KeywordsNews Medium Political Communication Television News Vote Choice Political Knowledge
Political communication is the dissemination of political information among and between political elites, mass media organizations, and the public. The study of political communication emerged as an important subfield of both political science and communication in the twentieth century, with research focused on the influence of the news media on public opinion and voting behavior; the theories of agenda-setting, framing, and priming effects; the tactics and efficacy of political campaigns; the effects of negative political advertising; the discourse and deliberation among the mass public; the speeches and rhetoric of office holders; the interactive relationships between elite and mass opinion; the influence of commercial and political pressures on the content of news media; the relationship between partisan polarization and partisan media; and the advent of digital politics.
The Minimal Effects Era
Coinciding with the growth of mass media in the early twentieth century was the debate over whether (an improved) news media could help to bring about an informed, active public (Dewey 1954/1927), or whether the public’s reliance on media to understand the world left it susceptible to elite manipulation (such as propaganda and censorship) renders participatory democracy unworkable (Lippmann 1997/1922). Concerns over the gatekeeping power of mass media were accentuated by the rise of fascism. Scholars feared that mass media enables elites to “insert” opinions into the minds of the public on a mass scale, known as the “hypodermic needle” theory (Defleur and Ball-Rokeach 1982). However, scholars in the postwar era would find little evidence of a “hypodermic needle” effect – nor much evidence of media persuasion effects (Klapper 1948).
Seminal studies in what would become two of the dominate schools of thought in political behavior in the twentieth century found that vote choice in American presidential elections was determined by social and psychological factors. The sociological model, also known as the Columbia School, argues that group attachment (and the communication that occurs within groups) is largely responsible for vote choice (Berelson et al. 1954; Lazarsfeld et al. 1944). The social-psychological school, also known as the Michigan Model, names partisan identification as the primary driver of vote choices (Campbell et al. 1960). Notably, both models allow for vote choice to be made prior to the general election season, relegating campaigns to agents of reinforcement, rather than persuasion, with short-lived influence.
These findings led mid-twentieth-century scholars to largely conclude that the media’s impact on public opinion was indirect and minimal and gave way to several influential limited effects theories, including the two-step flow theory and reinforcement theory. The two-step flow theory posits that opinion leaders receive and are influenced by mediated messages and then disseminate and interpret the messages for others within their social circles (Katz 1957). Reinforcement theory, building off of Festinger’s (1985) theory of cognitive dissonance, suggests that through selective processes – including selective exposure, selective perception, and selective retention – individuals can reinforce preexisting attitudes via mass media (Klapper 1960).
In the last decades of the twentieth century, researchers began rethinking “minimal effects” and demonstrated ways in which the media can directly shape public opinion – including agenda-setting, framing, and priming. The theory of agenda-setting purports that the problems that receive prominent attention in the news become the problems the viewing public regards as important (McCombs and Shaw1972). Moreover, when the news media frames an issue by “select[ing] some aspects of [it] and make them more salient” (Entman 1993), it can influence how it is understood by audiences. The news media can also prime audiences to use specific issues as benchmarks when evaluating political leaders and institutions (Iyengar and Kinder 1989). Theories regarding the media’s agenda-setting and framing powers are particularly prevalent in political communication research.
Contemporary scholarship acknowledges the influence of elite communication, with mass shifts in public opinion attributed to exposure to elite discourse (Zaller 1992). Studies assert that the American electorate has been growing more polarized, reflecting elite polarization, with the deepest divisions existing between the most politically interested and informed on either side of the political spectrum (Abramowitz and Saunders 2008; Layman and Carsey 2002). However, the extent to which the public has polarized (and if it has at all) is not universally accepted (Fiorina et al. 2010).
The influence of political and media elites is not limited to the mass public. For instance, the indexing hypothesis holds bracketed by political elites (Bennett 1990). Likewise, theories such as the “CNN Effect” assert that the news media can influence the decisions of political elites to intervene in humanitarian crises by displaying gruesome images which mobilizes support for action among the public – although this type of influence is an area of debate (Robinson 2005).
Improved survey methodology in the mid-twentieth century revealed that few Americans have real opinions on issues and that political attitudes are not constrained or consistent, seemingly changing at random (Campbell et al. 1960; Converse 1964). Most “public opinion” only exists in the presence of a pollster, in which respondents sample from elite messages on “the top of the head,” although politically knowledgeable individuals can filter out inconsistent messages (Zaller 1992). Despite the increases in access to electronic media and educational attainment among the general population, levels of political knowledge remained stable throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (Carpini and Keeter 1996).
Inattentiveness and low knowledge levels among the public to civic affairs are not worrisome to all. Scholars have argued that retrospective evaluations of government performance can be made with low levels of political information (Key 1966) – namely, a distinction between political parties – and the costs of acquiring of political information make it irrational to acquire high levels of political knowledge (Downs 1957; Fiorina 1981). The electorate utilizes heuristics (or information shortcuts) to make adequate vote decisions – most notably party cues (Popkin 1991; Sniderman et al. 1993), but also interest group endorsements (Lupia 1994). Moreover, scholars have argued that collective public opinion (opinion in aggregate) appears to be stable and shifts in ways that can be considered rational (Page and Shapiro 1992) and the American public may consist of a number of “issue publics” or groups of citizens concerned and knowledgeable about single issues (Krosnick 1990).
While public opinion and behavior are influenced by elite behavior, communication within social networks can influence political decisions, as well (Huckfeldt and Sprague 2006). Moreover, proponents of public deliberation argue that citizens may learn from each other by sharing and discussion policy and electoral opinions (Luskin et al. 2002). As Warren (1996) explains, deliberation is a process, “wherein the point is to increase the quality of democratic judgments through widespread citizen participation in multiple public spheres, both within and between the institutions of state, economy, and civil society.”
The idea that the public can collectively produce better public policy through deliberation dates back to Aristotle, who argued in Politics that regime quality is in part based on the extent to which policy is based on the quality of deliberation (Wilson 2011). Among the most influential adherents of public deliberation was Mill who proposed that “collating” the range of opinions in an unrestricted public sphere can produce the best possible collective outcomes (Mansbridge 1999). Contemporary theory has been strongly influenced by the work of Jürgen Habermas regarding the requisite normative conditions for discussions in the public sphere to be translated into legitimate public actions (Habermas 1990).
Modern political science research suggests that deliberation improves levels of political efficacy, political judgments, political sophistication, and levels of participation and, as a result, better public policy (Gastil 2000; Gutmann and Thompson 1996; Luskin et al. 2002). However, the exposure to crosscutting views among the public that deliberation provides may also result in a less vibrant, participatory citizenry (Mutz 2006).
The Broadcast Era and New Media
The “Golden Age” of American broadcast news emerged as product of Progressive Era reforms and professionalization of journalism, coupled with the welcomed regulation of broadcast media by the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of the inchoate broadcasting industry looking to limit competition (Cook 2005). Broadcast news would supplant newspapers to become the dominate media regime in the twentieth century (Williams and Delli Carpini 2011). Professional journalists enjoyed a largely uncontested role as gatekeepers – i.e., determine what constituted news and what did not – with limited commercial pressure (Williams and Delli Carpini 2011). The rapid diffusion of television throughout American homes, coupled with limited choice in channels and programming audiences, resulted in incidental exposure to news among the “captive” audiences of the postwar era and a reduction in the political knowledge gap between the educated and uneducated (Prior 2007).
Throughout the broadcast era, scholars complained about lack of diversity in news; the big three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) offered homogenous, uniform, and bland news, and the public had few nonmainstream television news options (Mutz and Young 2011). Television more generally has been accused of negatively affecting voter turnout (and participation more broadly) by increasing political apathy and cynicism (Hart 1999) and reducing social capital (Putnam 2001)
Massive changes in the American media environment and advances in telecommunications technology toward the conclusion of the twentieth century ended the dominance of broadcast news in the era of “captive audiences.” The widespread adoption of cable and satellite television enabled viewers to create their own media “diet,” producing gaps in political knowledge and participation between those who prefer news and those who prefer entertainment (Prior 2007). Increased competition from entertainment programming also led television news to become “softer,” in which distinctions between news and entertainment dulled and norms of social responsibility among media elites faded (Williams and Delli Carpini 2011). Soft news programming like talk shows, also known as “infotainment,” has attracted significant audiences during the cable era, although scholars debate its civic usefulness (Baum 2002, 2003; Baumgartner and Morris 2006; Young 2004).
American news media has also been infused with partisan programming in recent decades. Increased competition and the fragmentation of once-large network news audiences into niche populations of news watchers have led media figures to be more overtly partisan and opinionated (Sobieraj and Berry 2011). Cable news programming provides around-the-clock coverage of current events and is noted for its practice of “narrowcasting” or creating content targeting a specific portion of the market (e.g., liberals or conservatives) (Cook 2005). Deregulation of broadcast media, such as the discontinuation of the “Fairness Doctrine,” gave rise to political talk radio in the United States, freeing media personalities from having to give airtime to the targets of attacks to rebut charges (Barker 2002). These changes have produced self-protective ideological “echo chambers,” including a vibrant conservative media establishment, that reinforce preexisting views and undermine the legitimacy of the opposition (Berry and Sobieraj 2013; Jamieson and Cappella 2009). The advent of the Internet has expanded the niche targeting of political information via websites (Baum and Groeling 2008.) In particular, the rise of the blogosphere has given way to “cyber-balkanization,” in which blogs link to other like-minded blogs (Lawrence et al. 2010; Sunstein 2009).
Selective Exposure and Media Bias
With the increase in partisan and ideological media has come a renewed focus on selective exposure and media bias. A robust debate has ensued regarding the occurrence and impact of partisan selective exposure, including a revival of media effects skepticism (Bennett and Iyengar 2008). Some scholars warn of the dangers of a citizenry selectively exposed to like-minded political media, arguing that partisan selective exposure occurs with consequences – i.e., it influences the opinions and behavior of those exposed (Dilliplane 2011; Hopkins and Ladd 2014; Iyengar and Hahn 2009; Smith and Searles 2014; Stroud 2011; Sunstein 2009) – whereas others argue that the political opinions of those who select into like-minded ideological media are little affected by exposure to opinions they already agree with (Arceneaux and Johnson 2013). Another subset of scholars have argued that partisan-based selective exposure is significantly more limited than many have feared (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2011; Garrett et al. 2013; Prior 2013).
The extent to which partisan media effects exist hinges in part on the extent to which do have biases and can be measured. One of the essential jobs of the news media is gatekeeping, or the “culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited numbers of messages that reach people each day” (Shoemaker and Vos 2009). While the process of gatekeeping is necessarily a form of bias – some stories will be selected for presentation and others will not – measuring the extent to which the mediated news is unrepresentative of all the “news in the world” is likely an impossible task (D’Alessio and Allen 2000). Perceptions of media bias are widespread, perhaps due to what is known as the hostile media effect: partisans judge neutral news as biased against their own views or side (Eveland and Shah 2003; Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken 1994). In addition, the tendency of contemporary politicians to bash the media as “biased” may contribute to growing distrust of the news media among the American public (Ladd 2012).
Political Advertising and Campaigning
Contemporary scholars have questioned the prevailing conventional wisdom (among political scientists) that campaign events and messages have little impact on vote decisions (Druckman 2004; Ridout and Franz 2011; Vavreck 2009; Sides and Vavreck 2013) – though stipulate that the conditions must be right for this to occur (Hillygus and Jackman 2003). Increased leverage of field experiments have also demonstrated the impact (and lack thereof) of specific types of campaign tactics, particularly face-to-face canvassing (Gerber and Green 2000; Green and Gerber 2008). Attention has also been given to emotional appeals in political advertisements, including nonverbal elements (Brader 2006; Ridout and Searles 2011). Research has also focused on whether campaign messaging has become more potent and efficient due to the rise of microtargeting and the personalization of political communication (Hersh 2015; Nielsen 2012).
Negativity and Incivility in Political Media
The theory of videomalaise argues that Americans’ trust in political institutions has declined since the 1960s, not due to the events of the time but due to Americans’ reliance on “oppositional” television news (Robinson 1975). In addition to increased negativity, news media began presenting more game-centric and horse-race coverage during this period, and supplanted political parties as the principal “kingmakers” of presidential candidates (Patterson 1994). Largely due to inconsistent results, the impact (and merits) of negative advertisement is a continuing area of debate (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995; Geer 2006; Lau et al. 1999). However, a growing body of research has found that exposure to uncivil political discourse reduces trust in politicians, political parties, candidates, institutions, and the overall system of government (Brooks and Geer 2007; Fridkin and Kenney 2008; Mutz 2007, 2015; Mutz and Reeves 2005) and affects the ways in which individuals engage in political discourse (Gervais 2014).
The rhetorical presidency is a communication theory involving how the presidents communicate directly to the public (Ceaser et al. 1981). This is a distinct shift from old communication that usually involved the president focusing on Congress alone when trying to make policy (Tulis 1987). The rise of the rhetorical presidency is considered to be the result of modern doctrine of presidential leadership, modern mass media, and the modern presidential campaign (Ceaser et al. 1981). The motivations of the modern presidency are centered upon persuasion and the act of “going public”; in an effort to get Congress to pass legislation in line with the president’s wishes, a president will attempt to mobilize the public (Kernell 2006). The end of the broadcast era and “captive audiences” may have muted the potency of the tool, as audiences can opt out of exposure to presidential speeches (and opponents now communication tools to combat the president’s message) (Kernell 2006). Some scholarship raises doubts that public appeals were ever effective in influencing policymaking (Hart 1987).
The Internet, Digital Democracy, and Social Media
The advent of the Internet age has invited scholars to consider the prospects of a pluralistic, digital public sphere (Dahlgren 2006; Dahlberg 2001), inclusive of a more diversified and democratized political discourse that would amplify the voices of traditionally underrepresented and underprivileged groups. The initial era of the Internet (“Web 1.0”) did not meet this objective, in part because the so-called digital divide left many without substantial Internet access (Hindman 2008, 9, 22; Norris 2001). Disparities in “digital citizenship,” or the ability to participate politically, economically, and socially online, have continued into the Web 2.0 era, mirroring offline citizenship (Mossberger et al. 2003, 35).
The Web 2.0 era, characterized by interactivity, may democratize information sharing and enable horizontal political communication. However, research casts doubt on the likelihood of a deliberative digital public sphere emerging, where ideas can be widely expressed and considered. For one, online information searches tend to be apolitical, and commercial media (as opposed to noncommercial outlets such as blogs) continues to dominate web traffic (Hindman 2008). In addition, the anonymity and limited social cues that digital communication provides perhaps entice “netizens” to utilize incivility more than they would discuss politics in person (Borah 2013; Coe et al. 2014; Papacharissi 2004).
Additional research on online political communication has focused on the relationship between online and offline political participation (Best and Krueger 2005; Bond et al. 2012; Shah et al. 2005; Zúñiga et al. 2010; Zuniga 2012), microblogging and political homophily on social media (e.g., Barberá 2014; Bode et al. 2015; Colleoni et al. 2014; Larsson and Moe 2012), and use of websites and social media by elected officials and campaigns (Golbeck et al. 2010; Lassen and Brown 2011; Lawless 2012; Vergeer and Hermans 2013). Social media platforms have thus far enabled elected officials to broadcast information to the public without filtering it through a critical news media, rather than mechanisms for two-way communication between elites and the public (Hemphill et al. 2013).
Both the study and application of political communication are changing at a rate equaled by few other fields. Improvements in telecommunications enable new methods of communication in and among elites and the public, providing ever more subjects for academic inquiry. For both the practitioner and the scholar, this means persistent vigilance of the latest information technology and literature on the subject.
What the erosion of the distinctions between news and entertainment and between suppliers and consumers of political information mean for democracy remains blurry. Horizontal communication (or widespread sharing of information among the mass public) may be here to stay, but this is by no means a guarantee of a more deliberative democracy. Instead, cognitive impulses to avoid and resist information which clashes with preexisting views may instead deepen partisan division when individuals are free to design their own information environments. Put another way, elite influence on public opinion may not lessen, as the influence of public officials on the hearts and minds of those who are predisposed to share their views may be increasing.
If the engaged public can select into media that matches preexisting views, what can be said about media effects? A second era of “minimal effects” studies seems unlikely – or at least consensus among academics that the media has little impact on opinion seems unlikely – but measuring the impact of media effects is no easy task. Widespread adoption of survey experiments on online platforms (Mutz 2011) and improvements in the measurement of media exposure (Prior 2009) may help in this regard, to the benefit of students of mass communication and those involved in electoral politics.
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