspapers in mind, his argument applies with at least equal force to television news:
The press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. It may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. And it follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests, but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read. Perhaps the notion of a map is too confining, for it does not suggest the full range of the political phenomena that are conveyed by the press. It is, more properly, an atlas of places, personages, situations, and events; and to the extent that the press even discusses the ideas that men have for coping with the day's ration of problems, it is an atlas of policy possibilities, alternatives, choices. The editor may believe he is only printing the things that people want to read, but he is thereby putting a claim on their attention, powerfully determining what they will be thinking about, and talking about, until the next wave laps their shore (1963, 13).
While agenda-setting—to adopt the social science parlance—has been the subject of thoughtful essays over the last half century, empirical work on the subject has a briefer and less distinguished history. Lippmann's (1920, 1922, 1925) original warning that news organizations possess the power to determine what the public takes to be important had little immediate impact on research. Even forty years later, Klapper's encyclopedic summary of findings on the effects of mass communication could devote just two pages to agenda-setting; moreover, that discussion was dotted with such disheartening phrases as "it is a matter of common observation" or "some writers believe" (1960, 104–5). Although research on agenda-setting has proliferated over the last decade, so far, unfortunately, the results add up to rather little. Even exponents of the agenda-setting idea acknowledge the literature's fragmented and haphazard condition (e.g., McCombs 1981). Agenda-setting may be an apt metaphor, but it is no theory.
The lack of a theory of media effects has significantly impeded our understanding of how democracy works. The health and vitality of any democratic government depend in part on the wisdom of ordinary citizens. And indeed, commentaries on the current state of the American polity, in scholarly journals and on the editorial page, are laced with normative claims that the public is or is not rational, that the American citizen is shrewd or foolish. Such claims typically pay no attention whatsoever to the dissemination of political information throughout society, to the no-doubt intricate relationship that has grown up between the institutions of mass communication, on the one hand, and the political wisdom of ordinary citizens, on the other. Lippmann was not exaggerating the political significance of this relationship when he wrote that citizens "who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information" (1920, 54–55). If we are to understand and assess how well the American political system works, surely we need a theory of how information about public affairs percolates through American society.
We begin to develop such a theory here, as part of our effort to understand the ways in which television news shapes the political thinking of ordinary Americans. We test and refine our understanding mainly—though not exclusively—with experiments, a powerful method of investigation that media researchers have largely ignored. Our fourteen experiments introduce systematic and unobtrusive alterations into the television news broadcasts that ordinary citizens watch. As a consequence, citizens assigned to different experimental conditions are furnished with slightly different glimpses of the political world—and as we will see, such differences matter greatly. Because our procedures are unusual, we explain them fully in chapter 2. There we define exactly what we mean by an experiment, argue that experimentation possesses distinctive strengths for the study of television news, and then describe the particular experimental designs we deployed in our research.
Chapter 3 presents results from a series of experiments on agenda-setting, supplemented at key junctures with complementary evidence drawn from our analysis of national surveys. Taken together, the results vindicate Lippmann's original suspicion that news media provide compelling accounts of a political world that is otherwise out of reach. Our studies show specifically that television news powerfully influences which problems viewers regard as the nation's most serious. Rising prices, unemployment, energy shortages, arms control—all these (and more) become high priority political issues for the public only if they first become high priority news items for the networks.
In chapter 4 we examine characteristics of coverage that might accentuate the agenda-setting effect. We compare stories that lead off the evening news with those that appear later in the broadcast, on the hypothesis that lead stories might be more influential merely because of their position. (They are.) We also assess whether the dramatic personal vignettes that the networks commonly use to illustrate national problems, which are surely riveting, are also particularly influential. (They are not.)
In chapter 5 we examine how television's portrayal of national problems interacts with viewers' personal circumstances. Racial discrimination, job loss, and the threatened collapse of the social security system (among others) are national problems and, for some Americans, overwhelming personal ones as well. Do such direct experiences override the vicarious experiences provided by television news? (They do not.) In chapter 6 we investigate several characteristics of viewers that might make them more or less vulnerable to agenda-setting. We compare the reactions of the well-educated and the poorly-educated, partisans and independents, the politically involved and the politically withdrawn, thereby hoping to identify more precisely just who is affected by agenda-setting.
Chapters 7 through 11 take up what we call "priming," a manifestation of television power that is more insidious and perhaps more consequential than agenda-setting. Priming presumes that when evaluating complex political objects—the performance of an incumbent president, or the promises of a presidential contender—citizens do not take into account all that they know. They cannot, even if they were motivated to do so. What they do consider is what comes to mind, those bits and pieces of political memory that are accessible. And television news, we argue, is a most powerful force determining what springs to the citizen's mind and what does not. By priming certain aspects of national life while ignoring others, television news sets the terms by which political judgments are rendered and political choices made.
Chapter 7 discusses the impact of priming on citizens' evaluations of the president's performance. When primed by television news stories that focus on national defense, citizens judge the president largely by how well he has provided, as they see it, for the nation's defense; when primed by stories about inflation, citizens evaluate the president by how well he has managed, in their view, to keep prices down; and so on. In chapter 8, we explore whether priming also influences the judgments the public renders regarding the president's character. (It does, in complex and interesting ways.) In chapter 9, we investigate whether the magnitude of the priming effect depends on how deeply the news implicates government, and especially on what we term the level of presidential responsibility implicit in television news coverage. (It does.) Chapter 10 then does for priming what chapter 6 did for agenda-setting: there we identify who is especially vulnerable to priming and discover to our surprise that the victims of priming are not the same people who are the victims of agenda-setting. In chapter 11, to complete the empirical work, we describe two experiments that concentrate on the electoral consequence of priming. There we show that the priorities that are uppermost in voters' minds when they go to the polls are powerfully shaped by the last-minute preoccupations of television news.
In chapter 12, we tie the various results together, conclude that, like it or not, television news has become a serious and relentless player in the American political process, and, finally, take up the claim that television news conveys unusual and distinctive views of American politics, under the assumption, handsomely supported by our research, that such views eventually become our own.
Pathways to Knowledge: Experimentation and the Analysis of Television's Power
The word "experiment" means many things, not only to the proverbial person in the street, but to social scientists as well. Consequently, it is important for us to be clear at the outset about what we mean—and do not mean—by experiment. For us, the essence of the true experiment is control. Experiments of the sort we have undertaken here are distinguished from other systematic empirical methods in the special measure of control they give to the investigator. In the first place, the experimenter creates the conditions under investigation, rather than waiting for them to occur naturally. In the second place, the experimenter randomly assigns individuals to those conditions, thereby superseding natural processes of selection. By creating the conditions of interest, the experimenter holds extraneous factors constant and ensures that individuals will encounter conditions that differ only in theoretically decisive ways. By assigning individuals to conditions randomly, the experimenter can be confident that any resulting differences between individuals assigned to varying conditions must be caused by differences in the conditions themselves.
Although these features may seem innocuous, they are not: experiments possess genuine advantages over alternative approaches, particularly in the insight they provide into causation. Because this claim may appear pretentious, we will try to illustrate it with a simple example.
Suppose (as is true) that we are interested in the influence television news might exercise over the American public. Like many researchers before us, we therefore decide to interview a sample of Americans, carefully selected to be representative of the nation as a whole. We partition our sample into two groups, those who tell us that they rely primarily upon television news for their information about politics and those who say they rely on other sources. We then compare the political views of the two groups and discover that the television-reliant group regards unemployment as the country's most serious problem while the other group names inflation. Simultaneously, we undertake a content analysis of television news coverage, finding that during the period of our interviews, television news has been preoccupied with unemployment. We conclude that television news does indeed shape its viewers' conceptions of political reality.
There is nothing wildly foolish about this hypothetical study. It does have serious limitations, however, just those that a true experiment counteracts. First and foremost, our hypothetical study cannot establish causal relationships. Observing that television news coverage and viewers' beliefs correspond is not the same as establishing that television coverage influences viewers' beliefs. No doubt the television-reliant group differs in many ways from those who obtain their information elsewhere, and it may be these differences that are responsible for generating different outlooks on national problems. If the television group is disproportionately working-class, for example, their special concern about unemployment might be due not to television coverage but to their own experiences in the labor force, or the experiences of their friends and coworkers. Of course, we might be able to test this particular explanation by partitioning the sample into different occupational groups and then examining whether the same relationship between television viewing and political outlook was maintained within each occupational group. But we could never know for certain whether all such plausible rival explanations had been ruled out. (Continues...)
Excerpted from News that Matters by Shanto Iyengar, Donald R. Kinder. Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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