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Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age


How often do we hear that Americans are so ignorant about politics that their civic competence is impaired, and that the media are to blame because they do a dismal job of informing the public? Processing Politics shows that average Americans are far smarter than the critics believe. Integrating a broad range of current research on how people learn (from political science, social psychology, communication, physiology, and artificial intelligence), Doris Graber shows that televised presentations—at their ...
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How often do we hear that Americans are so ignorant about politics that their civic competence is impaired, and that the media are to blame because they do a dismal job of informing the public? Processing Politics shows that average Americans are far smarter than the critics believe. Integrating a broad range of current research on how people learn (from political science, social psychology, communication, physiology, and artificial intelligence), Doris Graber shows that televised presentations—at their best—actually excel at transmitting information and facilitating learning. She critiques current political offerings in terms of their compatibility with our learning capacities and interests, and she considers the obstacles, both economic and political, that affect the content we receive on the air, on cable, or on the Internet.

More and more people rely on information from television and the Internet to make important decisions. Processing Politics offers a sound, well-researched defense of these remarkably versatile media, and challenges us to make them work for us in our democracy.

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Meet the Author

Doris A. Graber, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the recipient of the American Political Science Association Goodnow Distinguished Service Award. She is author or editor of thirteen books, most recently Media Power in Politics and Information Management in the Public Sphere.
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Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age

By Doris A. Graber

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Doris A. Graber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226305767


It is as American as apple pie to regard the press as the chief tool of public political enlightenment. The belief that the press is the bedrock of democracy in the United States started with the founders of the nation and has continued through the centuries. As Thomas Jefferson put it, if it were left up to him "to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter...." The press, he believed, was the basis for public opinion formation, which "is the basis of our government..." (Ford 1894, 253). The press has been transformed in many ways since Jefferson's days, but the significance of its role in democratic governance has not declined. If anything, its potency as information provider, public-sphere agenda setter, and interpreter of the political scene has grown. This is why the debate has never stopped about how it can best serve as a source of essential public political enlightenment.

Processing Politics is part of that debate in its twenty-first-century incarnation. This book raises and answers questions about the role of the press as civic informantin an age when citizens are flooded by information and torn by a multitude of conflicting claims for their attention and consideration. Where can average citizens turn for political news? How well do their preferred news sources serve their political needs as they see them and as sophisticated political observers see them? How well is American democracy served? Is there realistic hope for improvement in whatever problem areas exist at the present time? What guidelines for progress are there? These are the key questions of our age for which we need answers.

At first glance, answers may seem easy. The answer to the first question, "Where do citizens turn for political news?" obviously is television. But the inquiry comes to a rapid halt with the second and third questions. If television is the main source of political information for average citizens, how good is the match between the type of political information presented by television and the public's ability to use this information to attain sufficient political savvy to perform the functions that are essential in a democracy? The quest for answers puts the limelight on a series of intriguing puzzles and problems. Obviously, we need to explore much new intellectual terrain to explain why television is so popular, how it is shaping the nation's civic IQ presently, and what changes are likely to occur as we march, in tune with technology, into the future.


Puzzle #1

The first puzzle facing us has a dual focus. Why does the public prefer television for gathering political information? And why do most political scientists, including many television scholars, claim that print media are far better sources? Why is there such a disparity in evaluations?

First, what do the data show about the public's preference for various news media? The evidence about the public's choices of information sources comes from a long series of public opinion polls. These polls consistently show that television is the preferred political news medium for average Americans. Over the decades since the advent of television as a household fixture in American homes, it has become increasingly dominant, thanks to technological advances and to generational turnover. The newspaper-reliant pre-baby-boomer public is dying, and its replacements grew up with television as beloved nursemaid and prized teacher. When the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed a national random sample of children between the ages of two and eighteen in December 1999, it found that children between the ages of two and seven spent roughly two (1:59) hours a day watching television, while the eight-to-eighteen age group averaged three (3:16) hours (McClain 1999). Although some scholars still contend that the print media are the chief sources for political information because they cover more political stories at greater length (e.g., Robinson and Levy 1986; Robinson and Davis 1990), survey after survey in the waning years of the twentieth century showed that most adult Americans think otherwise. Table 1.1 is a representative example.

Less than a quarter (24 percent) name newspapers as prime information sources, and a mere 14 percent list radio. Instead, a substantial majority (56 percent) claim to get the bulk of their information about current political events from telecasts (Stanley and Niemi 1998; Pew 1998a, 1998d). Table 1.1 shows that this is especially true for nonwhites, women, and the vast majority of Americans who have not graduated from college. Their respective television reliances rank at 72 percent for nonwhites, 63 percent for women, and 61 percent for people without any college education. Politicians and other political activists value television highly as a way to reach large audiences of average Americans. Therefore, they devote the lion's share of their communication budgets to transmitting commercials and other political messages via television. That enhances the appeal of the medium as a political information source.

What explains television's popularity? In a nutshell, most people find that it is the easiest, quickest, most pleasant way for them to keep abreast of current political information. Determining why this is the case requires a careful look at the large body of knowledge about the mechanics of human information-processing that has become available in recent years, thanks to new brain research techniques. These important findings will be explained fully in chapter 2, where I will elucidate the biological basis for liking television.

To summarize the argument briefly for now, citizens like political information that is audiovisually presented because the human brain is exceptionally well suited for processing the rich array of stimuli encased in audiovisuals. Viewing a television news broadcast is the most user-friendly way to get a representative taste of current happenings and keep in tune with the information that friends and associates are also currently receiving. It allows viewers to keep up with the proverbial Joneses when it comes to current news and to soothe a nagging civic conscience that tells them that it is their duty to be politically informed. Audiovisuals broadcast over the air, on cable, or on the Internet, at their best, convey the reality of politics more completely than other modalities, and average viewers find them especially engaging, interesting, and emotionally involving. Since they do not find politics intrinsically interesting, they are grateful for journalists' efforts to create gripping political spectacles that emphasize the human drama of politics, rather than its more abstruse features. Much of chapter 2 dwells on these key pieces of the learning puzzle.

But why are average people concerned about making learning about politics quick and easy? The main reason is that learning about the complexities of politics is difficult for ordinary citizens, whose intrinsic interest in the world of politics ranks relatively low compared to interest and concern for other matters, such as their families, their jobs, and the quality of their daily lives. Although these other matters keep most citizens very busy, many nonetheless turn to television news expressly to learn about politics (Gunter 1991). They feel that they need political information for social or job-related purposes and that they have a civic obligation to keep themselves informed, especially during election periods. Given low interest and many other competing pressures for their attention, people prefer information presentations that are relatively interesting and easy to comprehend with a minimal expenditure of time. Currently, they believe that audiovisual presentations like television best meet these requirements.

Many pundits and social scientists condemn the news medium that the public prefers because they view it from a different perspective that entails different evaluation scales. Political scientists generally prefer to keep the debates about political learning within the confines of the currently dominant political theories, particularly those falling under the fashionable "rational choice" label (Somit and Peterson 1999). They measure actual learning achievements by ideal standards derived from democratic theories and bemoan the public's abject failure to reach these ideal standards. According to rational choice theories, ordinary citizens should be able to base their political choices on careful assessments of a broad array of political data, which they must judge in light of their own political preferences. Neither television nor, for that matter, most other news media supply ample amounts of the kinds of facts and figures that rational choice theorists expect the public to know.

Critics of television base their judgments about the merits of the medium primarily on the substance of factual political information that people can recall when pollsters question them. Then they blame shortcomings in learning on the deficiencies of the television medium, largely ignoring issues related to the information-processing tasks facing citizens as well as the inherent limitations in people's learning capacities. Considering information-processing issues requires crossing disciplinary boundaries into unfamiliar terrain in psychology, communication, biology, and even neuroscience. Most political scientists are loath to do that.

Unfortunately, failure to broaden the research approach beyond traditional political science domains has seriously harmed and impoverished the intellectual debate about political learning (Gazzaniga 1992). Current social science is full of misconceptions about political learning that could be cleared up by closer scrutiny of what happens when stimuli are processed inside the human brain--that proverbial black box of social science (Reeves and Anderson 1991; Blank 1999). Misunderstanding the advantages inherent in processing audiovisual messages is just one of many examples. Without a grounding in biological realities, judgments about the public's political acumen float in the never-never land of unrealizable wishes, rather than in the far earthier reality of flesh-and-blood twenty-first-century citizens struggling with the complexities of all aspects of life, including knowledge about politics.

Puzzle #2

The second puzzle is why television-reliant people claim to be well informed enough to carry out their civic functions, while political scientists claim that the public is woefully ignorant about matters that it ought to know. In response to public opinion pollsters' questions, most citizens say that television news provides them with sufficient information to carry out their civic functions. A typical survey of a random national sample of adult Americans reveals that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans are satisfied that they receive enough or even more than enough information about their political world (see table 1.2).

Despite these high rates of satisfaction, academic critics and pundits excoriate television, complaining that television political fare is intellectual junk food that provides inadequate amounts of information and unduly shuns complex information. They also accuse television of distorting demographic realities, of personalizing the news excessively, and of overemphasizing its dramatic aspects. They claim that such presentations make politics into a spectacle that encourages citizens to become passive observers who watch the political scene with a mixture of amusement and titillation tinged with boredom and disdain for most of the principals in the drama. Worst of all, television fare creates an uninformed, disinterested citizenry that neglects its civic duties. Television discourages viewers from logical thinking about politics, while encouraging them to make political decisions based on emotional reactions to irrelevant personality characteristics of political leaders.

What explains the wide divergence between the critics' harshly negative judgments and appraisals and the much more positive judgments and appraisals of average citizens? The answer requires scrutinizing their respective expectations. For now, it suffices to point out that the critics of the civic IQ base their expectations about what citizens ought to know about politics on a traditional academic approach grounded in democratic theory. Rather than considering what knowledge is essential to performing ordinary civic tasks, this approach focuses on precisely remembered factual knowledge about historically important past and current events. The critics analyze television news content and structure questions used to test civic intelligence to detect this type of information. If it is low or absent in either the media or the public or both, the critics assign low scores of civic merit.

By contrast to the standards used by the critics, most average people focus their learning more narrowly on a limited number of political areas that seem to them salient for their own lives and social relationships. They are more interested in knowing the significance of political events, broadly defined, than in dwelling on factual details. They want to know the impact of particular situations on the people who form their personal environments and on the country in general. In short, average Americans and the critics who deem them pygmies when it comes to political knowledge disagree about the substance, scope, and detail of political information that need to be mastered to qualify as a well-informed citizen. They also disagree about the quantity and quality of political news coverage that would warrant calling political television news an information-rich source.

The respective merits of these judgments will be closely scrutinized in the third chapter. Besides discussing the divergent explanations, we will wrestle in chapter 3 with the problem of determining what standards are appropriate for judging the civic IQ of average Americans. We will gauge the extent of citizens' civic knowledge and the information base on which the public relies and assess how the civic IQ of ordinary Americans relates to the overall health of American democracy.

Puzzle #3

A third major puzzle surrounding the merits and impact of television casts the net more widely beyond the medium's role in informing citizens about politics. Why does television earn the plaudits of many observers as one of the most fruitful inventions of the twentieth century and the condemnation of others as a despoiler of democracy and a danger to the civic health of the nation, especially its children? Political scientist Robert Putnam sparked a nationwide debate in 1995 over whether television was the root cause of vanishing social capital that left television-drenched citizens diminished in their feelings of social and civic responsibility (Putnam 1995; Norris 1996, 2000). Putnam and his followers blamed the medium, while Pippa Norris and other political scientists exonerated it, documenting the many ways in which television enhances social capital. Such debates raise the question whether television has a primarily positive or negative impact on American democracy or whether it is a Jekyll and Hyde force, so that both assessments are correct.


Excerpted from Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age by Doris A. Graber Copyright © 2001 by Doris A. Graber. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Political Television: Puzzles and Problems
2. Political Learning: How Our Brains Process Complex Information
3. To Know or Not to Know: Questions about Civic Wisdom
4. Freeing Audiovisual Technologies from the Gutenberg Legacy
5. The Battles over Audiovisual Content
6. Making News Selection, Framing, and Formatting More User-Friendly
7. Peering into the Crystal Ball: What Does the Future Hold?
Appendix: Methods
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