Effects of a Multimedia Public Journalism Project
on Political Knowledge and Attitudes
University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Missouri at Columbia
University of Missouri at Columbia
Prepared for submission to the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication, 1995.
The authors thank the Pew Center for Civic Journalism for its support of
Disconnections among the people, their political processes and the media
have resulted in widespread perceptions of alienated and apathetic
non-voters, unresponsive and manipulative politicians and ineffectual
media. In this field experiment, a concentrated, concerted
public-journalism campaign across three media and four media outlets
addressed some apparent causes of these disconnections by structuring
reports to be comprehensible, by coordinating different media, by
directing media content and by providing information specifically to
empower citizens. Results indicated that respondents were well aware of
the public-journalism project and, as a result, were more interested
knowledgeable about the election and more likely to vote. The parti
cipating media succeeded in communicating specific political information,
particularly tools to empower citizens. Negative advertising raised
knowledge levels but also encouraged cynicism about politics. The
public-journalism project made respondents feel more positive toward the
The heart of American journalism, and the source of its First Amendment
protection, is its role in democratic processes, particularly in
campaigns and elections. The dominant social responsibility theory of
press holds that news media enjoy freedom and some privilege in the
States so that they can carry out essential positive functions in our
society. Preeminent among those functions is facilitating the political
system by providing information, ideas and discussion about issues and
candidates for public office (Siebert, Peterson and Schramm 1963).
The actual relationship between the news media and the public, however,
falls short of that ideal. Contrary to the ideal of the
interested, involved and active citizen, the electorate has been
characterized as largely apathetic and ignorant about public affairs. Most
people pay close attention to politics and government only during times of
crisis or when government actions directly and personally affect them.
For example, only a slight majority (average 56 percent) can identify
congressional candidate in their district during campaigns (Neuman
Most citizens are not actively studying public affairs, attending
meetings, helping candidates or otherwise participating in public affairs.
"A more realistic model of the typical citizen acknowledges that most
political learning is fragmentary, haphazard and incidental. The
does not 'study' the candidates but rather picks up bits and pieces of
information over time, gradually accumulating a composite picture of the
prominent issues and candidates. This is a process of low-salience
learning. The key distinction is between information seeking and
information acceptance" (Neuman 1986, p. 148).
For their part of the relationship, the news media do not seem to be
engaging their audiences in public affairs. McGuire (1986) points out
many published studies do not report significant media effects, and those
that do account for no more than 2-3% of variance in the effects
Neuman (1986, p. 156) says the power of the media has been "exaggerated,"
not only because of the uninterested public but also because of
from entertainment media and inherent constraints and limitations of the
media to inform and persuade. He particularly points to the
much journalism, e.g., horse-race campaign coverage (p. 136).
IS PUBLIC JOURNALISM A SOLUTION?
This gridlock among the citizenry, the news media and the public sphere
has given rise to the notion of public journalism, a broad concept
generally seeks to pull the uninterested public into their public
As defined by Rosen (1994):
Public journalism is not a settled doctrine or a strict code of
conduct but an unfolding philosophy about the place of the journalist
in public life. This philosophy has emerged most clearly in recent
initiatives in the newspaper world that show journalists trying to
connect with their communities in a different way, often by
encouraging civic participation or regrounding the coverage of
politics in the imperatives of public discussion and debate.
In effect, public journalism would add the duty of public involvement to
the traditional responsibilities of the press, e.g., surveillance,
agenda-setting, watchdog. The philosophy as applied would have a news
medium purposefully organize its resources and activities to educate and
interest people in the public sphere.
Such planned, focused initiatives are seen as necessary because one of the
reasons journalism has failed to teach citizens about public affairs may
be the news media's "lack of purposefulness" (McQuail 1987. p. 292).
is, very diverse content is selected and presented serendipitously in
response to a perceived public interest in general news about their
News itself is fragmentary, incomplete and episodic (Carey 1986), making
it difficult to keep up and comprehend. Robinson and Levy (1986, p.
give some blame to "the way news media tell the story, particularly
few news stories take into account the public's limited skills and
interests in processing news content." While some people, notably those
with low cognitive skills, may learn better from television and
the structure and style of newspapers make it more difficult for
people to learn about political issues (Neuman, Just and Crigler 1992,
106). News could be truly comprehensible, Kosicki and McLeod (1990,
say, but it would require an idealized citizen to view it over time and
across media, an impossibility in real life.
The public journalism approach to comprehensibility might be to reach
people through various and perhaps innovative techniques (such as
meetings and interactive features) and show them how public affairs affect
them and how they can have an impact in public affairs. The key may be
ensuring that the project is concentrated, in deference to the voter's
attention span, and concerted, among media.
H1: A concentrated, concerted multimedia information and news
campaign will increase public awareness of a "public journalism"
program, although awareness will vary by demographics and degree of
exposure to the participating media.
Overall, people seem to learn, that is, retain, very little directly from
the news media, particularly specific information from news stories.
Television-news viewers cannot recall much of newscasts they have seen
before (Neuman 1976; Robinson and Levy 1986, p. 87-105). Taking out
factors, particularly education, the same seems to be true of the
media. Neuman (1986, p. 137) cites an "inverse law:" Generally, "the
higher the level of abstract, issue-oriented, political content, the
smaller the audience it is likely to attract."
On the other hand, people are receptive to information that helps them
gain personal power in dealing with public issues. Neuman, Just and
Crigler (1992, p. 111) found that their subjects were particularly
enthusiastic about media content that told them what they could do about
something. This is consistent with the findings of a national series
focus groups which concluded that citizens are not so much apathetic
they are alienated because they feel personally powerless in politics
public affairs (Harwood Group, 1991). That study concluded that
have a "reservoir of civic duty" (p. 62) and want to be involved, and
called for "somehow" reconnecting people and politics. A central goal
public journalism is to address issues and candidates in a powerful,
focused way that shows people how they can make a difference.
H2: A concentrated, concerted public-journalism project will increase
people's stated interest in an election, feeling encouraged to vote
and confidence in being informed.
H3: A concentrated, concerted public-journalism effort can provide
citizens with specific information and tools to participate in the
H4: Demographic variables will explain more general political
knowledge, like candidates' names, highly publicized campaign events
and other very salient information widely available through many
and advertising media. A concentrated, concerted public-journalism
campaign can increase knowledge of less widely available, less
Public journalism is rooted in journalists' concerns about disconnections,
not only between citizens and their government but also between people and
their news media, particularly newspapers. Public journalism is
self-interested in that it seeks to make the participating media more
valuable to consumers by connecting them to their community.
H5: A concentrated, concerted public-journalism project will increase
the public image of the project's media sponsors as contributing to
the democratic process.
The role of political advertising in influencing both attitudes about
government and politics, particularly cynicism, and in influencing
knowledge levels has been argued for years. Since the 1988 presidential
race, when negative political ads became extremely salient and were
argued to have a high impact on voting outcomes, the role of attack
positive political ads has become the focus of many studies. Recent
research, however, has pointed clearly toward the notion that attack ads
have three consistent effects. First, they are more likely to be
and remembered than positive ads. Second, they are more likely to
knowledge levels than positive ads. And third, they are more likely to
create negative feelings toward politics, government and candidates.
look at each of these effects in more detail.
Studies consistently support the idea that negative ads are very
memorable. For example, Faber and Storey (1984) reported that
approximately 20% of all information recalled from ads in a Texas
gubernatorial election was negative. Garramone (1984) similarly reported
that 75% of phone respondents in Michigan reported seeing negative ads
congressional candidates. More recently, Lemert et al (1991) reported
in the 1988 presidential election, attack ads were on average better
remembered (55%) than positive ads (45%).
Other evidence indicates that people do learn from political advertising,
although the research is mixed. Patterson (1980), Patterson and McClure
(1976) and Zhao and Chaffee (1993) presented evidence that television
political advertising was positively related to knowledge about
issue positions. Chaffee, Zhao and Leshner (1994), however, did not show
significant effects. In addition, although negative ads are generally
better free-recalled than positive ads, it is not clear whether they are
more associated with political knowledge than positive ads.
Finally, there is evidence that attack ads are significantly related to
more negative thoughts about campaigns, candidates and government
1992; Hill, 1989; Garramone, 1984). Some significant evidence says
exposure to negative ads is associated with a lowered likelihood of voting
(Tinkham and Weaver-Lariscy, 1993; Lemert et al, 1991; Faber, Tims and
H6: Exposure to greater numbers of negative ads will increase
H7: Exposure to greater numbers of negative ads will increase
cynicism; exposure to greater number of positive ads will decrease
In addition, one might speculate that a public-journalism campaign can
also trigger cynicism, because teaching people about political
and other manipulations could cause them to distrust everything about
politics. This suggests one research hypothesis:
RH1: Cynicism will be increased by awareness of the public-journalism
program and exposure to the participating media.
Because we were actively involved in providing people with news and
information especially designed to help them understand and participate in
the political process, we were interested in whether people would, if
did become better informed and more involved, be able to articulate
experience. The area of psychology that provides relevant measures
examining such self-reflective cognitions is called metacognition,
in the sense that people are thinking about their own thinking. In an
ellent review of metacognitive processes, Yussen (1985) points out
what people "know" about their own "knowledge" can often predict
levels. In the present study, we asked people two kinds of
questions. First, we asked them whether they believed they had enough
information to make an informed voting choice. Second, we asked them
whether they believed news stories of various types were "easy to
understand" or "difficult to understand."
H8: Metaknowledge that news stories are understandable and that one
has enough information to make an informed voting choice will be
positively related to measures of knowledge.
STUDY DESIGN and METHOD
This field experiment sought to involve citizens in the political process
by a planned, coordinated information and news campaign across three
and four media outlets. As part of a public-journalism effort, the
attempted to deal with key points raised above by structuring media
reports to be comprehensible, by coordinating different media, by
media content and by providing information specifically to empower
Typically, media-effects research is performed in a laboratory or by post
hoc audience measurement of routine, uncoordinated media coverage.
example, media knowledge effects usually are measured by selecting a
apparently important items that have appeared in the news, then
demonstrating how few survey respondents are familiar with the information
(Neuman, Just and Crigler 1992, p. 2).
For this project, the participating media were involved from the
conception and cooperated throughout. They were the morning and Sunday
newspaper in the state capital, the statewide public-television and
public-radio networks and a local commercial TV station, dominant in the
market. Editors and news directors agreed in advance to coordinate
extraordinary treatment of two statewide election campaigns, as part of
their public-journalism partnership to improve democratic
Most of these partners had been working together for more than two
beginning with town-hall meetings and a presidential-campaign debate
1992 and continuing through a series of projects, ranging from
reform and the federal budget deficit to statewide issues and
In the fall of 1994, the partners, working with the researchers,
the gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial campaigns for an intense
public-journalism initiative. The project was particularly difficult
because both campaigns were lackluster, with the incumbents heavily
to win (as they did).
In addition to their traditional campaign coverage, the four media
partners agreed to cooperate on, and coordinate presentation of, an intense
effort that began in late September and concluded on Sunday, Nov. 6,
before the Tuesday election. The project had two parallel tracks:
TOWN HALLS AND DEBATES. Continuing an effort that had begun in the 1992
presidential primaries, the partners sought to pull ordinary citizens
issue identification and discussion and have them question the
at debates. In the gubernatorial campaign, the project held well
town-hall meetings in three cities around the state, then a debate
questions from the town-hall participants. The Friday night debate was
simulcast live on public TV and public radio, followed by a listener c
all-in discussion program on public radio. In addition, the debate was
taped; public TV broadcast the tape twice the following Sunday, and the
commercial station broadcast it once that day. The newspaper made the
debate the centerpiece of its Saturday front page. Later, transcripts
made available through the newspaper, and approximately 200 were
disseminated by request. Especially with such intense exposure, the debate
generated substantial news coverage and interest in the community because
a citizen wearing an American-flag shirt successfully demanded from
candidates specific commitments on a particularly salient issue.
The Senate discussion was less elaborate. One town-hall meeting was held
just before a scheduled debate. The incumbent declined to take part,
the town-hall participants questioned the challenger on live,
public television. The rest of the hour-long program was devoted to
discussion of media coverage and campaign practices, with experts
questions from the citizens in the studio and from statewide call-ins.
This program also was taped and rebroadcast on public and commercial
t drew some news coverage, though not as much as the gubernatorial
CIVICS TRAINING. Because of the alienation/empowerment issue, the other
track of this project was to provide to readers, viewers and listeners
specific information about political tactics to allow them to gain some
feeling of control over the campaign activities swirling around them.
newspaper researched and presented a series, called "Armed and
that sought to educate readers about how candidates and their keepers
to manipulate debates and how political advertisements are used to
attitudes and beliefs. One part of the series pointed out that many
candidates promise to solve problems beyond the powers of the office and
taught readers exactly "what politicians can and can't do for you."
last part, explaining the reasons for and implications of negative
campaigning and helping readers cut through it, was published the Sunday
before the Tuesday election. The packages featured a "voter's bill of
rights" so citizens would understand what they deserve out of candidates
and campaigns. The helpful, advice parts of the series were reprinted
later newspapers, particularly on the editorial page. Because this
detailed information and help is more suited to print than electronic
media, the radio and TV partners were less involved here. However, some
the "Armed and Dangerous" information was worked into their programs: On
the Friday night before the election. statewide public TV had a
negative campaigning, and the newspaper package that Sunday promoted
related programs that day on the commercial TV station. Statewide
radio devoted a popular call-in program to the subject. Just before
election, the public-journalism project compiled much of the
campaign coverage and Armed and Dangerous material into a booklet
"Voter's Self Defense Manual." Approximately 300 copies were made
available to the public and quickly claimed.
Throughout all these experimental treatments in all the media, the name
and logo of the public-journalism project were used repeatedly and
The day after the election, interviewers used random-digit dialing to
select and interview 657 adult residents of the county in which the
partners are located. Interviews were completed within five days.
The 44-item questionnaire measured respondents' knowledge of the
candidates, issues and campaign activities; the nature of the candidates'
ads; the respondents' voting behavior and choices; their media use;
familiarity with, reaction to and attitude toward the public-journalism
project; respondents' sources of political information; attitudes
the campaigns; self-perceptions of political efficacy and cynicism.
Independent and dependent variables used in the study are defined in the
The public-journalism program had been active and visible in the community
for more than two years, so it was to be expected that public awareness
would be high. In fact, most respondents had heard of the program,
males and 49% of females. The highest awareness, 60%, was among
middle-income ($30,000-$50,000). Whites were more familiar with the
project (52%) than minorities (39% for all minorities, 46% for blacks),
though there were few minorities in the sample of this largely
county. Among higher-educated respondents, 55% were aware, compared
of those whose education did not go beyond high school. The biggest
group, 56%, said they heard of the program through the newspapers, 50%
cited public TV, 49% the network affiliate and 30% public radio (though
those numbers should be tempered by the fact that 20% credited another,
non-participating newspaper and 36% another, non-participating TV
indicating confusion or invention).
Hierarchical regression analysis allowed further exploration of awareness.
Education and whether one actually voted were modest predictors of
awareness of the public-journalism program ("Heard of WTP-W" in Table 1),
and there was a stronger positive relationship between readership of
newspaper or viewership of public television and the awareness
H1 is supported.
Descriptive statistics (Table 2) indicate support for H2. Of the
respondents familiar with the public-journalism program, 32%
straightforwardly agreed that it encouraged their interest in the
55% said it informed them about important issues, and 11% said the program
encouraged them to vote.
H3 proposed that the "Armed and Dangerous" series provided citizens with
specific information and tools to participate in the political
Table 1 shows that income, employment and voting were significant
predictors of the variable "Armed and Dangerous" (see Appendix for
definition), accounting for 5% of the variance. But after those variables
in the regression hierarchy, awareness of the public-journalism
a strong predictor of the "Armed and Dangerous" knowledge, adding another
2% of variance and supporting H3.
Hypothesis 4 suggested that demographic variables would become less
dominant in accounting for the variance in dependent variables that were
clearly measures of specific material presented in the
project. This hypothesis found at least partial support. There were
measures of such specific material: whether people had heard of the
(identified as WTP-W in Table 1) and knowledge of the Armed and Dangerous
coverage. As can be seen in Table 1, demographics as a block
of the variance in WTP-W and 5% of the variance in Armed and
Consistent with the hypothesis, media consumption (newspaper and
accounted for an additional 5% of the variance of WTP-W and 2% of the
additional variance in Armed and Dangerous knowledge. As noted above,
having heard of the public-journalism program was strongly associated
Armed and Dangerous knowledge. The bottom line, then, is that after
demographics are accounted for, media variables are significant in
accounting for knowledge of specific media content, here a
That distinction becomes clearer when examining two other dependent
measures, knowing candidates' names and episodic knowledge (see appendix),
both of which were information widely available from many different
sources. Their variance was largely accounted for by demographics.
Newspaper and TV consumption contributed nothing to this variance.
heard of WTP-W and having encountered more negative ads did explain
another 2% of the variance in episodic knowledge, and having seen more
positive ads accounted for an additional 2% of the variance in knowing
Interestingly, then, exposure to newspaper and public TV is highly
predictive of knowledge of specific, known media content, but for material
that is more broadly available, demographics account for most of the
Hypothesis 4 also suggested that knowledge items that tested material
known to have been widely and frequently available in both news and
advertising (defined as salient in the appendix) would be predicted
primarily by demographic variables and by advertising exposure. This
hypothesis was clearly supported. As can be seen in Table 1, 4% of the
variance in salient knowledge items was explained by demographics, none
news consumption and 1% by the number of negative ads seen.
H4 proposed that knowledge of material known to have been less widely
available, primarily in the public-journalism effort, and not in
advertising, (identified as nonsalient in Table 1) would be more predicted
by consumption of the participating media. This hypothesis was
(Table 1). Twelve percent of the variance in nonsalient knowledge was
accounted for by demographics, an addition 3% by the participating media
and 2% more for having heard of the public-journalism project.
Journalists concerned about the acceptance, credibility and future of
their media are the basis for H5, whether the public-journalism effort
reconnect people with political processes would make respondents feel
positive toward the sponsoring news organizations. This hypothesis
strong support, as 42% of those who had heard of WTP-W felt more
toward the sponsors (Table 2).
The next two hypotheses proposed both positive and negative effects of
advertising. H6 found support, as exposure to more negative ads was
significantly predictive of the widely available episodic and salient
knowledge, adding 1% of the variance to each (Table 1). Interestingly,
negative-ad exposure was not related to knowledge of the Armed and
Dangerous and nonsalient material that primarily was in the
H7 predicted that the more negative ads an individual encountered, the
greater their cynicism level, and the more positive ads encountered,
lower the cynicism level. Table 1 shows this was the case, even after
demographic and news variables' effects were removed. Together,
to negative and positive ads accounted for 5% of the variance in
Neither demographics nor news consumption was significant in that
This result provides feedback on research hypothesis 1, that exposure to
the project's information and explanation of manipulative political
activities actually might
increase cynicism. RH1 fell, as there was no measurable increase in
cynicism as a result of the public-journalism effort (Table 1).
The final hypothesis, H8, proposed that metaknowledge (here, one's
estimate of one's own difficulty in understanding news of various types and
feeling that one knew enough to make an informed voting decision) would be
important in explaining all types of knowledge. Table 1 shows that
difficulty of understanding was significantly related to having heard of
WTP-W and knowing the names of the candidates. If people felt they
enough to make an informed decision, they were more likely to have
WTP-W and knew more episodic and salient information. Inexplicably, they
also remembered fewer candidates' names. Thus, the hypothesis that
metaknowledge is predictive of citizen knowledge is partially supported.
This research apparently is the first measurement of whether a planned,
coordinated, focused multimedia public-journalism effort can affect
citizenry's knowledge and attitudes. The results are very encouraging
those who want to improve the democratic processes and to those who
the news media can take a more active role in facilitating those
processes. Our results indicate that the public recognizes this
contribution to their democracy and appreciates it.
At the same time, we believe this project makes important contributions to
news-media research. Unlike laboratory experiments and post hoc audience
measurements, this field experiment involved collaboration with, and
responsible orchestration of, four leading news organizations across three
media as an experimental treatment. The focused treatment and
occurred within a tight and controlled time frame, during and after
political campaign. We think this unique experimental design greatly
increases the external, as well as internal, validity of this project.
We found that the public-journalism effort achieved widespread public
awareness, and most important, the people who knew of the project said
that, as a result, they were more interested in and knowledgeable about
election and more encouraged to vote. More specifically, the
public-journalism project succeeded in providing some citizens with
specific information and tools to become more "armed and dangerous" in
dealing with political campaigns.
While demographic differences account for knowledge of political
information that is widely available, the newspaper and public TV succeeded
in communicating specific, known media content. Negative advertising does
have an effect, apparently enhancing general knowledge of the candidates
and campaigns, but it did not predict knowledge of the material in the
public-journalism effort. Negative political ads do seem to increase
cynicism, and positive ads have the opposite relationship. The
public-journalism effort to uncover political manipulations and shenanigans
does not appear to feed cynicism.
As news organizations across the country experiment more with public
journalism, using their considerable resources to motivate a reluctant
citizenry to become involved in a sclerotic polity, there is much more
be learned. If journalists and researchers can continue to
we have here, methodological improvements can sharpen experimental
treatments and measurements and, therefore, knowledge. A longitudinal
experiment would show how learning and attitudes change as a result of
public journalism. Negative campaigning was controversial in the 1994
elections, and our results only begin to give insights into its effects
the citizenry and political processes. Cynicism appears to be a
phenomenon that, given the low level of involvement in public affairs,
demands further research.
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