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Media Effects on Political Alienation Revisited:
A Multiple-Media Approach
Tien-Tsung Lee, Ph.D.
Edward R. Murrow School of Communication
Washington State University
PO Box 642520
Pullman, WA 99164-2520
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Comm. Theory & Methodology Division
2004 AEJMC annual conference for consideration for presentation
Media Effects on Political Alienation Revisited:
A Multiple-Media Approach
Numerous studies have been conducted about media effects on political
alienation. To reflect the proliferation and influence of new and
non-traditional sources of political information in recent years, including
such news interview shows as Larry King Live, and the growing prominence of
Fox News and The O'Reilly Factor, the present study measures the effects of
an extensive list of information sources that are rarely found in existing
literature. Present findings reveal that media in general do not contribute
to political alienation as suggested by some existing research. A few news
sources, such as PBS and National Public Radio, may in fact reduce
political cynicism and promote political trust.
Media Effects on Political Alienation Revisited:
A Multiple-Media Approach
Whether the media contribute to the public's political alienation has
attracted the attention of many researchers and journalists. Generally
there are two categories of opinions on this issue. Some observers have
argued that media content, including news coverage of political candidates
and negative advertising, discourage citizens' political participation.
Others have found no negative relationship between media usage and
Most existing studies in this nature have investigated the effects of one
or several media. Sources of political information have increased and
diversified in recent years. The landscape of news sources has changed
significantly in the past two decades. For example, the influence of
newspapers has decreased, Fox News has emerged as a major component of
cable news, and the importance of the Internet has increased. Therefore,
revisiting the question of alienating effect with more media options is
needed. Surveying more than 260 registered voters in a West Coast state via
telephone, the present study investigates the relationship between
political alienation and the usage as well as importance of thirteen
sources of news information.
Political Alienation and Media's Responsibility
Americans seem much more politically alienated in general than citizens in
other developed countries. In comparison with the not so distant past,
fewer people vote, and other forms of political engagement such as
volunteering in election campaigns have decreased. Political scientists
have identified four dimensions of political alienation: 1) cynicism or
distrust (individuals' negative perception of the honesty and capabilities
of politicians and political institutions); 2) powerlessness or the lack of
efficacy (an individual feels he or she cannot influence the political
process); 3) meaninglessness (political parties do not offer meaningful
choices among candidates and issues; and the outcomes are therefore
unpredictable); and 4) apathy or indifference (individuals simply are not
interested in politics regardless of their level of political efficacy).
Aspects and terms of political alienation examined by communication
scholars include apathy, distrust, lack of confidence, cynicism,
skepticism, disaffection, negativism, and malaise. The objects of such
attitudes include individual politicians, political parties, political
campaigns, various levels and branches of the government, political process
or politics in general, and the institution of democracy.
These previous studies have done an excellent job discussing the origins
and differences of various dimensions of alienation. The present research
builds upon their contributions and only the constructs tested in this
study are defined here. The operationalization of those constructs can be
found in the method section. Efficacy refers to a belief that one's
participation can make a difference in politics, which some political
scientists call external efficacy. In comparison, internal efficacy means
being confident that politics is not too difficult or complex for one to
understand. The present study focuses on the former. Alienation is defined
as having no desire to be engaged in politics, such as not voting or
staying informed. Cynicism is defined as distrusting the government or
individual politicians in terms of having the common people's best
interests in mind – as opposed to those of politically connected groups or
individuals, or the politicians' own interests. Political trust is defined
as trusting the government to do what is right.
Although these terms may be conceptualized differently, essentially they
are all about negative attitudes that may lead to predictable political
behaviors such as non-voting or the lack of other forms of civic
participation. An important exception is skepticism. While a distrusting
mentality is often closed to news information, skepticism implies a healthy
The media, especially the news, have been blamed for Americans' political
alienation. Some scholars argue that news media's negative portrayals of
various participants in politics, as well as so-called "attack ads,"
decrease citizens' political participation – such as turning off voters.
Others have found that media usage does not contribute to political
cynicism or disaffection, and may in fact positively predict voting and
confidence in political institutions. One likely reason behind this
discrepancy is that researchers have examined different media effects and
various objects of disaffection as indicated above. Also, when effects are
discussed, which medium is in question needs to be specified.
There is little consensus on whether or not TV news has a positive or
negative effect on various forms of political participation. In contrast,
newspapers tend to be beneficial. Political talk radio is
overwhelmingly negative and conservative, and tends to have negative
impacts. In addition, the usage of radio and the Internet for political
information may reduce cynicism. Furthermore, reading newspapers and
watching TV entertainment programs could enhance social trust (trusting
other people), while exposure to TV news reduces social trust.
These different effects of various media suggest that the term media should
not be used collectively and loosely when researchers try to measure their
political impact. Instead, each medium should be examined separately
because of this reason. Also, the proliferation of sources of political
information in recent years means more media options should be included in
The landscape of media providing political information has changed in
recent years. For example, religious leaders and their cable channels have
become influential political players. It has become common for
political candidates to visit news interview shows and other TV talk shows.
Fox News has replaced CNN as the leader in cable news viewership.
Therefore, it is necessary to revisit the question of alienating effect by
including more media. National Election Studies surveys have included
variables such as morning TV news shows and daytime talk shows besides
traditional news media. The Pew Center has incorporated National Public
Radio in its surveys. Recent political communication studies have
examined such media as TV entertainment programs. These developments
suggest that adding newer and more non-traditional sources of political
information is a desirable approach.
Because of the mixed results on media effects in previous studies, the
present research asks research questions rather than testing hypotheses.
Also, this research includes an extensive list of media options as
explained in the next section.
The research questions are:
RQ1: Which media are predictors of political efficacy?
RQ2: Which media are predictors of political alienation?
RQ3: Which media are predictors of political cynicism?
RQ4: Which media are predictors of political trust?
A telephone survey of registered voters in a West Coast state was conducted
in late October and early November in 2002. Phone calls were made between
6:30 and 9:30 p.m. during the week by trained callers who were college
students receiving extra credit. A random sample was purchased from a
private research firm. Excluding disconnected or business numbers, three
attempts on different evenings were made to reach households in the sample.
At the end there were 267 successful calls (34.8%) and 501 (65.2%)
refusals. This success rate is not a surprise given the trend of declining
response rates for academic surveys. Respondents' ages ranged from 18
to 88, with a mean of 53.27. There were 133 women (50.6%) and 130 men
(49.4%) with four missing cases. The majority of respondents (n = 243, or
91%) were Caucasian. These demographics are consistent with similar surveys
with about a 50% respondent rate conducted in the same region.
Therefore, the sample's representativeness is not an issue. There were 51
questions in the survey, most of which were measured on Likert-type scales.
Most calls were completed in 10 minutes.
The four dependent variables in this study are political efficacy,
alienation, cynicism, and trust. Variables (measured on a 1-5-point scale
from strongly agree to strongly disagree) related to each construct were
first added together then the means were taken to form an index. The
original wordings of each survey question and the alphas of the additive
scales are shown in Table 1. These items were adopted from similar studies
conducted before, and were pre-tested for the present research.
<< Insert Table 1 About Here >>
There are 13 variables in the questionnaire on the importance of
information sources to the respondents personally in terms of learning
about the government and politics. These sources range from network TV
(ABC, CBS and NBC) news, local TV news, Public TV and radio (PBS and NPR),
news interview shows such as Larry King and Crossfire, Foxes News and The
O'Reilly Factor, national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA
Today, local newspapers, religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat
Robertson, political talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh, radio news
other than NPR, news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, discussions with
family/friends, and the Internet/WWW. In addition, there are six items on
how many days in the past 7 days a respondent used a TV news program, read
a newspaper, listened to call-in political talk radio, listened to radio
news, read a news magazine, and used the Internet/WWW for news. These
variables were also adopted from existing literature. The political and
media situations in 2002 were taken into consideration, such as the fact
that Fox News had become more prominent, and certain religious figures were
influential in U.S. politics. The case for measuring both media importance
and usage has been established.
A series of simple regressions were performed. Each of the 19 independent
variables (on importance and usage of sources of political information)
took turns regressing on each of the four political alienation variables.
The purpose was to identify which sources of political information, and
frequency of media usage, were predictors of the four alienation indices.
After individual media- or source-related predictors were identified, each
predictor was entered into an OLS multiple regression model after a series
of control variables. The latter were entered in the following order: 1)
sex (male dummy); 2) exact age; 3) education (measured on a 5-point scale
from less than High School to Graduate work or degree); 4) yearly household
income (measured on a 7-point scale from under $10,000 to over $150,000):
5) Ideology (1-7-point scale from very liberal to very conservative); 6)
Partisanship (1-9-point scale from strong Democrats to Independents leaning
toward either party, independents, to strong Republicans; other parties and
apolitical were excluded); 7) social/personal trust (1-5 point scale from
strongly agree to strong disagree on "Most people are honest and can be
trusted"); and 8) media trust.
The last control variable was a 1-5-pont additive index (alpha = .74)
combining the following three variables: "You can depend on most news
reporters to get a story right"; "Most news media are trustworthy"; and
"News coverage is biased on issues I care about" (reversed). All the
demographic control variables are typical in political communication
studies. The last two variables were included because they are related to
cynicism. Logically, mistrust of other people and the news media could
affect one's political alienation. All but three source-related variables
did not "survive" these multiple regression tests. That is, after a number
of demographic and mistrust factors were controlled, only three sources
remained significant predictors of political alienation constructs.
Standardized beta-coefficients in Table 2 reveal the following. First,
importance of three types of sources of political information (news
interviews such as Larry King, local newspapers, and religious leaders such
as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson), and frequency of newspaper and radio
usage, all contribute positively to political efficacy (e.g., one can make
a difference in politics). The more important those sources are, and the
more often respondents use newspaper and radio, the higher the level of
political efficacy they have. How often one reads newspapers is the
strongest predictor of efficacy. The set of findings answer RQ1.
Second, importance of news interview shows and national newspapers, and
frequency of usage of newspapers, talk radio, and radio news, are all
negative predictors of political alienation, which answers RQ2. In other
words, the more important those sources are to the respondents, and the
more often they use these media, the less alienated (e.g., not voting or
not staying politically informed) they are. The strongest predictor of the
lack of political alienation is the reliance on national newspapers such as
The New York Times and USA Today.
As for political cynicism (believing politicians are self-centered and the
government is run by a few big interests), it is positively predicted by
the importance of local TV news, but negatively associated with the
importance of four other sources (PBS/NPR, news interview shows, national
newspapers, and religious leaders), and frequency of usage of newspapers,
talk radio, and radio news. That is, the more one considers local TV news
important, and the less he or she considers the other four sources
important, and the less one uses those three media, the more cynical a
respondent is. These results answer RQ3. The strongest predictor of
political cynicism is the low usage of radio news, followed by less use of
Next, the importance of PBS and NPR and local newspapers are positive
predictors of political trust (trusting the government to do the right
thing). On the other hand, the importance of political radio is negatively
associated with political trust. In other words, the more important PBS,
NPR, and local newspapers are, and less important talk radio is to
respondents, the more they trust the government. These findings answer RQ4.
Regression models in Table 3, as discussed in the Method section, include
both control and source variables. All but three source-related variables
made the cut after control variables were entered. Importance of religious
leaders as sources of political information positively predicts political
efficacy. Political cynicism is positively predicted by importance of local
TV news, but is negatively predicted by importance of PBS and NPR as
information sources. Finally, importance of PBS and NPR positively predicts
political trust. These results also answer the research questions.
<< Insert Tables 2-3 About Here >>
Conclusion and Discussion
Media in General Are Not to Blame for Political Alienation
When no control variables are involved, the usage and reliance of a number
of media and other sources is either not or negatively associated with
political alienation in general. The exceptions are political talk radio
and local TV news. The former is somewhat expected due to its conservative
and negative nature according to existing literature. The latter could be
due to an avoidance effect. If consumers already have a cynical attitude
toward politicians and the government, they may choose to rely on only
local TV news, which is less likely to cover national and regional politics
than other media.
Once control variables are included, newspaper usage positively predicts
political efficacy, and is negatively associated with political alienation
and cynicism. Reliance on, or importance of local TV news, on the other
hand, again positively predicts cynicism. Furthermore, importance of PBS
and NPR is negatively associated with cynicism and increases political trust.
Taking the above findings, it can be concluded that the media in general,
except local TV news, do not contribute to political alienation. In
addition, public TV and radio, as well as newspapers, may in fact reduce
There are a few interesting findings regarding other sources of
information. Why is importance of news interview shows positively related
to efficacy and negatively associated with alienation and cynicism? One
possible reason is that heavy users of such shows are "political
information junkies." Because of their higher levels of political interest
and knowledge, they feel that they have a say in, and a more positive
attitude toward, politics. The effect of religious leaders is interesting,
too. No doubt that consumers who rely on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell
for political information and guidance are conservative and Republican.
These consumers likely feel that their political views are in line with
those who currently control the White House and both houses of Congress.
Therefore, they feel that they have a say in politics, and have little
reason to be politically cynical.
The Effect of Other Variables
The control variables in Table 3 deserve some discussion. Income has a
strong effect on political alienation. Rich consumers tend to have a higher
level of efficacy, and a lower level of cynicism. Republican supporters
appear to have much trust in, and little cynicism toward, the government.
This positive attitude reflects the political reality that their party
controls the White House and both houses of Congress. Surprisingly,
liberal-conservative ideology is not a significant factor in the regression
models. This suggests that partisanship plays a more important role than
ideology in respondents' minds when they contemplate politics. In addition,
trust in other people and the news media have some effects on cynicism and
political trust, which suggests that different dimensions of trust are
In conclusion, the present study may be the first to examine an extensive
list of media and other information sources in their effects on political
alienation. New knowledge on media effects has been generated. This long
list reflects recent developments in U.S. politics and the media industry,
such as the fact that certain religious figures have become more
politically influential – partially due to the fact that their allies
control the executive and legislative branches of government at the federal
level. Also, Fox News and the Internet are included in the analysis.
Finally, although the data's representativeness should not be an issue as
discussed earlier, the response rate is still not ideal. However, there may
not be a solution to this problem. The general public seems to have become
more sensitive to intrusive phone calls from strangers, which is reflected
by the fact that a large number of households have signed on to the "do not
call list" barring telemarketers. Low response rates of telephone
surveys may be a reality that all academic researchers have to accept.
Measures Used to Create Indices on Political Alienation Constructs
N Mean S.D. alpha
Index: Political Efficacy (1-5 point) 267 3.78 .77 .74
1. Voting gives people an effective way to
influence what the government does. 266 3.89 .94
2. It seems like our government is run by a
few big interests who are just looking out 265 3.86 .95
3. I have a say in what the government does. 263 3.59 .92
Index: Political Alienation (1-5 point) 267 1.90 .66 .61
1. Staying informed about government and
politics is too much trouble. 265 2.12 .93
2. I don't care much about voting. 266 1.72 .87
3. Voting is a hassle. 265 1.87 .83
Index: Political Cynicism (1-5 point) 266 3.27 .93 .64
1. It seems like politicians only care about
themselves or special interests. 259 3.45 1.11
2. It seems like our government is run by a
few big interests who are just looking out 261 3.19 1.20
3. Politicians are out of touch with life 259 3.17 1.14
in the real world.
Index: Political Trust (1-4 point) 264 2.19 .57 .73
1. How much of the time do you think you can
trust the federal government in Washington, DC 262 2.16 .67
to do what is right – just about always, most of
the time, only some of the time, or rarely?
2. How much of the time do you think you can 262 2.16 .69
trust the state government to do what is right?
3. How about your local city or county government? 260 2.27 .75
Simple Regression Models: Media Predictors of Political Alienation Constructs
Efficacy Alienation Cynicism Trust
beta R-sq. beta R-sq. beta R-sq. beta R-sq.
Sources of political information
1. Network TV news
2. Local TV news .12* .02
3. PBS and NPR -.15* .02 .16* .02
4. News interview shows .15* .02 -.14* .02 -.15* .02
5. Fox News/O'Reilly Factor
6. National newspapers -.15* .02 -.13* .02
7. Local newspapers .16** .03 .21** .04
8. Religious leaders .17** .03 -.13* .02
9. Political talk radio -.20** .04
10. Radio news
11. News magazines
Media usage in past week
1. TV news
2. Newspapers .23*** .05 -.14* .02 -.16* .02
3. Talk radio -.13* .02 -.15* .02
4. Radio news .12* .02 -.14* .02 -.18* .03
5. News magazine
Note. * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001
Multiple Regression Models: Predictors of Political Efficacy
Efficacy Cynicism 1 Cynicism 2 Trust
beta beta beta beta .
Sex (male) -.04 -.11 -.04 -.12
Age .14 -.07 -.06 .02
Education .02 -.06 -.06 .06
Income .20* -.32*** -.28*** .11
Ideology (Lib.-Con.) -.04 -.06 -.04 -.08
Partisanship (Dem.-Rep.) .05 -.22** -.30*** .25**
Social/personal trust .06 -.08 -.12 .19**
Media trust .11 -.28*** -.19** .31***
Importance of source
Religious leaders .17*
Local TV news .19**
PBS and NPR -.16* .16*
R-sq. .11 .28 .26 .27
Note. * p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001
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