Election Involvement and Media Attention
Voter's Election Involvement and Media Attention:
Intention to Vote, Commitment to a Candidate, and Partisanship
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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This paper is submitted to the Mass Communication and Society Division,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
This study examined the relationship between voters' election involvement
and their media attention levels. Study used Carolina Poll survey data
conducted in North Carolina of voters who were interviewed during the 1996
campaign year. The independent variable was election involvement measured by
"intention to vote," "commitment to a candidate," and "partisanship." The
dependent variable was the level of media attention for nine media sources;
television news, newspaper stories, radio news, political advertising,
radio/television talk shows, MTV, television debates, late night shows, and the
Internet. Results showed that total media attention level was likely to
increase with their election involvement. Television debates, newspaper
stories, radio news, and radio/television talk shows were found to be the main
media preferred by high involvement voters. Specifically, newspaper stories
received similar amounts of attention by all groups except those who were the
least involved, while radio/television talk shows were the medium significantly
preferred only by those who were the most involved.
Political campaigns use mass media as the primary means of communicating
with voters during an election period. Campaigns for the most important offices
in the U.S.- the House of Representatives, the Senate, governorships, and the
presidency- are clearly driven by advertising and news coverage (Ansolabehere,
1988 p78). It is clear that the media now are the link between politicians and
their constituents. Politicians speak to the media; the media then speak to the
The 1996 elections were historic in introducing a new type of political
communication, the Internet. Already voters are surrounded by a wide variety of
media sources, with daily opportunities to read newspapers, watch TV news and
debates, listen to the radio, converse with talk-show hosts, and now to search
the Internet. However, since each medium delivers messages with characteristics
related to its own features as a medium, voters' attention to media may vary.
For instance, news magazine tend to be read by the most politically
sophisticated citizens (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes 1966; Chaffee &
Tims 1982). Voters expose themselves selectively to some media outlets to seek
out certain information relevant to their objectives.
Assuming voters' selective exposure and selective attention to the media,
several questions arise: Who primarily pays attention to the flow of campaign
messages? What voter characteristics influence their selective attention to the
media? Does voters' involvement with the election play a role in their
selective attention to the messages? The purpose of this paper is to examine
the relationship between voters' media attention and their election involvement.
Audience's involvement is generally considered an important mediating variable
in influencing its response to the message (McGuire, 1968; Petty & Cacioppo,
1981, 1986). In this study, voters' involvement with an election was used to
predict their general media attention level and attention level for alternative
Election involvement and media attention
The concept of involvement has become one of the central constructs for
research on the effects of mass communication. Involvement determines whether
the audience is active or passive -- whether people select and process media
content, or merely allow it to wash over them (Roser, 1990). Disagreement
arises, however, over different definitions and operationalizations, some of
which may tap different constructs while using the same name. Researchers
strongly disagree on just what "involvement" is, when it happens, and whether it
heightens or diminishes attitude change (Roser, 1990). Although strong
disagreements exist over just what involvement is, it has generally been
regarded as an important mediator of the effects of communication messages
(Atkin 1980;Petty & Cacioppo 1979, 1981, 1986; Rothschild 1978).
For instance, when audience's involvement with an issue is high, they tend
to scrutinize message contents, and are likely to be influenced by message
factors, such as strong arguments or weak arguments, rather than source factors,
i.e., source credibility and attractiveness (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979, 1984, 1986;
Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman, 1981).
Many studies on political communication constructed "election involvement"
based on intention to vote, commitment to particular candidates, and party
identification. Generally, intention to vote was found to be a significant
predictor of voter's knowledge of the issues, along with other demographic
variables such as education and income. In Chaffee, Zhao, and Leshner's study
(1994), intention to vote turned out to be a statistically significant variable
predicting voter knowledge. Drew and Weaver (1991) found that the more
interested voters were in a campaign, the more issue knowledge they showed.
Rothschild and Ray (1974) constructed a different concept of election
involvement. They employed two basic criteria to classify election involvement.
The first, participation, is characterized by the minimal act of voting or
intending to vote. The other, volunteering, is characterized by commitment and
willingness to actually work for and learn about a candidate. Based on these
constructs, Rothschild and Ray classified three kinds of election involvement.
First, no involvement implies that the person will not participate in the
election at all and will not vote at all. Second, zero-order involvement
indicates that the person will vote but will not seek information or take a
position. The third type is higher-order involvement. It indicates not only
the minimal commitment to vote but also the development of attitudes about the
Involvement has been found to be a variable closely related to
attentiveness to the message. In natural settings attention and involvement are
likely to correlate highly (Batra & Ray, 1983). The learning hierarchy of
effects (Ray et al., 1973) and most persuasion research based on
message-learning theories (Hovland, Janis, & Kelly, 1953; McGuire, 1968, 1989)
posit that persuasion is contingent upon attending to and learning the content
of the persuasive appeal. A person's basic interest in politics leads him/her
to read and watch news about a particular campaign; in turn this exposure
arouses his/her interest which then produces more exposure behavior (Atkin,
Galloway, & Nayman, 1976).
Although there is little formal theory specific to media attention,
pragmatic principles of applied mass communication (for example, advertising)
stress the value of "attention-getting devices,' and attention is considered one
of the key steps in the communication process (Chaffe & Schleuder, 1986).
In Chaffee and Schleuder's (1986) study, media attention measures proved to
be among the strongest predictors of knowledge. When compared with media
exposure measures, i.e., how many times do you read newspapers per week?,
attention measures i.e., how much attention do you pay to newspapers?, provide a
better way of predicting the effects of news viewing and reading to predict
voter's attitude or behaviors.
Selective attention is the tendency for a person to pay attention to those
parts of a message that are consonant with strongly held attitudes, beliefs, or
behaviors. As Marshall McLuhan put it, "the medium is the message." Since each
medium delivers different characteristics of messages related to its features,
audiences' level of attention for each medium would be different according to
their objectives or their motives.
McLuhan (1984) distinguished between television as a "cool' medium and
newspapers as "hot " media. He said : "Hot media are _low in participation, and
cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience," because hot
media "do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience"
(p.36). Graber (1984) also says that viewing television news may require more
cognitive processing than reading newspaper news.
Although there has been much research on medium-based involvement
characteristics, the research literature generally emphasizes two-channel
comparisons between television news and either newspaper or television
advertising in the field of political communication. Radio news and news
magazines get overlooked in most research (Chaffe, Zhao, and Leshner, 1994),
along with other media such as radio/television talk shows, political debates,
and the Internet.
Voters' media attention or media exposures has been heavily studied, but,
notably, many researches on political communication have focused on the
consequences of media attention or media exposure rather than the cause or
prevalent variables of them. Most studies have treated mass media use as an
independent variable and voter's acquisition of certain attitudes or cognition
as the dependent variables. In other words, media use and media attention were
used to explain voter's acquisition of issue knowledge (Chaffee, Zhao, and
Leshner 1994; Diamond 1978; Jamieson 1993; Drew and Weaver 1991; Zhao and
Chaffee 1995), voting behavior (Simon 1996), intention to vote (Kennamer 1987),
and time of decision (Chaffee & Choe 1980).
Factors affecting media use
Researchers have identified several factors affecting voters' media use.
Political activity was found to be a good predictor of newspaper readership
(Kebbel 1985). Kebbel's research indicated that more educated people tended to
be more politically active, and older, more educated and more politically active
people tended to be more frequent newspaper readers than younger, less educated
and less politically active people. The analysis of the relative strengths of
the variables showed political activity to be the best predictor, followed by
age and education.
Tan (1981) suggested political participation, diffuse support and
perceptions of political efficacy as predictors of mass media use. He made an
argument about the direction of causality between mass media use and acquisition
of political affect and behaviors. He said that "the direction of causality may
be the reverse of what is commonly postulated by current communication models.
Rather than mass media use determining political affect and behaviors, it may be
that a person's political attitudes and behaviors determine his/her use of the
mass media." His path model found political participation to be the strongest
predictor of media use.
A study (Lowden, et al 1994) found the relationship between voter
characteristics and media use. Issue-oriented voters relied mainly on
newspapers, whereas image-oriented voters tended to seek relevant information
from television. Voters' decision-making status was found to be related to
media usage. McCombs (1972) said that "those who make their vote
decisions_before the fall campaign gets underway_make greater use of the media
than voters who enters the campaign period uncommitted or undecided."
Partisanship is another factor playing a role in mediating media use and voter's
decision-making (Chaffee and Choe 1980). A group of less partisan voters paid
close attention to the flow of media information and voted on the basis of that
This study investigates voters' media attention in terms of their election
involvement. The independent variable is election involvement measured by
"intention to vote" and "commitment to a particular candidate," and
"partisanship." The dependent variable is the level of media attention for nine
media sources; television news, newspaper stories, radio news, political
advertising, radios/television talk shows, MTV, television debates, late night
shows, and the Internet.
This study seeks to answer the following research questions:
y How is a voter's election involvement related to her or his level
of media attention? More specifically, how do intention to vote,
commitment to a particular candidate, and partisanship affect a voter's
media attention level?
y How is the level of a voter's election involvement related to her
or his media attention level for each medium? For instance, who pays
more attention to political advertising than any other media? Are
those who have high involvement with the election more likely to pay
This study used Carolina Poll survey data conducted in North Carolina of
voters who were interviewed during the 1996 campaign year. 868 North Carolina
residents 18 or older selected by random-digit dialing were interviewed.
This study followed the operational definition of Rothschild and Ray (1974)
regarding voter's election involvement. Three factors defining election
involvement were intention to vote, commitment to a candidate, and partisanship.
Three questions was used to measure voter's election involvement. One is
regarding "intention to vote" asked by the question "On a scale from zero to
ten, where ten means you absolutely will vote and zero means you definitely
won't vote, how likely are you to vote in the November election for president
and senator?" The highest score is 10 and the lowest is 0.
The second question is about "commitment to a particular candidate" asked
by the question "If the election for president were held today, would you vote
for Bill Clinton, the Democrat, Bob Dole, the Republican, or Ross Perot, the
Reform candidate?" Interviewees could choose among those three names, "someone
else", and "don't know/uncertain." Another follow-up question was asked to
those who responded "don't know/uncertain" to check their leaning toward certain
candidates. The question was "Who are you leaning toward now, Clinton, Dole, or
Perot?" The same five answers were possible.
Three survey questions were compiled to measure voter partisanship. Voter
partisanship could be 1) strong liberal 2) not strong liberal 3)
moderate-liberal 4) moderate 5) moderate-conservative 6) not strong conservative
7) strong conservative 8) no preference 9) don't know/no answer. The first
question was "In general, when it comes to politics, do you usually think of
yourself as a liberal, a conservative, a moderate, or what?" Responses were
coded as 1) liberal 2) moderate 3) conservative 4) never think of self
5) don't know 6) no answer 7) Respondent insists undecided. For those who
responded "liberal" or "conservative," a subsequent question was asked: "Do you
think of yourself as a strong liberal, or a not very strong liberal?" or " Do
you think of yourself as a strong conservative, or a not very strong
conservative?" Responses were coded into 1)strong conservative 2)not very
strong conservative 3) don't know 4) no answer.
Nine questions about each medium were used to measure the level of media
attention. They concerned television news, newspaper stories, radio news,
advertising, radio and television talk shows, MTV, television debates, late
night shows, and the Internet. All questions had the same wording except the
specific medium representation. The form of the question was "Here are some
different ways of learning about the presidential candidates. For each, tell me
if you have paid_ a lot of attention_some attention_a little attention_ not much
attention_ no attention at all to (specific medium)"
Based on these questions, the total amount of media attention was
calculated. For each response, a lot of attention was given a score 5, some
attention 4, a little attention 3, not much attention 2, no attention at all 1.
The highest level of media attention was 45, which represents those who
responded that they have paid a lot of attention to all nine media, while the
lowest was 9, which represents those who paid no attention at all to any medium.
Multiple regression analysis was used to explore the collective and separate
effects of three independent variables, intention to vote, commitment to a
candidate, and partisanship, on a dependent variable, the level of media
Relation between total media attention and election involvement
This study controlled for major correlates of media attention level. Table 1
shows the result of multiple regression analysis of media attention with
demographic variables. Age, education, and income were the variables
significantly related to voters' media attention. To exclude the influence of
these variables on the dependent variable, they were entered as a block set into
the first equation in the following multiple regression analysis. Table 2 shows
the incremental R2 of each independent variable entered individually. This
hierarchical regression method allows us to examine additional amount of
variance explained separately by three independent variables.
Table 1 & 2 about here
The control block explained about 4 % of the total variance (R2=.039).
Voters who were more educated, younger, or had lower incomes tended to pay more
attention to media, in general. Voting intent significantly increased the
amount of explained variance (incremental R2 =.036). Adding commitment to a
candidate into the equation also significantly enhanced the explained variance
by about 1 %. However, partisanship did not turn out to be a significant
variable to predict media attention (t=1.423, p= .155).
The final regression model includes voting intent and commitment to a candidate
as independent variables, which explained about 9 % of the total variance: When
the voting intention was high, and voters made decisions to choose a particular
candidate, they were more likely to pay attention to media as political
Attention levels for nine different media
Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to compare four groups'
attention levels to nine alternative media. The four groups, adopted from the
study of Rothschild and Ray (1974), were 1) those with no involvement, who will
not vote, and do not have any preference for candidates, 2) those with
zero-order involvement, who will vote but do not take any position about
candidates, 3) those with non partisan higher order involvement, who will not
only vote, but also will take positions about candidates without partisanship,
and 4) those with party loyalty-higher order involvement, who will not only
vote, but also have commitment to a candidate with partisanship.
MANOVA is appropriate in that one set of response measures is to be
compared simultaneously with another set of response measures. In this study,
the response measures were attention levels for various media. Because these
attention levels are interrelated, MANOVA allows simultaneous testing of all the
components and considers all the interrelationships among them. In other words,
MANOVA controls for Type 1 errors and provides a multivariate analysis of
effects by taking into account the correlation between dependent measures.
After running MANOVA, multiple univariate ANOVAs for each of the dependent
variables were performed. The reasoning behind this approach is that if MANOVA
yields significance, then it is considered acceptable to carry out multiple
univariate ANOVAs without undue inflation of Type 1 error.
The MANOVA indicated that there were group difference in terms of their
media attention level (Wilks' lamda =.885, F(27, 2518) =3.975, p=.0001). (Table
3) Four media showed significantly different attention level among the four
subject groups: television debates (F=14.011, p=.0001), radio news ( F=6.077,
p=.0001), newspaper stories (F=15.509, p=.0001), and radio and television talk
shows (F=5.348, p=.001). However, other five media, political advertising, late
night shows, MTV, TV, and the Internet, did not yield significant differences
among groups. (Table 4)
Table 3 & 4 about here
Subsequent univariate ANOVAs with Bonferroni Post Hoc tests involved
multiple comparisons among groups. Voters with higher election involvement paid
more attention to television debates, in general. However, significant
differences were seen between group 1 and group 3 (p=.0001), group 1 and group 4
(p=.0001), and group 2 and group 4 (p=.041). The difference between group 2 and
group 3 was not significant. Also the attention levels were not significantly
different between group 1 and group 2, or between group 3 and group 4. This
multiple comparison shows that adjacent group's attention levels were not
significantly different. (Table 5)
Table 5 about here
However, with regard to newspaper attention level, group 1's news attention
level was significantly lower than all other three groups(p=.0001). There was
no difference between the other 3 groups. Group 4 had a significantly high
attention level to radio/ television talk shows compared to other three groups
(p=.020, p=.011, p=.028) However, there was no significant difference between
group 1, group 2, and group 3. With regard to radio news, the only significant
difference was between group 1 and group 4 (p=.0001).
Table 6, 7,& 8 about here
This study examined the relationship between voters' election involvement and
their media attention levels. Results showed that total media attention level,
based on nine alternative media outlets, was likely to increase with their
election involvement. Voting intention and commitment to a particular candidate
were found to be significantly related to total media attention. As voters
intention to vote increased and they developed candidate preferences, their
media attention level increased. Partisanship did not turn out to be a
significant variable in predicting media attention level.
The goal of a political campaign is to influence people's opinion.
Campaign messages are carried via a variety of media. Who, in general, pays
attention to these messages? This study provides a possible answer: those with
high election involvement. When they are determined to vote and support a
candidate, they are more likely to pay attention to campaign messages to seek
out political information sources.
This study found that television debates, newspaper stories, radio news,
and radio/TV talk shows are the main media preferred by high involvement voters.
Those who not only decided to vote, but also support a candidate with
partisanship tended to pay more attention to these media for gathering political
information. However, political advertising, TV, MTV, late night shows, and the
Internet were not media outlets differentiated according to voters' election
More interestingly, these four media showed distinctive characteristics as
information sources. In particular, newspaper stories and radio/television talk
shows represented contrasting features. Newspaper stories received similar
amounts of attention by all groups except group 1, who were the least involved
in the political process. However, radio/television talk shows were the medium
significantly preferred only by group 4 who were the most involved.
These results indicate that newspaper stories generally receive attention
by all voters except those with no election involvement, while the primary
audience of radio/television talk shows are those with very high election
involvement. Television debates and radio news showed significant differences
only between those with very high involvement and those with very low
involvement. The more involved were people with the election, the more they
paid attention to these media.
These findings can provide message creators useful insights. As audiences'
issue involvement increases, they tend to scrutinize message content (Petty &
Cacioppo, 1979). Highly involved audiences are more likely to focus on the
content of message and how it is organized rather than peripheral cues such as
background music, source expertise, and source attractiveness. This study found
that television debates, radio/television talk shows, newspaper stories, and
radio news are more likely to receive attention from highly involved voters who
tend to focus on message contents. This implies that message creators have to
be very cautious in composing persuasion messages especially for these media
because messages would be scrutinized by these highly involved voters. In
addition, considering these highly involved voters are the ones who already have
made up their minds about particular candidates, to provide reinforcing
information based on relevant studies and statistics would seem to be most
effective in these campaign media.
This study attempted to find the relationship between voters' election
involvement and their media attention level. By analyzing survey data, this
study simply showed whether there is a relationship between election involvement
and media attention level. However, this study did not examine why certain
media outlets received attention, or what was the impact. In addition, further
research can study other external variables affecting voters media attention
level such as timing in a campaign and the degree of issue competition.
Media Attention Related to Demographic Variables
R2 total equation
Note: Entries are beta weights from multiple regression.
Media Attention Related to Level of Election Involvement
R2 due to controls
Incremental R2 due to voting intention
Commitment to a candidate
Incremental R2 due to commitment to a candidate
R2 total equation
Note: Entries are beta weights from multiple regression.
"x" indicates dummy coding for a categorical variable.
Degrees of freedom.
Significance of F
Degrees of freedom
Significance of F
Late night shows
Radio/television talk shows
Television Debates - Bonferroni Post Hoc Tests
(I) group (J) group
Mean difference (I-J)
Newspaper stories - Bonferroni Post Hoc Tests
(I) group (J) group
Mean difference (I-J)
Radio/television talk shows - Bonferroni Post Hoc Tests
(I) group (J) group
Mean difference (I-J)
Radio news - Bonferroni Post Hoc Tests
(I) group (J) group
Mean difference (I-J)
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