Politicians have also adjusted to the media in their policy-making
efforts. In terms of presidential behavior, the most salient phenomenon is
going public (Kernell, 1992). Going public refers to a president going over
Congress’s head and appealing to the public directly, oftentimes via a
televised address. The goal is to activate or change public opinion, leading to
legislators feeling pressured to fall in line with the president’s policy
proposal. This strategy is potentially risky, especially for unpopular
presidents, and tends to be more prevalent in times of divided government, when
the presidency and the legislative branch are controlled by different parties.

Having discussed some of the literature on what determines media
content, it is appropriate to turn to the effects that this content has on
citizens. One culturally salient account of media effects holds that those who
control the media directly, immediately, and strongly affect what citizens
know, believe, and do politically. This model, which has little empirical
support, is known as the hypodermic model of media effects, since it depicts
the media as injecting information and opinion into the unresisting public. Its
effects, then, are like that of a drug that is put into the bloodstream.

An example of such an effect is Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast
of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which featured a realistically staged
report of alien invasion in New Jersey. Although subsequent myth-making has
exaggerated the scope and intensity of people’s responses to the broadcast, it
is beyond dispute that significant numbers of people took the report at face
value and genuinely believed aliens were taking over New Jersey.

Despite the vivid examples of dramatic media influence and the
widespread use of propaganda by governments the world over; disagreement does
exist among citizens on virtually all political issues. This suggests that
government control over the media is not complete, that the media present a
diverse array of opinion, and that people do not simply accept media
information as gospel. This, then, indicates a need to think differently about
media effects.

The concept of agenda setting finds perhaps its most famous and
concise expression in Cohen’s (1963) claim that the media “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” (p. 13). In other words, the agenda-setting
hypothesis claims that while media content does not have the direct opinion-changing
effect that early research feared it had, it does have great impact in
determining what issues people will focus on and judge to be important.

Early work on agenda setting tended to simply compare the issue
focus of the mass media in a certain time span with the issues that citizens
tended to regard as most important during the same period of time. Although
certainly suggestive, these studies do not provide convincing causal evidence
of agenda setting. For that reason, many more recent agenda-setting studies
have adopted an experimental approach, which allows for a comparison of people
exposed to information about certain issues with otherwise identical people who
have not had such exposure. Iyengar and Kinder (1987), in News That Matters:
Television and American Public Opinion, one of the classic works on
agenda-setting, adopted this approach and found suggestive effects of exposure
to (fictional) news stories in terms of what issues experimental subjects
judged to be important.

Agenda setting is normatively important on its own. Sunstein (2001)
suggests that the broadcast media serve— or at least ought to serve—the
important role of “creating a kind of shared focus of attention for many
millions of people” (p. 35). As such, they create shared experiences among the public
and expose people to issues and problems they may not have known about or
considered previously.

In addition to being important on its own, agenda setting is also
important because it relates to priming. Priming refers to the phenomenon that
the issues that people judge to be important often become the criteria by which
they evaluate politicians (e.g., Krosnick & Kinder, 1990). Thus, any factor
affecting public agendas has the potential of affecting politically relevant
variables such as presidential approval and the vote.

Agenda setting and priming thus concern what issues are on people’s
minds. Framing, in contrast, is concerned with the presentation of issues or
events and the extent to which the nature of the presentation affects people’s
opinions about the issue. In Druckman’s (2001) words, “A framing effect occurs
when in the course of describing an issue or event, a speaker’s emphasis on a
subset of potentially relevant considerations causes individuals to focus on
these considerations when constructing their opinions” (p. 1042).

Druckman (2001) has dedicated a line of research qualifying claims
about the prevalence and force of framing. In one study, he finds that the
credibility of the media source matters in terms of how effective a frame is.
Information presented as coming from the New York Times, for example, had much
greater effects than the same information presented as coming from the National
Enquirer. This speaks to the larger point that one ought not speak about media
effects generally. Instead, one should think about the effects of certain types
of information, presented in certain ways, by a certain source, to a certain
audience, and under certain circumstances.

Another important point to consider, especially in terms of framing,
is that frames seldom have monopoly status (Nelson & Kinder, 1996). If one
party or candidate frames an issue in a certain way, the other party or
candidate will likely try to find a different way of framing the issue, which
may be equally or more compelling. This then forces people to balance these

Another factor that may temper framing effects is political
conversation. This argument is akin to one put forth by Druckman and Nelson
(2003). Their point of departure is a perceived shortcoming of most framing
studies. Most of these studies, they suggest, expose participants to a stimulus
and then have them report their opinions “without any social interaction or
access to alternative sources of information” (p. 730). That is, these studies
place participants in a social vacuum, prohibiting them from discussing the
issue with others. As such, much of the framing literature fails to incorporate
the social communication dimension of public opinion formation. The authors
attempt to address this weakness in the literature by conducting a series of
experiments that test the impact of different kinds of discussion on the
direction, magnitude, and persistence of framing effects. The differences in
discussion type—that is, the different conditions—pertain to exposure to
different perspectives. They find that post stimulus discussions that include
only common perspectives have no effect on elite framing, but discussions that
do include different perspectives eliminate framing effects.

Over the last few decades, the media landscape has changed
dramatically. The most important change is from an old media model of
broadcasting to a new media model of narrowcasting. Broadcasting refers to
media appealing to the general public and is exemplified by network television,
radio, and newspapers. Narrowcasting, made possible by cable, Internet, and
satellite radio, is targeted to very specific audiences.

The new media have a number of important characteristics that set
them apart from the old media. First, there is great variety in content, both
in terms of breadth (the number of topics) and in terms of depth (the amount of
information on such topics). Old media had content limitations, imposed by
considerations of time and space. The new media have no such limitations.
Second, the new media have much greater user control over what information
people are exposed to. In the broadcast model, the media decided what
information to transmit, and people had very few alternative sources of
information to go to. In the new media model, people have much greater
capabilities to select their own sources and to dig deeper when they feel it is

One concern that scholars have expressed about the new media era is
that it may amplify already existing disparities in terms of political
knowledge and participation (Prior, 2007). One advantage of the broadcast media
era was that it was conducive to passive learning. Even people uninterested in
politics would likely encounter and absorb political information, because there
were few easily available alternative means of entertainment: Once they were
watching television, they would watch whatever was on, which sometimes meant
they would be exposed to politically relevant information. Thus, while not
motivated to learn about politics, people would pick up political information
along the way.

This has changed radically in the new media era, which is
characterized by a diversity of media options, thus allowing people to opt out
of the media outlets or programming that offer political information. Baum and
Kernell (1999) point to exactly this development, in the context of the rise of
cable, to explain the decreasing audiences for presidential speeches. In the
broadcast days, television viewers had nowhere to turn when a presidential
speech came on. In the cable era, people have and take the opportunity to
change the channel to an outlet that does not broadcast the speech, thus
decreasing audience size. As a consequence, according to Baum and Kernell,
networks have become more reluctant to grant presidents airtime, since there is
a high likelihood that viewers will avoid or move away from the networks when
the speech is on.

Although motivation to seek out information was thus less important
in the broadcast era, it is crucial in the new media era. Further evidence of
this is provided in a study by Tewksbury (2003), who investigates people’s
online behavior, with specific attention to the extent to which people seek out
political information. Although high percentages of people tend to report that
they follow political news, Tewksbury argues that these self-report measures
are likely inflated because people like to present themselves as good citizens.
His approach, then, is to actually track people’s web-surfing behavior. In
short, he finds that the percentage of people accessing politically relevant content
and the percentage of the total page hits represented by politically relevant
content are much lower than the self-report measures suggest. Thus, it appears
that when given the opportunity to opt out of consuming political information,
many people take it.

In another piece, Althaus and Tewksbury (2002) investigate how the
agenda-setting power of the media may have changed in the new media era. After
all, the old media had a near monopoly on political information, and thus had
great potential to highlight certain issues over others. In the new media era,
people may follow their own issue interests or avoid politics altogether, thus
lessening the agenda-setting power of the media. The authors compared issue
priorities of participants who read the paper version of the New York Times
with those of people who read the online version. The latter, as it turned out,
were less affected by the issues that the New York Times emphasized. The online
format, Althaus and Tewksbury suggest, gives people the opportunity to avoid
content that journalists, editors, and politicians want to prioritize. This
could be good because it is empowering and may provide incentives for
politicians and the media to pay attention to issues that the public is
interested in, but it could also be bad because the public may be better off
focusing on issues that they are not naturally interested in but that are
important nonetheless. And given the results of Tewksbury’s earlier study, it
is quite likely that rather than attending to other political information,
people will attend to nonpolitical content such as entertainment and sports

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