How the Media Affect What People Think: an Information Processing Approach

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How the Media Affect What People Think: An Information Processing Approach Robert M. Entman
Duke University
The political messages of newspapers are significantly associated with the substantive political attitudes of a national sample of their readers. Diversity of news perspectives and editorial liberalism show significant relationships to readers' support of interest groups, public policies, and politicians. The relationships vary among self-identified liberals, conservatives, and moderates in accordance with the predictions of information-processing theory. The standard assertion in most recent empirical studies is that "media affect what people think about, not what they think." The findings here indicate the media make a significant contribution to what people think—to their political preferences and evaluations—precisely by affecting what they think about.

A he belief that long dominated the scholarly community is that news messages have "minimal consequences" (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955; Klapper, 1960). Many media scholars still endorse something close to this view (cf. McGuire, 1985; Gans, n.d.; Neuman, 1986; also M. Robinson and Sheehan, 1983). The more popular recent view is that media influence is significant, but only in shaping the problems the public considers most important—their agendas (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). In some respects, agenda research challenges the minimal consequences view, but both approaches share a core assumption. Both assume audiences enjoy substantial autonomy in developing their political preferences. Research contradicting the notion that media have minimal consequences or only influence agendas has emerged during the 1980s (see, e.g., the pioneering yet disparate work of such authors as Bartels, 1985; Patterson, 1980; Iyengar and Kinder, 1987; and Page, Shapiro, and Dempsey, 1987; cf. Rob-

The author gratefully acknowledgesfinancialsupport from the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation and the Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin, and thanks this journal's referees and editors for useful suggestions. JOURNAL OF POLITICS, Vol. 51, No. 2, May 1989

Portions of this article appear in DEMOCRACY WITHOUT CITIZENS: THE MEDIA AND THE DECAY OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Robert M. Entman.

© 1989 by Robert M. Entman. Used by arrangement with Oxford University Press, Inc.

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inson and Levy, 1986).1 But this burgeoning research has not yet generated a theory that explicitly refutes the assumption of audience autonomy and explains more fully the media's impact on public opinion. This article probes the theoretical underpinnings of the autonomy assumption and provides empirical evidence that media messages significantly influence what the public thinks by shaping what they think about. THE RESEARCH TRADITION

The audience autonomy assumption provides the foundation for the minimal consequences position. The assumption is that audiences form their political opinions in relative independence from the media. There are two somewhat distinct variants of this position. The first emphasizes that audiences think about communications selectively, screening out information they do not like (Klapper, I960; cf. McGuire, 1985). The second holds that audiences pay so little attention and understand so little that the news cannot influence them (Neuman, 1986; cf. MacKuen, 1984).2 In practice, both the selectivity hypothesis and the hypothesis of inattention and incomprehension (hereafter just "inattention") hold that media messages tend only to reinforce existing preferences rather than helping to form new attitudes or change old ones. Thus the media have little net impact on politics. The central assumption of the more recent agenda setting research has been that media do exert significant influence, but only in a narrow sphere. In this view, the public's autonomy is not complete, but its susceptibility to media influence is limited to agendas. Agenda research...
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