TELEVISION NEWS COVERAGE OF SOCIAL PROTEST:
FRAMING EFFECTS OF STATUS QUO BIAS
Douglas M. McLeod
Benjamin H. Detenber
*** Dr. Douglas M. McLeod (Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1989)
is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of
Delaware. His research interests include news coverage of social
protest, public opinion and the media, and advertising and
society. Dr. Benjamin H. Detenber (Ph.D., Stanford University,
1995) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the
University of Delaware. His research interests include the
psychological effects of both media form and content, and public
opinion and the media.
*** Address correspondence to:
Dr. Douglas M. McLeod Phone: (302) 831-
Department of Communication FAX: (302) 831-1892
250 Pearson Hall Email:
[log in to unmask]
University of Delaware
Newark, DE 19716
TELEVISION NEWS COVERAGE OF SOCIAL PROTEST:
FRAMING EFFECTS OF STATUS QUO BIAS
This study investigated framing effects of television news
stories. Participants watched one of three news stories about an
Anarchist protest, which differed by level of status quo bias
(High vs. Medium vs. Low). Status quo bias had significant
linear effects on perceptions of the protesters and police,
tolerance for the protesters' expressive rights, and estimates of
the protest's effectiveness, popular support and newsworthiness,
but not to general perceptions of protest as a form of democratic
TELEVISION NEWS COVERAGE OF SOCIAL PROTEST:
FRAMING EFFECTS OF STATUS QUO BIAS
The mass communication literature provides numerous studies
that lead to the conclusion that the mass media "delegitimize" or
"marginalize" protest groups that challenge the status quo (e.g.,
Cohen, 1972; Gitlin, 1980; McLeod & Hertog, 1992; Shoemaker,
1984). Examinations of news content show that news stories about
protests tend to focus on the protesters' appearances rather than
their issues, emphasize their violent actions rather than their
social criticism, pit them against the police rather than their
chosen targets, and downplay their effectiveness. This kind of
coverage constitutes what has been called the "protest paradigm"
(Chan & Lee, 1984). While there have been numerous studies that
have examined the characteristics of protest story content, few
studies have actually examined the effects of protest paradigm
news coverage on the audience.
The framing literature provides a point of departure for
studying how these effects might occur. The news frame is one of
the most important characteristics of a news story, both in terms
of providing a template (e.g., the protest paradigm) that guides
journalists in the assembly of facts, quotes and other story
elements into a news story and for orienting interpretations by
the audience (Gamson, 1992; Pan & Kosicki, 1993). As defined by
Entman (1993), "To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived
reality and make them more salient in a communicating context, in
such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal
interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation
for the item described" (p. 52). Numerous studies have looked at
various framing effects of news coverage, but few have considered
the framing effects of the status quo bias produced through the
This study tests seven hypotheses about the framing impact
of three protest news stories with varying levels of status quo
bias on attitudes toward the protesters, police, the protest, the
protesters' expressive rights, perceived social support for the
protesters, and the newsworthiness of the story. In addition, we
pose a research question about the relationship between status
quo bias and general attitudes toward protest as a form of
The Status Quo Bias
Researchers operating from a variety of theoretical
perspectives, using a variety of research methods, and citing a
variety of forms of evidence, have proposed that American media
reflect the interests of the power elite and support the status
quo of the existing power structure (e.g., Altschull, 1984;
Breed, 1958; Gitlin, 1980; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Molotch and
Lester, 1975; Nordenstreng & Varis, 1973; Paletz & Entman, 1981;
Tichenor, Donohue & Olien, 1973; Westergard, 1977). They have
proposed numerous causal mechanisms that bind the media to the
existing power structure. These ties can be classified into
several general categories including the biases of individual
journalists, professional conventions, practices and ideologies,
organizational imperatives, economic ties, and socio-cultural
world views (Berger & Chaffee, 1987; Dimmick & Coit, 1983; Herman
& Chomsky, 1988; Hertog & McLeod, 1995; Hirsch, 1977; Shoemaker &
Mayfield, 1987; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Tichenor, Donohue &
Olien, 1973). It is the consensus of the media sociology
literature that these factors produce media coverage that adopts
the interests of the dominant power groups, and marginalizes
groups that challenge authority and official institutions.
Donohue, Olien and Tichenor (1985) represent the various
views of the status quo bias under a simple analogy, which
recasts the traditional "watchdog" analogy as a "guard dog." They
argue that, like a guard dog, the media maintain order and
protect the system against potential threats. The distinction
between these two analogies can be seen in the context of protest
coverage. From the perspective of those in power, social protest
(particularly that which advocates radical change) may be viewed
as a threat to the social system. The normative theory that
underpins the watchdog media holds that the media should
objectively explore the protesters' social critique by launching
a serious investigation of its merits with respects to all
available facts. As the fourth estate, the watchdog takes an
active role in evaluating and, when necessary, changing the
system. The guard dog media, on the other hand, take a more
hostile stance toward the threat posed by social protest.
Because of their ties to the power structure, the guard dog media
cover protests from the perspective of those in power (the status
quo bias). The coverage highlights the deviance of the
protesters, diminishing their contributions and effectiveness,
insulating the power structure and defusing the threat.
The Protest Paradigm
One established context in which the status quo bias appears
is the "protest paradigm"--a set of characteristics common to
most print and broadcast news stories about social protest (Chan
& Lee, 1984). By providing a template for the construction of a
protest story, the protest paradigm serves as a framing device
for journalists. McLeod and Hertog (1998) classify
characteristics of the protest paradigm into the following
categories: narrative frames; reliance on official sources and
official definitions; the invocation of public opinion; and other
techniques of "delegitimization," "marginalization" and
The narrative frame provides an underlying plot to the news
story. McLeod & Hertog (1998) describe a variety of potential
narrative frames such as the riot, the street carnival, and the
policy debate. However, it is most common for journalists to
frame protest stories as a battle between the protesters and
police, rather than as a moral debate between the protesters and
their chosen target (McLeod & Hertog, 1992). As part of this
frame, media coverage tends to emphasize any violence associated
with the protest (Cohen, 1980; Gitlin, 1980; McLeod and Hertog,
1992; Murdock, 1981). The incidence of violence at a protest is
a powerful determinant of whether the protest gets covered at
all. In order to get media attention, protesters must often
engage in what Gamson (1989) calls a barter arrangement. If the
protesters provide action that makes for good video and pictures,
the media will cover the protest. This often proves to be a
double-edged sword as it leads to the framing of news stories as
conflicts between protesters and police, which contributes to the
subjugation of the issues raised by the protesters (Gitlin, 1977)
and the characterization of the protesters as "deviants" and
"criminals" (Hall et al., 1978).
Journalists' reliance on official sources and official
definitions of the protest situation are a salient feature of the
protest paradigm. The media practice of relying on official
sources extends to the coverage of all sorts of different stories
(Fishman, 1980; Paletz & Entman, 1981; Sigal, 1977; Soley, 1992).
Journalists rely heavily on official sources to add prestige to
the story; to increase the efficiency of news production; and to
maintain the illusion of objectivity (McLeod & Hertog, 1998).
This practice reinforces the status quo and further marginalizes
The third characteristic of the protest paradigm is the
invocation of public opinion. McLeod and Hertog (1992)
demonstrate the various ways that new stories convey cues to
public opinion: opinion polls, overt characterizations,
invocations of social norms, violations of laws, and the symbolic
use of bystanders. Most often, the cues to public opinion found
in mainstream media coverage of social protest communicate the
deviance of protesters by depicting them as an isolated minority.
There are a variety of other characteristics of the protest
paradigm that delegitimize, marginalize and demonize protesters.
Gitlin (1980) discusses how the deviance of the anti-Vietnam war
movement was communicated through depictions of the group's
appearance, language, beliefs and goals that made them appear
more radical than they really were. The movement was further
marginalized by undercounting its participants and discounting
its accomplishments. Several literary techniques contribute to
the delegitimization of challenging groups. Tuchman (1977)
identified the use of quotations marks as one way journalists
interject commentary into a news story without overtly
compromising their objectivity. Gitlin (1980) provides an
example of this from coverage of the anti-war movement, which
often used quotation marks around the term "peace march." Lipari
(1996) describes a similar technique: journalists' use of
"stance adverbs" (e.g., obviously, presumably, supposedly,
allegedly, etc.) to connote the legitimacy of information and
foster "preferred interpretations."
Ultimately, the common characteristics that have been
revealed across numerous studies of media coverage of social
protest form a protest paradigm--an implicit model that
journalists apply to the coverage of protests. McLeod and
Hertog (1998) argue that the more a protest group challenges the
status quo of the power structure, the more closely the media
will adhere to the characteristics of the protest paradigm. In
short, the news coverage will marginalize challenging groups,
especially those that are viewed as radical in their beliefs and
strategies (Carragee, 1991; Gitlin, 1980; McLeod & Hertog, 1992;
Murdock, 1981; Shoemaker, 1984).
Framing Effects and the Protest Paradigm
The protest paradigm constitutes a particular type of news
frame. News frames refer to the particular way that journalists
package events and issues into a story. They are the product of
journalistic practices and values and are known to influence
public opinion (Iyengar, 1991; Price & Tewksbury, 1997). In
general terms, news frames make certain aspects of a story more
salient thereby activating specific thoughts and ideas for
audience members. These thoughts and ideas are likely to be
applied when audience members evaluate the groups, issues and
other story elements (Price, Tewksbury & Powers, 1997). This
process, which has been called both the "availability heuristic"
(Tversky and Kahneman, 1973; Shrum & O'Guinn, 1993) and the
"accessibility bias" (Iyenger, 1990a), occurs automatically and
simplifies the cognitive tasks of making judgments and
interpretations. The upshot of this is that individual
perceptions and opinions can be influenced by exposure to
particular types of media messages.
Recent research provides evidence of different types of
framing effects that occur in a variety of contexts. Iyengar
(1991) describes a series of experiments demonstrating that
certain news frames ("episodic" versus "thematic") can influence
attributions of the causes of social problems and the
responsibility for solving them. For example, he found that when
the news media present the issue of poverty in a personalized
manner (i.e., when it is framed episodically, or at the
individual level) viewers tend to assign responsibility for the
problem to the individual, but when poverty is presented as the
result of economic conditions and social policies (i.e., given a
thematic frame) responsibility is assigned to society at large
(Iyengar, 1990b). There have been several studies of framing in
the context of election campaigns. For example, Rhee (1997)
found that two distinct news frames ("strategic" versus "issue")
used in campaign coverage influenced participants'
characterizations of a mayoral election campaign. Participants
in a study by Shah, Domke, and Wackman (1996) read a newspaper
story about the positions of three congressional candidates that
was framed in either "ethical" or in "material" terms. The
framing of the news story affected their issue interpretations
and decision making strategies. Price, Tewksbury, and Powers
(1997) found that three alternative frames for newspaper stories
about university funding reductions ("human interest" versus
"conflict" versus "personal consequences") affected the topical
focus and valence of readers' thoughts on the issue.
Framing studies such as these look at the impact of news
stories on audience members' perceptions and interpretations of
groups and issues covered in the news stories. For protest news
stories, framing may influence judgments made about the groups
involved in the protest such as the protesters and the group
being protested. However, protest paradigm news coverage often
ignores the actual target of the protest (i.e., the offending
policy or institution), instead focusing on the clash between the
protesters and police (McLeod & Hertog, 1992). As such, protest
news studies may have a stronger framing impact on perceptions of
the police rather than on the protest target. Another relevant
framing effect may be altered perceptions of the success or
efficacy of the protest itself. In addition, there are several
important concepts that appear in the mass communication
literature, but have not been examined as outcomes of framing
effects: support for expressive rights (Andsager & Miller,
1994), socio-tropic perceptions of public opinion (Mutz, 1994)
and the newsworthiness of a news story (Galtung & Ruge, 1981).
This study will examine the framing effects on perceptions
related to each of these concepts in the context of protest news
There have been very few studies that have looked
specifically at the effects of protest news coverage. Shoemaker
(1982) demonstrated that the nature of newspaper stories affects
readers' perceptions of the protest group's legitimacy. In
another experiment, McLeod (1995) found that television news
stories also affected perceptions of the protest group.
Participants exposed to a news story that was slanted against the
protesters were more critical of the protest group and their
issues than participants who saw a more balanced story. The
experiment by McLeod (1995) found that the effects of the story
did not extend to participants' perceptions of the utility of
protest as a form of democratic expression. Ultimately, exposure
to a single news story has an impact on perceptions of the groups
featured in the story, but not on perceptions of protest in
general. These two studies show that the different versions of
protest stories can have markedly different outcomes on audience
Hypotheses and Research Questions
The framing effects studies cited above examined the
outcomes of exposure to news stories with different news frames.
This study examines the impact of television news stories with
different levels of status quo bias within a specific news frame
(i.e., the protest paradigm). Given that past research (McLeod,
1995; Shoemaker, 1982) has shown that exposure to a single news
story can affect perceptions of the groups involved in the story,
we expect that the variation in the level of status quo bias will
have linear effects on audience perceptions and attitudes toward
the protesters who challenge the status quo and the police who
restore order. Status quo bias will also reduce the perceived
effectiveness of the protest itself. By delegitimizing the
protesters, the status quo bias will also diminish support for
their expressive rights. Depictions of public opinion and other
marginalizing cues in stories with higher levels of status quo
bias will lower perceived social support for the protesters and
their issues. Finally, status quo bias will denigrate the
protest leading to lower estimations of the newsworthiness of the
protest event. Thus, this study proposes seven hypotheses:
H1: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the more critical participants will be of the
H2: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the less participants will identify with the
H3: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the less critical participants will be of the
H4: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the less effective that participants will view
H5: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the less participants will support protesters'
H6: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the lower participants will estimate social
support for the protest group to be.
H7: The higher the level of status quo bias in the stimulus
story, the less newsworthy participants will perceive
the protest to be.
In addition, this study investigates the impact of new
stories with varying levels of status quo bias on more general
protest attitudes. Because McLeod (1995) found that differences
between news stories did not affect perceptions of the utility of
protest, we pose a research question rather than hypotheses. The
research question deals with four general protest measures:
protest utility, hostility toward protest, support for the
expressive rights of protesters, and perceived newsworthiness of
RQ: Will the nature of the news story affect general
attitudes toward protest including the utility of
protest as a form of democratic participation,
hostility toward protests, the expressive rights of
protest groups, and the newsworthiness of protests?
Two hundred twelve undergraduate students (mean age = 19.3
years) at a mid-sized mid-atlantic university participated in
this study. They received partial credit toward the research
participation component of their introductory communication
research methods course, or extra credit in another introductory
communication class. Consistent with the student demographics of
our department, three-quarters of the participants were women (n
= 159). The number and gender of participants were balanced
The stimuli consisted of three television news stories on
anarchist protests in downtown Minneapolis, MN during 1986 and
1987. The protests were part of the "War Chest Tour," a self-
described series of anarchist demonstrations against government
power and corporate capitalism. Both demonstrations included
confrontations with the Minneapolis police, some property damage,
and some arrests. The news stories of these protests were
carried on two different local affiliate stations in Minneapolis:
KSTP and WCCO. The stories range in length from 1 min 25 s to 2
min 15 s, and all of them feature a reporter's voice-over,
assorted footage or "b-roll" of the protest, interviews with key
figures (e.g., the Deputy Police Chief) in the story, and a
closing "stand-up" by the reporter. Although the stories are by
and large very similar in the way that they present the events of
the protest (i.e., they all adhere to the protest paradigm), they
vary in their degree of status quo bias. That is, there are some
distinct differences in both the tone and substance of the
reporting. Specifically, the three stories differ in terms of a)
their portrayal of the protester and police interaction, b) their
representations of public opinion, c) the amount and degree of
commentary made by the reporter, and d) whether or not protesters
were shown speaking on camera. Our analysis of the three stories
along these dimensions indicates that the stories represent three
levels of bias: low, medium, and high. Therefore, we refer to
the levels of our treatment as the Low Bias story, the Medium
Bias story, and the High Bias story.
The "protester vs. police" theme is quite evident in all
three news stories; however the nature of interaction differs
across the three stories. For example, the Low and Medium Bias
stories show protesters clashing with Minneapolis police in front
of the Federal Reserve Building. They use very similar footage
in both stories, but the verbal descriptions of the event are
quite different. The voice-over in the Low Bias story says,
"angry marchers threw rocks as police charged them with mace,"
while the reporter in the Medium Bias story says, "a few
(demonstrators) also hurled rocks and other debris at Minneapolis
Police who were standing by." The first version suggests that the
police shared responsibility for initiating conflict while the
second portrays the police as simply reacting to the protesters'
violent actions and makes no mention of the use of mace by
police. The High Bias story also focuses on the confrontation
between protesters and police, and casts the protesters as a
threat to civil society and the police as protectors of the
The representation of public opinion also differs across the
three stories. Since none of the stories report data from actual
public opinion polls, the characterization of public opinion
occurs in depictions of bystanders and statements they made,
depictions of the protesters and statements made by the reporters
themselves. The different types of public opinion represented in
the three stories nicely illustrates their varying degrees of
status quo bias. In the Low Bias story, bystanders are shown
taking an interest in the protest. In contrast, the Medium Bias
story states that bystanders were "not impressed with the
protesters' tactics or their message," and then shows a woman on
screen saying, "I just don't appreciate it as a citizen of such a
wonderful free country." The High Bias story contains the most
negative portrayal of public opinion by declaring in the voice-
over that most people were "revolted" by the protesters and their
actions. Bystanders are shown with facial expressions that range
from stunned gazes to furrowed brows and scowls. Each story also
invokes public opinion by focusing on the violation of social
norms by the protesters (McLeod & Hertog, 1992). The norm
violations range from mild (the unusual dress and hairstyles of
some of the protesters, public spitting, etc.) to more serious
acts like smashing a television set, burning currency, and
burning an American flag. To underscore the egregiousness of the
flag burning, the reporter for the High Bias story asks one
bystander if she was upset by the incident. Sobbing, she
responds, "Yes! Yes! People died for the freedom they have.
They don't seem to understand that!"
As some of the examples described above illustrate, the kind
and degree of commentary made by the reporters varies across the
three stories. The greatest amount of editorializing and
negative commentary appears in the High Bias story. The
reporter's selection of bystander quotes as well as his use of
stance adverbs, irony, and a derisive tone conveyed a strong
sense of disapproval of the protesters. For example, in a
mocking tone he refers to the march as the "so-called War Chest
Tour." From this and other statements, the reporter's antipathy
toward the protesters is quite palpable. Rather than present
substantive information on the groups participating in the
protest and the issues they were raising (several groups with
different agendas actually attended the demonstration), the
reporter emphasizes the transgressions of the protesters and the
negative responses of some of the onlookers. The impression that
the protesters and their cause are not worthy of serious
consideration is driven home in the closing of the story.
"We didn't see anyone along this demonstration through
the city who actually showed this group support. In
fact, most of the people were actually disgusted with
it. And one woman said, 'It's easy for these kids to
be against everything because they themselves are not
involved in anything.'"
In contrast, the reporter in the Medium Bias story does not
characterize the protesters as immature delinquents. Instead, he
acknowledges that many different types of people participated in
the march and that only a few of the protesters were responsible
for the vandalism and involved in the confrontation with police.
The reporter does engage in some mild editorializing, however, by
using phrases that call into question the legitimacy of the group
and the purpose of the march (e.g., "they call themselves
anarchists," "they claim that they are opposed to government ").
The Low Bias story contains the least amount of commentary and
none of the hostility toward the protesters or their cause that
is evident in the High Bias story. In fact, the reporter seems
almost sympathetic to the protesters when he includes them in a
list of people injured by the mace police sprayed into the crowd.
Another aspect of biased news coverage is whether or not
opposing viewpoints are expressed. The journalistic principle of
balance stipulates that differing perspectives on a given issue
ought to be included in a news story if they are germane.
Furthermore, having the concerned parties express their views in
their own words is preferable to paraphrasing (Fink, 1998). The
three news stories vary in terms of how the protesters' views are
expressed. The Low Bias story features two interviews with
protesters balanced by two different segments of an interview
with the Deputy Chief of Police. The High Bias story, too, has a
protester speaking on camera, although the segment is very brief
and done partly as a voice-over to inflammatory shots of flag
burning. The Medium Bias story does not have the protesters
speak on camera, but does briefly relate the purpose of the march
in a voice-over.
Based on these characteristics we believe that these three
stories represent an ordinal operationalization of status quo
bias. Although the High Bias story does seem more balanced than
the Medium Bias story in terms of allowing the protesters to
speak in their voice, we feel that this is more than offset by
the use of inflammatory footage, the derisive and moralistic tone
of the story, and especially the highly emotional segment of the
sobbing bystander. As a manipulation check, we asked four media
professionals currently working in broadcast journalism to
evaluate the three stories. The presentation order of the
stories was counterbalanced, and the reviewers were "blind" to
the purpose of the evaluation. All four concurred with our
ordinal ranking of the stories.
We embedded each version of the protest news story in a
constructed newscast that featured five other news stories, a
commercial break, and an introduction and closing to the newscast
by a team of professional newscasters. This fixed portion of the
news cast ran 8 min 45 s, so the complete news casts with the
embedded target stories ranged in length from 10 min 10 s to 11
min. In all three versions the target story was placed in the
fourth story slot.
This experiment used a single factor, post-test only,
between-subject design with random assignment to condition. Upon
arriving at the research facility, participants were provided
with a brief description of the stimuli and questionnaire, and
then signed an informed consent form. In a modified classroom,
the participants sat in a semi-circle of chairs positioned
approximately 2.5 m in front of the viewing device (a Sony 27"
color monitor). They watched one of the three versions of the
constructed newscast played back on a VHS videocassette recorder.
Tape viewings were done in groups of two to eight people. At the
end of the news cast, we asked the study participants to fill out
a questionnaire on what they had seen. After completing the
questionnaire, the students were verbally debriefed and thanked
for their participation. The entire experiment lasted 45 min.
The items used to create the protest-specific attitudes and
perceptions dependent measures are listed in Table 1a. All items
were measured on five-point Likert-type scales unless otherwise
noted. The eight items used to create the Criticism of the
Protesters scale (Cronbach's alpha = .82) are listed in Table 1a.
The Identification with the Protesters scale consisted of five
items (alpha = .81), one of which ("how close are your beliefs to
those of the protesters") was measured on a nine-point scale.
The Criticism of the Police scale was constructed from five items
(alpha = .81). Perceptions of Protest Effectiveness were
measured using five items (alpha = .79). Support for the
Protesters' Expressive Rights consisted of three items (alpha =
.79). Percieved Public Support for the Protesters was measured
by a single item that asked participants to estimate the
percentage of the population that agree with most of the
protesters' viewpoints. Finally, perceptions of the
Newsworthiness of the Protest were assessed using seven items
(alpha = .76).
There were four scales that measured participants' attitudes
toward protest in general (Table 1b). All items were measured on
5-point Likert scales. The six items that measured perceptions
of General Protest Utility had a Cronbach's alpha of .80. Five
items comprised the General Hostility Toward Protest scale (alpha
= .76). General Support for Protest Expressive Rights had three
scale components (alpha = .79). Finally, General Newsworthiness
of Protest consisted of nine items (alpha = .76).
Eight covariates were included in the analysis (gender,
conservatism, political interest and participation, and four
different media use measures). Females made up 75.8% of the
participants. Conservatism was a two-item measure, which asked
participants to rate themselves on social and economic issues on
two seven-point scales ranging from very liberal to very
conservative (alpha = .76). Participants responded to two items,
one asking about their interest in politics and the other asking
about interest in the outcome of the next presidential election,
using nine-point scales ranging from "not at all interested" to
"very interested." Responses were averaged to create a measure
of political interest (alpha = .79). The covariates included use
of local television news, national television news, newspapers
and radio news. Media use variables were constructed by
multiplying the number of days per week that participants said
they used the medium by the average number of minutes per day
they spent with that medium on days that they use it.
To examine the relationships between the level of status quo
bias in the news story stimulus and the dependent variables, we
ran eleven separate ANCOVAs, using the eight variables as
covariates. Confidence in the ordinal nature of our independent
variable led us to use planned contrasts in the analyses. Though
we were particularly interested in linear trends in our dependent
measures, we examined quadratic trends as well.
Hypothesis One, which proposed that higher levels of status
quo bias will be associated with lower levels of support for the
protesters, was strongly supported (Table 2). The ANCOVA
produced an F of 18.66 (df = 2, 196) that was significant at the
.001 level. The contrast procedure revealed a significant linear
relationship (F = 34.36, p < .001); the quadratic contrast was
not significant (F = 2.77, n.s.). The estimated marginal means
after controlling for the eight covariates were 3.40 for the Low
Bias group, 3.54 for the Medium Bias group, and 3.96 for the High
Hypothesis Two stipulated that the level of status quo bias
would be negatively related to participants' identification with
the protesters. This hypothesis was strongly supported. The
linear contrast was significant (F = 34.87, p < .001), while the
quadratic contrast was not (F = .01, n.s.). The F value of 17.45
(df = 2, 196) was significant at the .001 level. The estimated
marginal mean for the Low Bias group was 2.28, while the mean for
the Medium Bias group was 1.96 and the mean for the High Bias
group was 1.62.
Exposure groups were significantly different in their
criticism of the police, as predicted by Hypothesis Three (F =
43.35, df = 2, p < .001). Both the linear (F = 81.16, p < .001)
and quadratic (F = 5.96, p < .05) contrasts were significant.
The Low Bias group was the most critical of the police with an
estimated marginal mean of 2.76. The Medium Bias group was less
critical (2.11). The High Bias group was even less critical
(1.88). The significant quadratic contrast indicates that the
size of the difference between the Low Bias and Medium Bias group
was larger than the difference between the Medium Bias and High
Hypothesis Four was also strongly supported. The status quo
bias level was negatively related to perceptions of the
effectiveness of the protest (F = 12.58, df = 2, 196, p <.001).
Only the linear contrast was significant (F = 23.38, p < .001).
The Low Bias group (2.76) saw the protest as more effective than
the Medium Bias group (2.60) and the High Bias group (2.17).
A similar pattern was found in the test of Hypothesis Five,
however, the strength of the relationship was considerably less
than the other six protest-specific scales. This hypothesis
predicted a negative relationship between status quo bias and
support for the protesters' expressive rights. This hypothesis
was supported (F = 3.37, df = 2, 196, p < .05). Again, only the
linear contrast was significant (F = 6.22, p < .05). The lowest
amount of support came from the High Bias group (3.96), followed
by the Medium Bias group (4.16), and then the Low Bias group
Hypothesis Six proposed that participants who saw stories
with higher levels of status quo bias would estimate social
support for the protesters to be lower. This hypothesis was also
generally supported. The F value of 9.45 (df = 2, 196) was
significant at the .001 level. The linear contrast was
significant (F = 18.52, p < .001), while the quadratic was not (F= .43, n.s.).
Participants who saw the Low Bias story perceived
the highest level of public support for the protesters'
viewpoints (estimated marginal mean = 19.92%). The Medium Bias
group mean was 13.94, and the High Bias group was 10.55.
The results also supported Hypothesis Seven (F = 8.49, df =
2, 196, p < .001). The polynomial contrasts revealed a similar
pattern to five of the previous six protest-specific measures, a
significant linear contrast (F = 16.00, p < .001) and a non-
significant quadratic contrast (F = 1.06, n.s.). The
participants in the Low Bias group showed the highest
Newsworthiness evaluations of the anarchist protest (mean =
3.50), while the Medium Bias group was lower (3.23), and the High
Bias group was the lowest (3.13).
The research question asked whether the exposure groups
differed on scales measuring attitudes toward protest in general.
Similar to past research (McLeod, 1995), the exposure group
differences observed for scales measuring perceptions related to
the particular protest did not correspond to differences in
attitudes toward protest in general. Exposure groups did not
differ significantly on the General Protest Utility scale (F =
4.69, df = 2, 196, n.s.), the General Hostility toward Protest
scale (F = .26, df = 2, 196, n.s.), and General Support for
Protest Expressive Rights scale (F = .73, df = 2, 196, n.s.).
None of the linear and quadratic contrasts were significant for
the three exposure groups on these three scales (Table 3). There
was a significant relationship between the exposure group and the
General Newsworthiness of Protests scale (F = 3.89, df = 2, 196,
p < .05). The linear contrast was also significant (F = 4.69, df= 2, 196, p <
.05), while the quadratic was not (F = 3.16, df =
2, 196, n.s.). The Low Bias group rated the newsworthiness the
highest (3.46), while the Medium Bias group (3.26) and the High
Bias group (3.30) rated protest as less newsworthy.
The protest paradigm provides a news frame through which the
audience develops impressions of the groups and issues involved
in the protest. News stories operating within the protest
paradigm may vary in terms of their level of status quo bias.
The results of this study show that the degree of status quo bias
in news stories produces framing effects on protest-specific
attitudes and perceptions: criticism of and identification with
the protesters, support for their expressive rights, criticism of
the police, perceived effectiveness of and public support for the
protest, and the newsworthiness of the protest. While the media
professionals who watched the stories consecutively as part of
the manipulation check were able to detect differences in the
level of status quo bias (validating the manipulation), the
participants did not rate the stories significantly different on
measures of accuracy, believability, clarity, comprehensiveness
and objectivity. Although each story was critical of the
protesters, subtle differences in the level of status quo bias in
a news stories had a substantial impact on the audience.
Of the four scales measuring attitudes toward protest in
general, there was only one significant effect of status quo
bias--perceptions of the newsworthiness of protest. The
participants who saw the news story with the lowest level of
status quo bias rated news stories about social protest as being
more newsworthy than the other two exposure groups. Since this
finding does not fit the pattern of the other general protest
measures in this study, nor those of past research (McLeod,
1995), and the mean differences and the effects size were modest,
this result should be viewed as tentative until it is replicated
through further research. The fact that the level of status quo
bias in the stimulus story had a strong impact on the scales that
pertain to the protest in question, but not much of an impact on
general attitudes toward protest raises an interesting
possibility about the nature of the effects. Namely, attitudes
toward a specific type of protest group are more likely to be
influenced by a single news story about that specific protest
group than attitudes toward protest as a whole, which are likely
to be more deeply rooted.
The strongest effects were on the three protest-specific
dependent measures that dealt with the two elements of the
central conflict of the story--the protesters versus the police.
Characterizations of the protesters and police are some of the
most salient differences among the stories. The items asking
about the effectiveness of the protest, public support for the
protest, and the newsworthiness of the protest required the
participants to make inferences beyond the manifest content of
the story, possibly contributing to the slightly lower effect
sizes for these items. Nevertheless, the fact that these items
were significant indicates that participants were using cues
provided by the news stories to make such inferences. In
addition, the significant relationship between exposure group and
perceived social support provides evidence that respondents are
monitoring news media for public opinion cues as described by
Noelle-Neumann's Spiral of Silence theory (Noelle-Neumann, 1974;
Noelle-Neumann, 1984). Merging the results of this study with
Spiral Silence theory points to the potential implication that
greater levels of status quo bias may ultimately decrease the
audience's willingness to speak out on behalf of the causes and
issues of the protesters.
The weakest relationship among the protest-specific items
was the impact on participants' support for the expressive rights
of the anarchist protesters. This may be a function of the fact
that the support for expressive rights scale taps into both
protest-specific perceptions and an underlying general principle.
Scale items asked about the anarchist protesters specifically;
thus, participants' responses were subject to the influence of
the way that the anarchists were treated in the news story. At
the same time, these items asked participants about whether the
anarchists had the right to protest publicly, which also calls on
them to draw on beliefs about expressive rights generally. As
might be expected for this scale that taps both case-specific and
general attitudes, the results are in between the strong effects
found for the other six case-specific dependent variables and the
lack of effects found for the general protest dependent measures.
The lack of significant findings on three of the four
general protest attitude scales does not preclude the possibility
that protest stories that conform to the protest paradigm might
have a cumulative effect over a long period of time. Given that
this study has shown effects of a news story on the protest in
question, and that the media sociology literature has
consistently demonstrated the presence of the status quo in
several protest contexts (Carragee, 1991; Chan & Lee, 1984;
Cohen, 1980; Gitlin, 1980; McLeod & Hertog, 1992; Murdock, 1981;
Shoemaker, 1984), it is possible that public attitudes toward
protest as a form of democratic expression may become more
hostile over a long period of time. That is, if people are
repeatedly exposed to messages in the protest paradigm, certain
cognitions will be made chronically accessible (Shrum, 1995) and
influence their social cognition relevant to protests.
Demonstrating this potential long-term effect is
complicated. First of all, it would require a longitudinal
design, which could invite a host of confounding influences.
Moreover, it would be inherently difficult to track exposure to
news stories about social protest. The general measures of media
use that were used as covariates in this study showed virtually
no effect on the dependent variables. Of course, these measures
are only indirect indicators of exposures to news stories about
social protest. Even if the amount of exposure to protest
stories could be measured accurately, the research would still
suffer from the problem that haunts macro-social media effects,
and perhaps hinders our ability to see the full extent of media
power: the lack of an unexposed control group. Just as it is
conceivable that everyone is affected by television violence
regardless of the actual amount of exposure, long-term exposure
to news coverage of protest may make the general public more
skeptical toward protesters and protest as a viable form of
political participation without exhibiting large effects related
to the actual amount of exposure to protest coverage. On one
hand, the difficulty of demonstrating this effect empirically
should not deter research interest in this effect, nor lead to
the conclusion that it does not occur. On the other hand, we
should be cautious about inferring such an effect on the basis of
protest-specific effects from exposure to a single news story.
At the very least though, the strong protest-specific findings of
this study should motivate future research on the effects of
Additionally, future research should attempt to do a more
systematic study of protest in a variety of contexts to document
just how consistent the media's anti-protest bias really is. For
example, it has been shown that journalists' perceptions of the
degree of deviance of a protest group are related to how the
media treat them (Shoemaker, 1984). If media coverage of
mainstream reform-oriented protest groups contains positive
statements about the contributions and the utility of protest,
long-term effects on audience attitudes about protest as a form
of democratic expression might be negligible.
This study controlled for eight covariates (gender,
conservatism, political interest and participation, and four
different media use measures). In general, the impact of these
factors on the dependent measures was minimal. We find this
somewhat surprising given the evidence indicating that individual
differences do influence interpretations of news stories and
framing effects (Neuman, Just & Crigler, 1992; Pan & Kosicki,
1993). There are some other potentially important mediating
factors that were not incorporated into the design of this study
(other than being controlled through random assignment of
groups). For instance, pre-existing attitudes toward protest
groups are likely to minimize the effects of news stories. In
this case, there is a pervasive social bias against the
anarchists. Anarchist movements are perceived, and in most cases
mis-perceived, as groups that are against any and all laws.
There is also a social stereotype of the anarchist as the violent
bomb-thrower and a threat to the established order (Chan, 1995).
While these stereotypes would pre-dispose respondents to be
negative toward the protesters depicted in the stimulus news
stories, the impact of these pre-existing attitudes would also
constrain exposure group differences. This makes the significant
media effects found by this study even more impressive. The
differences in the news stories were able to move participants
despite the potential anchor provided by pre-existing stereotypes
Pre-existing knowledge about the protesters and their issues
is another important mediating factor. The impact of this factor
in news story processing is complicated. On one hand, the
knowledge gap literature (Tichenor, Donohue & Olien, 1970;
Viswanath & Finnegan, 1995) shows that pre-existing knowledge
leads people to pay more attention to the news and better able to
process the information that it contains. Deeper processing
might seem to produce more potential for effects. On the other
hand, individuals with more pre-existing knowledge are likely to
have more entrenched orientations toward the groups and issues
involved in the story. As a result, news story effects are
likely to be greater when people know little about the subject of
Past experience with the groups and issues in the new story
may also mediate the story's impact. For example, Lang & Lang
(1981) argue that issues fall on a "threshold" continuum. Low-
threshold issues are those that individuals can observe first
hand in their daily lives, whereas high-threshold issues are
those that are learned about indirectly as in exposure to media
Lang & Lang (1981) suggest that the impact of the media will be
highest on high-threshold issues, for which individuals do not
have the opportunity for independent validation of information
contained in the media message.
Perhaps the greatest drawback of this study is that it uses
a set of messages on a single topic for the manipulation.
Although attempts were made to control possible confounds, the
possibility exists that some idiosyncratic aspect of one or more
of the news stories (e.g., the reporter's appearance) was
actually producing the results found in the study. We feel
fairly confident, however, that it is the manifestation of status
quo bias that is influencing viewers' responses rather than some
extraneous attribute. We base this assertion on our analysis of
the news stories and the validation of our assessments by media
professionals. Rather than speculate that some obscure or latent
characteristic of the news stories is driving the effects found
in this study, we feel it is prudent and parsimonious to believe
that it is the obvious attribute, the bias, that is the cause.
We believe that future studies that carefully control for
potential confounds and alternative explanations will confirm
Another question can be raised about whether the framing
effects of exposure to a single news story on protest-specific
measures are short-lived. Research on cognitive priming
indicates that media's influence in many cases is quite temporary
(Berkowitz & Rogers, 1986). Future research should examine the
extent to which the impact of exposure to a news story persists
beyond the period of time immediately after the viewing of the
In summary, this study found consistent linear effects of a
news story's level of status quo bias (high versus medium versus
low) on seven scales measuring participants' attitude and
perception of the protest, the groups involved in the protest,
and their issues. The framing effects revealed in this study
substantiate the concerns about the status quo bias that have
been raised by media critics and studies of media coverage of
social protest. They also underscore the importance of
journalists' framing decisions, and their choice of sources,
words and pictures that are used to construct a news story.
Society would realize greater benefits from the social critique
provided by protest groups if journalists were more sensitive to
the framing effects of the event-oriented protest paradigm, and
worked to develop a new paradigm for protest reporting that would
be built around the issue-oriented news frame of the policy
debate. Table 1a. Descriptive statistics for attitudes toward the "stimulus
CRITICISM OF THE PROTESTERS Alpha = .82 3.64 .63
The protesters were out of line. 3.83 .97
The protesters were violent. 3.53 .92
The protesters were trouble-makers. 3.77 .96
These protesters were disrespectful. 4.03 .79
These protesters were out to cause trouble. 3.05 .98
These protesters were annoying. 3.67 1.02
It is important to listen to these protesters. [R] 2.74 .94
I've heard all that I want to about these protesters. 3.99 1.03
IDENTIFICATION WITH PROTESTERS Alpha = .81 1.20 .73
I share some of the protesters' viewpoints. 2.07 1.01
I felt sorry for the protesters because of the way they 3.05 .98
were treated by the police.
The protesters' actions were justified. 2.13 .91
I would consider getting involved with a group who 1.46 .66
supported causes similar to those of the protesters.
On the following scale, how close are your beliefs to 2.15 1.32
those of the protesters? *
CRITICISM OF POLICE Alpha = .81 2.27 .71
Police actions toward the protesters were justified. [R] 3.97 .89
In the protest, the police were out of line. 1.95 .83
In the protest, the police used excessive force. 2.27 .97
The police had a role in initiating the conflict. 2.45 .96
In the protest, the police were violent. 2.64 1.05
PROTEST EFFECTIVENESS Alpha = .79 2.50 .77
The protest was a waste of time. [R] 3.02 1.09
Protesters provided a useful service to our democracy. 2.17 .99
Protest was an effective way to influence public opinion.2.49 1.08
These protesters offer new insights on social issues. 2.56 1.03
These protesters brought issues to my attention. 2.33 1.02
SUPPORT FOR PROTESTERS' EXPRESSIVE RIGHTS Alpha = .79 4.12 .58
These protesters have a right to protest. 4.20 .77
Protesters shouldn't be allowed to protest publicly. [R] 2.08 .93
These protesters have the right to be heard. 4.25 .68
PERCEIVED PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR THE PROTESTERS
Est. pct. of U.S. pop. who agree with protesters.** 14.97 13.40
NEWSWORTHINESS OF THE PROTEST Alpha = .76 3.29 .58
Media should provide protesters with means to be heard. 3.23 .98
It is media's obligation to cover this type of protest. 3.20 .99
Media shouldn't encourage protest by giving attn. [R] 2.61 .89
Stories about protest aren't interesting to public. [R] 2.26 .74
News story about this protest was relatively important. 3.22 .97
News media should have found other stories to cover. [R] 2.81 .83
Public can learn a lot from stories about this protest. 3.01 .89
N = 212
Note: The higher the number, the stronger the agreement with the
statement. The [R] symbol denotes that item was reversed before
inclusion into the scale. All items were measured on 5-point
scales except those marked: * (9-point) and ** (100 percent).
Table 1b. Descriptive statistics for attitudes toward "protest in general"
GENERAL PROTEST UTILITY Alpha = .80 3.59 .54
Protesters provide a useful service to our democracy. 3.52 .82
Protests are a waste of time. [R] 1.95 .72
Protests are an effective way to influence politicians. 3.20 .86
Protests are effective way to influence public opinion. 3.61 .73
Protesters can offer new insights on certain issues. 3.85 .56
Protesters often bring issues to my attention. 3.34 .88
GENERAL HOSTILITY TOWARD PROTEST Alpha = .76 3.00 .61
Protesters are often disrespectful. 3.04 1.01
Protesters tend to be annoying. 3.33 .83
It is important to listen to protesters. [R] 3.29 .76
Protesters are out to cause trouble. 2.49 .74
I've heard all that I want to about protests. 3.42 1.43
GENERAL SUPPORT FOR PROTEST EXPRESSIVE RIGHTS Alpha = .79 4.16 .58
Protesters have a right to protest. 4.35 .61
People shouldn't be allowed to protest in public. [R] 2.08 .87
Protesters have the right to be heard. 4.20 .60
GENERAL NEWSWORTHINESS OF PROTEST Alpha = .76 3.34 .47
Media should provide protesters the means to be heard. 3.41 .85
It is the media's obligation to cover protests. 3.17 .89
Media shouldn't encourage protesters by giving attn. [R] 2.56 .81
Stories about protests aren't of interest to public. [R] 2.18 .63
Protest stories are relatively important. 3.13 .81
Media should cover stories other than protests. [R] 2.90 .84
Public can learn a lot from news stories about protests. 3.44 .70
Protests make for exciting television news stories. 3.31 .85
A lot can be learned from a news story about protest. 3.26 .78
N = 212
Note: The higher the number, the stronger the agreement with the
statement. The [R] symbol denotes that item was reversed before
inclusion into the scale. All items were measured on 5-point
scales. Table 2. ANCOVA tests, estimated marginal means and
quadratic contrasts for the protest-specific dependent measures
by exposure groups controlling for eight covariates.
Dependent Low Med. High
Variables F df eta2 Bias Bias Bias
Criticism of the 18.66*** 2, 196 .160 3.40 3.54 3.96
Identification 17.45*** 2, 196 .151 2.28 1.96 1.62
with protesters (.08)(.08)(.08)
Criticism of 43.35*** 2, 196 .307 2.76 2.11 1.88
Protest 12.58*** 2, 196 .114 2.76 2.60 2.17
Support 3.37* 2, 196 .033 4.23 4.16 3.96
expressive rights (.07)(.08)(.08)
Estimated 9.45*** 2, 196 .088 19.9 14.0 10.6
public support (1.5)(1.6)(1.6)
Newsworthiness 8.49*** 2, 196 .080 3.50 3.23 3.13
of protest (.07) (.07)(.07)
N = 212 (Low bias group = 76; Medium bias group = 68; High
bias group = 68)
* p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001
Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard errors. Table 3. ANCOVA tests,
estimated marginal means and linear and
quadratic contrasts for the general protest dependent measures by
exposure groups controlling for eight covariates.
Dependent Low Med. High
Variables F df eta2 Bias Bias Bias
General 1.30 2, 196 .013 3.58 3.46 3.45
Protest Utility (.06)(.07)(.06)
General .26 2, 196 .003 2.86 2.82 2.80
Protest Hostility (.06)(.07)(.07)
General Expressive.73 2, 196 .007 4.18 4.08 4.19
Rights Support (.07)(.07)(.07)
General Protest 3.89* 2, 196 .038 3.46 3.26 3.30
N = 212 (Low bias group = 76; Medium bias group = 68; High
bias group = 68)
* p < .05; ** p < .01; *** p < .001
Note. Numbers in parentheses are standard errors.
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