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Subject: AEJ 96 BucyE CTM Bias of political science in mass media and democracy
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 23 Dec 1996 05:09:08 EST

text/plain (1747 lines)

                  MASS MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
                        Erik P. Bucy
                      Doctoral Student
                    College of Journalism
            University of Maryland, College Park
                        Paul D'Angelo
                      Doctoral Student
           Program in Mass Media and Communication
                      Temple University
                        Erik P. Bucy
                   2806 Clear Shot Dr. #12
                   Silver Spring, MD 20906
                     tel: (301) 405-7317
                 e-mail: [log in to unmask]
           Paper submitted for presentation to the
     Communication Theory & Methodology Division at the
                AEJMC 1996 Annual Convention
                     Anaheim, California
                     August 10-13, 1996
           Running head: Bias of Political Science
                  MASS MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
          Chaffee and Hochheimer have identified four
     normative orientations, or biases, that undergrid
     much research into political communication.  This
     paper explores how the biases of political science
     operate in the media-politics literature, namely,
     how they act to relegate mass media to the margins
     of democratic theory and place theoretical and
     methodological constraints on research.  Though
     robust, the media/politics interface remains
     underdeveloped largely due to these constraints.
     One upshot has been the rise of media intrusion
     theory and the neoconservative media critique.
     Suggestions are made for a fuller integration of
     communication research into political science as
     well as new ways of thinking about media in
     relation to politics.
        The Bias of Political Science in the Study of
                  Mass Media and Democracy
     In a recent commentary on the "disciplinary divide"
between political science and communication research,
Jamieson and Cappella (1996) observe that academic
disciplines "see research through the biases created by
their presuppositions and preferred methods" (p. 13).  These
biases, they argue, cause political scientists to focus
primarily on outcomes and the social-economic judgments that
shape them, while prompting communication researchers to
study the messages that constitute campaigns.  A theoretical
position common to much political communication research--
whether conducted from a political science, mass
communication, or rhetorical perspective--is that media play
an intervening role in the political process.  Functionally,
media are seen to occupy an intermediary position between
candidates who require coverage to run for elective office
and voters whose political behaviors depend, in large part,
on information they receive from news.  Theoretically, media
use has thus been widely regarded as an independent variable
that helps explain some desired outcome, or dependent
variable, such as political participation, attitude
formation, or vote choice.
     Regardless of perspective, the "media/politics
interface," as Graber (1987) calls it, has been examined in
terms of certain prevailing, cross-disciplinary assumptions.
These intellectual assumptions, Chaffee and Hochheimer
(1985) observe, involve how voters should act, how political
institutions should operate, how theorists and researchers
should do their work, and how communication and politics
should interact.  Operationally, these normative
orientations manifest themselves in research designs that,
(1) view the media/politics interface from an institutional
or elite perspective; (2) treat the act of voting as a
consumer decision and political communication research as
the study of marketing problems; (3) assess the imperfect
processes of politics and communication in contrast to an
idealized system; and, (4) push for broad generalizations
that argue the processes involved in political communication
are approximately equivalent across space and time (Chaffee
& Hochheimer, 1985:268-269).1
     This paper explores how the four normative
orientations, or biases, of political science identified by
Chaffee and Hochheimer continue to operate in political
communication research, specifically, how they act to
relegate mass media to the margins of democratic theory and
place theoretical and methodological constraints on studies
of media and politics.
The Origins of a Marginal Press
     Early election studies which examined factors involved
in voting decisions seemed to demonstrate that the news
media had little influence on the vote (e.g. Lazarsfeld et
al., 1944; Berelson et al., 1954; Campbell et al., 1960) and
therefore played a relatively minor role in the political
process.  Despite evidence to the contrary (see Becker et
al., 1975; O'Keefe, 1975; Chaffee & Hochheimer, 1985;
Rogers, 1994), the Lazarsfeld and Berelson studies held that
media exposure, rather than changing people's voting
decisions, simply reinforced or strengthened already
existing attitudes, opinions, and beliefs.  These early,
essentially negative, findings gave rise to the "limited
effects" school of media research synthesized by Klapper
(1960) and effectively discouraged the further assignment of
much importance to mass media in the political decision-
making process (Graber, 1987).  Subsequently, the news
media's primary contribution to democratic theory came to be
viewed in terms of its role in political socialization
(Graber, 1989).  Media were thus generally regarded as
subordinate institutions and, much like school, the family,
and the church, were expected to lend legitimacy to
political processes (Davis, 1990).
     Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically because of
their negative findings, these seminal studies laid the
groundwork for the dominant paradigm of empirical mass
communication research (Gitlin, 1978).  The history of the
limited effects model is well documented (see Chaffee &
Hochheimer, 1985; Rogers, 1994) and does not need to be
recited in depth here.  Gradually, however, the weak effects
model clashed with how media appeared to operate in society.
Since the notion of media impotence contradicted lived
experience--as well as political and journalistic folklore
(Graber, 1987)--a new generation of political communication
researchers resumed the study of media influence on
elections in the late 1960s and 1970s (e.g. McCombs & Shaw,
1972; Becker, et al., 1975; Siune & Kline, 1975; Nie et al.,
1976; Patterson & McClure, 1976; Mendelsohn & O'Keefe,
1976).  This renewed research effort, memorialized by
Chaffee (1975) in an important volume of essays on political
communication (Jamieson & Cappella, 1996), asserted a more
active role for mass media in the political process and
established a new base of research findings showing that
mass media can have important cognitive and electoral
influences.  To a large degree, this paradigm shift was the
driving force behind the now-celebrated "ferment in the
field" (early 1980s) period of communication research.
Throughout this definitional decade, studies in political
communication bolstered the case that news messages,
institutions, and, increasingly, journalists themselves were
central to the conduct and outcome of elections and a
dominant influence on the public's perceptions of candidates
and issues (Graber, 1987).2  The limited effects model had
become outmoded.
     Yet despite these developments, many democratic
theorists as well as empirical researchers in political
science continue to ignore or gloss over what Zolo (1992)
calls the "centrality of communication."  Here, we encounter
the first normative orientation, which guides studies of
politics toward "the needs of the political system, in
particular the electoral component of that system, and from
the perspective of political elites" (Chaffee & Hochheimer,
1985:269).  In this vein, the early "classics" continue to
exert considerable influence on the conceptualization and
execution of much political communication research.  As
recently as the late 1980s, writers such as Dahl (1989) and
Sartori (1987) could devote entire books to political
processes without directing any attention to the
relationship between democracy, public opinion, and mass
communication (cited in Zolo, 1992).  Certain collections of
classic readings in American politics (e.g. Nivola &
Rosenbloom, 1986) have likewise overlooked the role of mass
media in political life.  While this oversight may serve
disciplinary imperatives, it may do so at the expense of
realism or what Jamieson and Cappella (1996) might call
"representational validity"--the generalizability of a set
of findings or their degree of correspondence to the true
model/real world.  As Zolo (1992) has noted, with the
massive increase in the means of mass communication in the
post-World War II period, it is increasingly implausible (if
not impossible) to ignore the cognitive, emotional, and
behavioral effects mass media have on voters in advanced
industrial societies as well as the impact these effects
have on the functioning of modern political systems.
The Search for Definitive Effects
     The search for media effects provides the second
normative orientation, namely, that political communication
should be regarded "as a message or campaign that effects
[sic] a change in people's evaluations of candidates for
office" (Chaffee & Hochheimer, 1985:268).  Proving
definitive media effects has always been problematic.
Social science, including both political science and
communication research, has long had difficulty
demonstrating whether mass media exposure, attention, and
use has observable effects on audiences outside of
controlled laboratory settings (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987;
Jamieson & Cappella, 1996).  As Bartels (1993) notes, the
scholarly literature on this subject has been much better at
"refuting, qualifying, and circumscribing the thesis of
media impact than at supporting it" (p. 267).  Given the
pervasiveness of the mass media and their virtual monopoly
over election information in advanced industrial
democracies, the inability to prove a causal connection
between media messages and voter behavior is, according to
Bartels, "one of the most notable embarrassments of modern
social science" (1993:267).  Indeed, with regard to
political communication, Iyengar and Kinder (1987) argue
that the lack of a (universal) theory of media effects
significantly impedes our understanding of how a mass
democracy even works (p. 3).
     Political science is strongest when assessing factors
that influence voters' political attitudes and voting
decisions and weakest when analyzing media content elements
(Graber, 1987).  This is ironic, considering that when
political scientists discuss the substance of media
coverage, they tend to be quite critical of journalism's
performance, that is, they look at news coverage in terms of
the needs of the political system (Chaffee & Hochheimer,
1985).  As Graber (1987) observes, "They have complained
about the heavy emphasis on 'horse race and hoopla,' the de-
emphasis of issues, and the large number of stories dwelling
on the personal qualities of the candidates" (p. 12).
Content analyses of campaign stories carried out by
political scientists have found than less than a third of
campaign coverage mentions issues (Patterson, 1980; Robinson
& Sheehan, 1983, cited in Davis, 1990), compared to a
preponderance of political strategy coverage.  More
recently, Patterson (1993) has documented a negative and
evaluative pattern of media coverage of politics.  These
findings imply a weak empirical connection between what
researchers view as the needs of the system and what people
actually do in the evolving ecology of the media/politics
interface, a topic to which we will return below in the
section on political participation.
Media 'Intrusion' Theory
     For now, we proceed to the third normative orientation.
Here, it is argued that media institutions, because they are
not seen as "comprehensive, accurate, and scrupulously fair
and politically balanced" (Chaffee & Hochheimer, 1985:268),
represent a threat to the healthy functioning of the
democratic system.  In contrast to an ideal political
communication system, existing media practices are regarded
as increasingly intrusive, disruptive, and an
inappropriately interpretive part of the campaign process,
especially in presidential elections, where journalism has
filled a vacuum created by the decline of the political
parties as the primary mediating institution between
politicians and the public (Patterson, 1993; Kerbel, 1995).
With the introduction of direct-vote primaries to select
presidential nominees after the 1968 election, political
parties were forced to appeal to heterogeneous and widely
dispersed statewide audiences and, in conditions of a mass
(or direct) democracy, became dependent upon mass media to
reach voters (Patterson, 1980).  This situation amplified
the press' role in elections and has allowed political
correspondents to act as a kind of screening committee or
filtering mechanism for presidential aspirants (Schudson,
1983; Davis, 1990).  Media institutions are thus held to be
in direct, competitive opposition to the political parties
(Davis, 1990).
     Davis (1990) has labeled this critique of journalism
"media intrusion theory" and notes that it draws on theories
of institutionalism developed by political scientists.  In
this analysis, media are evaluated as social institutions
that should be expected to support political institutions,
especially the parties, by allowing candidates to base
campaigns on "issues" rather than press-defined priorities
(Davis, 1990).  Journalists instead, following professional
norms and practices that value coverage of individuals over
institutions, frame the campaign in competitive or personal
terms and "devote considerable space to discussion of
campaign strategy and to human interest coverage of the
private lives and character of the candidates" (Davis,
1990:161). Broadcast journalism, in this view, is especially
structured to inform voters more about compelling stories
and charismatic personalities than policy issues or party
positions (Chaffee et al., 1994).  Ranney (1983) maintains
that the shift to television as the dominant medium of
political communication may itself be the primary
explanation for the decline in the salience and influence of
the parties.3
     These views underscore what Chaffee and Hochheimer
(1985) characterize as an elitist, top-down view of the
political process--the first normative orientation.  More
contextually, they evoke Lippmann's (1922/1965) ideas on the
limits of the reasoning powers of ordinary citizens, and his
argument that journalism could best serve society by
supplying experts with information needed to make
intelligent governing decisions.  Modern media intrusion
theory thus complements Lippmann's "elite pluralism."  It is
interesting to note the expansiveness and pull of the media
intrusionist view.  As to its expansiveness, champions of
media intrusion theory are not confined to political
science.  They appear in slightly different form in the
field of communication wherever an assumption of strong
media effects and a robust normative view of society (i.e.
what makes for a good society) intersect.  Neil Postman's
(1985) critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public
Discourse in the Age of Show Business, about the negative
social implications of an entertainment-oriented media, and
Lichter, Rothman & Lichter's (1986) survey of media
practitioners, The Media Elite: America's New Power Brokers,
"proving" that journalists have an overtly partisan or
liberal bias, are just two examples of this genre.
     As to its allure, recent communication research
continues to validate the intrusionist position.  Indeed, we
do not have to look farther than some of Chaffee's own work.
In an analysis of television interview and political call-in
talk shows in the 1992 presidential election, Chaffee, Zhao
& Leshner (1994) suggest that the so-called "new media"
contribute to the gradual erosion of party authority.  They
observe: "The undermining of political parties as electoral
institutions is a long-term effect of television feared by
thoughtful political scientists (e.g. Ranney, 1983), and the
extensive interview shows of 1992 seem to have done nothing
to reverse this trend" (Chaffee et al., 1994:318).  The
assumptions of political science continue to provide the
foundation for analysis of the media/politics interface,
even when conducted from a communication perspective.
The Neoconservative Critique of Mass Media
     Carragee (1993) has identified advocates of the media
intrusion position as neoconservative critics of mass media.
The neoconservative approach, according to Carragee, holds
that "the American press has become a permanent opposition,
disparaging governmental authority, criticizing the
functioning of a market economy, and producing political
apathy and cynicism among the public" (1993:339-340).4
Rising levels of distrust toward politicians, and a disgust
of politics in general, are directly attributed to the anti-
institutional themes and relentlessly negative portrayal of
political elites by the press.  For neoconservative critics,
the line of demarcation between a fair and balanced press
and a biased, openly antagonistic press is the Vietnam War
period (roughly, the late 1960s), when the press began to
venture beyond official sources of information and started
to become more interpretive in orientation (Hallin, 1985).
     This period of time coincides with the rise of
neoconservativism as a political perspective.  In 1970,
Dorrien (1993) notes, the editors of Dissent magazine began
to actively look for a term to describe "an assortment of
former liberals and leftists who had recently moved to the
Right" (p. 1).  Regardless of their exact location on the
political spectrum (e.g. the right wing of the Left or the
left wing of the Right), neoconservatives were united in
their disillusionment with the Johnson administration's War
on Poverty and Great Society social programs--not for their
intended effect of helping the have-nots and creating a more
egalitarian society but for encouraging the formation of "a
'New Class' of parasitic bureaucrats and social workers"
(Dorrien, 1993:1).
     Whereas traditional conservatives favor the outright
elimination of the welfare state and a return to the
classical liberal conceptions of unfettered free enterprise
and the attainment of status and power through the ownership
of private property and the accumulation of capital,
neoconservatives prefer a minimal welfare state and seek to
increase their influence primarily through organizational
position (Dorrien, 1993).  Hence, their substantial presence
in political parties, public policy institutes, opinion
journals, think tanks, and the like.  As a critique of the
role of intellectuals in modern society, the neoconservative
conception of the New Class extends arguments developed by
Schumpeter (1942) and Hayek (1949) during the New Deal era
of American politics (Dorrien, 1993).  Over time, the
neoconservative movement has pursued a twofold political-
economic and cultural agenda, which Habermas (1989) has
identified as opposing communism (or disparaging socialism
in favor of capitalism) and supporting the republican theory
of democratic rule by traditional elites (with traditional
values).5  Attacks on the "liberal media" are a common theme
throughout much neoconservative criticism, which accuses the
news media--television in particular--of possessing a
political ideology that is deeply critical of political and
economic authority (Lichter, Rothman & Lichter, 1986).
     Neoconservative critiques of television gained currency
in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Braestrup (1977, cited
in Carragee, 1993) contends that negative coverage of the
Tet Offensive in Vietnam transformed an American military
victory into a troubling psychological defeat.  Critical
reports of the war, so this argument goes, eroded public
support for American foreign policy and contributed to
American defeat (Rothman, 1979).  The influence of this
argument can be seen in subsequent American military
interventions, which have been characterized by a high
degree of media management.  Robinson (1981) directly
locates the problem of America's crisis of confidence during
the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate era with network news.
"Our doubts about ourselves and hostility toward our
institutions would be far less severe were it not for the
images we receive from electronic media, more specifically,
from network journalism" (Robinson, 1981:314).
     Patterson, who has built a career assailing the press'
role in three influential, and suggestively titled, books--
The Unseeing Eye (1976, with McClure), The Mass Media
Election (1980), and Out of Order (1993)--is perhaps the
leading neoconservative critic of media and politics writing
today.  Patterson (1993) regards the press as a jaded,
miscast institution, one that is neither democratically
accountable nor very well suited for coalition building--a
major function of elections.  He observes:
     The proper organization of electoral opinion
     requires an institution with certain character-
     istics.  It must be capable of seeing the larger
     picture--of looking at the world as a whole and
     not in small pieces.  It must have incentives that
     cause it to identify and organize those interests
     that are making demands for policy representation.
     And it must be accountable for its choices, so
     that the public can reward it when satisfied and
     force amendments when dissatisfied...The press has
     none of these characteristics (1993:36).
Similar to other neoconservative media critics, Patterson
argues that the problem of the modern presidential campaign
lies primarily in the role assigned to the press (and not
with other important players in the process such as
political action committees or the political consulting or
advertising industries).  The press, he says, is ill-suited
for the role of democratic broker and imposes its own values
on American politics.
     Journalistic values, Patterson (1993:52) asserts, are
at odds with political values, which results in a news
agenda that misrepresents what is at stake.  They also
introduce an element of "random partisanship" (or
personality politics) into campaigns.  Moreover, election
news drives a wedge between candidates and voters rather
than serving to bring them together.  Hence, political
journalism as currently practiced violates the third
normative orientation of political science--that media
coverage should be comprehensive, scrupulously fair and
politically balanced.  Other writers have not been so
circumspect.  Rothman, for instance, has written that the
national news media's political role is not only
inappropriate, it has directly "contributed to the decay of
traditional political and social institutions" (1979:346).
The Adversarial Argument
     Another tenet of the neoconservative argument, and one
which exacerbates the normative assumption of political
fairness, is that news media engage primarily in an
adversarial relationship with political power (Patterson,
1980, 1993; Davis, 1990; Carragee, 1993).  While the
oppositional position represents only a partial reading of
the intricate press/politics relationship, it resonates with
a wide audience (not the least of which are journalists)
because both the press and political actors view themselves
in these terms (Rivers, 1970; Blumler & Gurevitch, 1981).
The metaphors of the press as the "Fourth Estate" or "watch
dog" on government stem from this professional ethos or
ideology.  Champion of the public's right to know, the
adversarial press sees itself as an independent check on the
political system, a seeker after truth that ferrets out
evidence of official corruption and ineptitude and acts as a
guardian against tyranny.
     There are several structural limitations to the
adversarial model.  First, as Blumler and Gurevitch (1981)
point out, it accommodates just one mode of interaction
between media and politicians: antagonism.  Secondly, the
adversarial explanation ignores the mutual dependency that
journalists share with political actors; it fails, as
Grossman and Rourke (1976) observe, to provide a "mechanism
for understanding the enormous amount of cooperation and
even collaboration that takes place in the interaction
between the press...and the government."  Finally, if
political message-making is a joint enterprise, a strict
adversarial stance could not be sustained for any length of
time without eroding the very basis of the relationship
(Blumler & Gurevitch, 1981).
     More broadly, critical theorists assert that the rise
of welfare state capitalism stripped the press of the
independent position it earlier enjoyed in relation to
dominant social interests.  While the technology of mass
production and distribution may have democratized the market
for news, the production of news became centralized, placing
the press under corporate control (Hallin, 1985).  Because
of its close association with economic power, "modern
journalism is characterized by a great reverence for
political authority" and "revolves like a satellite around
the center of political power" (Hallin, 1985:309).
Consequently, the mainstream media, Hallin argues, has
developed an "intimate institutional connection with the
state, despite the absence of formal state control"
     Despite these contradictions, the adversarial model
persists primarily because it occupies an ideological
position, that is, it prescribes how journalists should
normatively regard leading political actors and governmental
institutions: as adversaries (Blumler & Gurevitch,
1981:470).  The adversarial model's dominance among
journalistic practitioners makes it attractive for use by
political scientists.  Moreover, Carragee argues that the
attention and prominence the neoconservative thesis of
oppositional media has achieved in recent years "may owe
more to the conservative political climate in the United
States than to the adequacy of its arguments" (1993:341).
The Problem of Participation
     As mentioned above, the normative assumption of strong
media effects, that media exposure has discernible
(typically harmful) behavioral effects on audiences over
time and contributes to the erosion of public confidence in
institutions, is fundamental to neoconservative critiques of
media and society.  When combined with the tendency to
generalize and make broad conclusions--the fourth normative
orientation outlined by Chaffee and Hochheimer--the strong
effects argument becomes a sweeping indictment of media in
society.  This position is in full evidence in a Washington
Post report of the 1995 American Political Science
Association convention that appeared with the headline, "TV
tattered nation's social fabric, political scientist
contends" (Edsall, 1995).  The political scientist, Harvard
professor Robert D. Putnam (known for his "bowling alone"
thesis), asserts that the introduction of television into
American society in the 1950s is a major factor in the
subsequent decline of both social trust and membership and
participation in civic organizations.  Across educational
level, Putnam found a negative correlation between the
amount of television exposure and the level of reported
social trust and number of groups an individual joins
(Edsall, 1995; Putnam, 1995).6  Thus, he argues, the
country's supply of social capital, or citizen engagement in
public affairs, has eroded.  This privatization of public
life through technological means, to quote Ithiel de Sola
Pool, "will promote individualism and will make it harder,
not easier, to govern and organize a coherent society"
(Pool, 1990:262, cited in Putnam, 1995).  Putnam's position
typifies the bias of political science in studies of media
and democracy, and one does not have to look far or very
closely to see a strong normative orientation at work.
     Putnam's argument points to two assumptions driving
much political communication research, namely, that people
should be concerned and accepting of the political system
and that the role of media should be conceived in terms of
what they might do to people rather than what people might
be doing with media (Chaffee & Hochheimer, 1985).  In
Putnam's research design, television exposure is
conceptualized as an independent variable acting on the
dependent variable, political participation, and does not
constitute active civic engagement.  Instead, television is
seen as the "800-pound gorilla of leisure time" (Robinson &
Godbey, 1995, cited in Putnam, 1995).  Television thus
displaces "nearly every social activity outside the home,
especially social gatherings and informal conversations"
(Putnam, 1995:679).  (Newspaper reading, on the other hand,
is associated with high social capital, as it is positively
related to social trust and group membership.)
     The problem of declining civic participation may in
part be methodological; that is, participation depends to a
large degree on the way criterion variables are selected and
defined.  Political science has defined participation
primarily as active outdoor behaviors rather than, say,
cognitive involvement.  Consistent with this view, Kerbel
(1995) writes:
     Television viewing is a passive diversion,
     something we can do while cradling a beer.
     Involvement in politics is an active enterprise,
     something we do with our neighbors.  The two do
     not mix very well (p. 131).
Verba and Nie (1987) identify four major participation
variables: voting, campaign participation, community
activities, and leader/legislator contact.  By defining
democratic legitimacy almost strictly in terms of active
behaviors, chief of which is voting (Chaffee & Hochheimer,
1985), political science has perhaps clung to outdated
notions of popular consent.  Historical institutional
requirements, stemming from the normative orientation of
analyzing politics in terms of the needs of the political
system, have been placed ahead of the evolving political
ecology, in which mass media play an increasingly central
     Traditional conceptions of political participation,
then, may not go far enough in explaining actual citizen
involvement in democratic processes.  Like liberal
democratic theory itself, which has been under attack for
failing as a theoretical justification of individualism in a
highly stratified, corporatized industrial society,
traditional participation measures may be inadequate
indicators for explaining the changing relationship of the
citizen to the (late) modern state.  Rather than "relegating
media-related activity to the status of a minor mode of
political participation," as political science has through
the National Election Studies (Chaffee & Hochheimer,
1985:284), media involvement might instead be treated as a
primary or major mode of civic participation, that is, as a
dependent variable that is an integral component of popular
     From this perspective, the question of democratic
legitimacy and political stability in the face of low voter
turnout, decreased traditional participation, and a largely
politically uninformed mass electorate (Neuman, 1986;
Putnam, 1995), may be explained by an important criterion
variable that isn't being measured: civic engagement through
media.  For the mass electorate, regular involvement with
media may be taking the place of direct, sporadic
involvement in politics.  Therefore, to ask what traditional
indicators of political participation say about the state of
democracy may be posing the wrong question.  Concerned
students of media and politics might instead ask how
citizens connect with and legitimate the political system in
news ways, especially through mass media.  As Muir (1992)
suggests, in a changing political-media environment, it is
important to ask "whether there is an actual decline in
participation, as opposed to a decline in our traditional
conceptions of what citizen involvement is in an evolving
technological society."  It seems increasingly plausible to
argue that media use itself, especially viewing, listening,
and calling politically oriented interactive call-in
television and radio talk show programs, is a form of civic
participation for a growing segment of the electorate.
     Despite the interdisciplinary nature and
diversification of political communication research into
such areas as uses and gratifications, agenda setting,
reception analysis, and critical theory (Nimmo & Sanders,
1981), the field has not entirely left behind the once (and
many say still) dominant "voter persuasion paradigm" of
media having effects on voting choices (Nimmo & Swanson,
1991).  As this paper has shown, research at the
media/politics interface is driven by basic normative
orientations, or biases, that stem largely from the
disciplinary assumptions of political science but which are
embraced by communication.  Whether explicit or implicit,
these biases frame many of the questions, and thus many of
the findings, of political communication research.
Moreover, more than one normative orientation may be at work
in analyses of media and democracy at any one time.
     As Graber (1987) suggested almost a decade ago,
political communication researchers on both sides of the
disciplinary divide "need to become better acquainted with
each other's work so that their combined efforts can produce
superior findings in this complex and fluctuating research
area" (p. 10).  Although the problem of "shocking mutual
ignorance or disregard" between political science and
communication research that Graber observed in 1987 has
somewhat subsided since that writing, the media/politics
interface remains underdeveloped in large measure, we would
argue, due to the constraints placed on research by the four
normative orientations discussed above.  One step in
overcoming this impasse may involve a fuller integration of
communication research into political analysis.  Indeed, the
political theorist Zolo (1992) argues that, for democratic
theory to be properly retooled to suit contemporary
conditions, political theory "should turn its central most
attention to the political effects of mass communication"
(Zolo, 1992:153).  These effects, this paper has argued, are
more variegated and subtle than either neoconservative
arguments or the voter persuasion paradigm has been able to
     A second step to discerning a truer model of the role
of mass media in politics and finding media "effects" may
lie in a reconceptualization of the problem.  For a more
realistic political perspective on media to fully develop,
research designs should increasingly acknowledge that mass
media are not only central to democratic theory, they are
increasingly indistinguishable from modern political
processes themselves.  In this view, mass media must be
regarded as important as traditional political institutions;
a violation of a normative assumption, perhaps, but arguably
one with a great deal of representational validity.  As
Graber (1989) notes, media coverage constitutes "the very
lifeblood of politics because it shapes the perceptions that
form the reality on which political action is based.  Media
do more than depict the political environment; they are the
political environment" (p. 238).  Media's time as a
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1 We have reordered Chaffee and Hochheimer's list of
assumptions slightly, making the top-down view of
communication and politics (their third item) our first.
2 In recognition of the growing importance of communication
research to politics, Political Communication, a political
science journal devoted to the study of media and politics,
was founded in 1984.  In 1993, the interdisciplinary journal
came under the joint sponsorship of the political
communication divisions of the American Political Science
Association (APSA) and the International Communication
Association (ICA), with political scientist Doris Graber, a
former journalist, serving as editor (Graber, 1993).
   The simultaneous founding of divisions of political
communication within APSA and ICA and the joint publication
of Political Communication "signaled the formal dismantling
of the Maginot Line" separating the two disciplinary
approaches to media and politics (Jamieson & Cappella,
1996:14); however, an informal divide is still widely in
3 Although Pomper (1977), Schudson (1983) and others have
persuasively argued that the decline of the political
parties in the United States has varied and diverse causes,
Ranney's position that the press played a leading role in
the parties' demise is typical of writers in the media
intrusion tradition.
4 Neoconservative assessments that media are heavily
critical of the market are questionable; if anything, media
seem to celebrate the capitalist structure (of which they
are an integral, dependent part) and only infrequently
challenge the free enterprise system and the implications of
economic policies that favor corporations over average
citizens (Hallin, 1985).
   Occasionally some media coverage of business may seem
critical but not due to press hostility toward economic
power.  As Hallin (1985) observes: "Certainly no major news
organization is ever likely to become an open critic of
capitalism, but the purpose of a news organization is to
make profit, not politics, and there is no reason to assume
that the narrow economic interest of the corporation will
always coincide with the political interest of the system"
(p. 140).
5 Dorrien (1993) defines neoconservatism as "an intellectual
movement originated by former leftists that promotes
militant anticommunism, capitalist economics, a minimal
welfare state, the rule of traditional elites, and a return
to traditional cultural values" (p. 8).
6 Correlations, of course, are only one component of
causality and never "prove" anything by themselves.  While
they can lend support to an argument, they do not rule out
the vast number of potential third variables that could also
determine the relationship.

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