Mass Media, Politics, and Cynics Essay


Mass Media, Politics, and Cynics

For several years the Mass Media was thought to have been the central hub of societies attitudes, values, behaviours and beliefs such that media impact was expected to be huge. Individual market researchers such as Paul Lazarsfeld (1948) and Bernard Berelson (1954) wrote books regarding people's choice and voting, and for decades believed that a consumer choice model dominated media expectations. They believed that consumer choice could reflect the effects of media advertising, much like brand advertising was expected to influence individual choice such that depending on the success of an ad, a viewer would happily change products as frequently as they were persuaded to do so. What was not expected was the phenomenon of `brand loyalty' (Denemark, 2009). Once a consumer has concluded that a particular product is better for them, not a lot can be done to shift these ingrained loyalties. Aside from brand loyalties, the same can be said regarding party loyalties. Partisanship is one of several media constraints that reduce the overall impact and effectiveness of the mass media. The conclusion of such restraints have led to the now firmly held belief that, once an individuals political attitudes and behaviours are pre-existing, media impact is minimal. The bottom line suggests that, the frequency and success of a campaign ad does not depend on an in-depth understanding of advertising, but rather an in-depth understanding of the individual. Understanding individual voters however, is not a small task. Discrepancies in media impact, and resulting voter choice, can be researched in terms of demographics, age, partisanship, receptivity and even inter-personal communications amongst social groups, colleagues, friends and family. Once every aspect has been thoroughly processed, a pattern begins to form, and a minority group begins to appear. Philip Converse believed that three types of voters can be distinguished, and it is one particular group that are the most affected by political media exposure. Those with medium level political interest, medium level partisan loyalties, and a medium level of pre-existing attitudes and values are the ones that can be swayed by advertising to vote one way or another. What must be remembered is that media effects are always differential (Denemark, 2009), and therefore the proportion and result of media impact can always change. As media-based political campaigns become more and more focused on campaign strategies and negativism, individual voters are losing trust and becoming alienated from the political world. Voter cynicism results and voters become disinterested, avoiding the discomfort and dissonance of elections. Although mass media impact varies slightly from country to country, the overall impact is minimal, forcing campaign strategy to focus less on the success of advertising and more on the minority voters that can potentially decide an election. Caution must be taken however, as strategy-focussed campaigns (as opposed to issue or policy related campaigns) often result in voter cynicism.

Political information is available to all who pay attention to it (Neuman, 1986). Unfortunately, the proportion of individuals interested in political news reports is a minority. Of these select individuals, most can only recall five percent of the stories they have seen. Political analysis in particular, has the lowest recall rate of all (Neuman, 1986). As a result, the impact of political campaigning around election time is already amongst the lowest of media stories. However, this still does not deter campaigners from using the mass media as a major source of advertising for their candidates. Most individuals are exposed to aspects of the media every day of their lives, either directly, or indirectly via people they know. Television is particularly good at transmitting emotion and realism on a huge scale to millions of people at one time (Graber, 1997). Print media excel in portraying factual information in great detail to anyone prepared to read it. Although political based news reports remain the least watched of all, at election time, campaigners increase their budget and airtime for a very particular reason. If their campaigns are able to pinpoint a voter's deeply held attitudes and beliefs, the impact will be far more substantial. In order to do this, the media must begin a process of political socialisation (Graber, 1997). As Doris Graber describes (1997) political socialisation within the media is extremely important when attempting to reach voters on a personal level. Political socialisation affects the quality of interaction between a government and its citizens, such that it stands to educate the population about structures of government, environmental factors, customs and rules of political life. The mass media is the largest medium for political socialisation to have an impact. If the media fails to provide society sufficient information as to ensure political socialisation, Graber believes “elections may become a sham at best…”(Graber, 1997, pp. 191)

While the media concentrates on socialising the community with the policies and strategies of election campaigns, it is clear that media impact still remains minimal. The problem is not in identifying voters attitudes and behaviours, but rather the problem lies in using them to a campaigners advantage. Once attitudes and behaviours have already been established, it becomes almost impossible to deter a voter from their pre-existing beliefs. Media constraints such as this are a major cause of reducing mass media impact.

Partisanship puts a significant restraint on media impact. Most voters going into elections have pre-existing loyalties to a particular party. David Denemark and Joanna Devereux (2002) in their journal report regarding the 2001 Australian Federal Election found that the majority of voters approaching an election have already made up their minds prior to the election even being called. What they discovered was that these pre-existing loyalties actually affected the viewers exposure to certain media, and therefore the voters receptivity to campaign cues (Converse, 1966). Voters possessing such partisan loyalties would already know whom they were going to vote for. The media simply stood to reinforce their support for their preferred party and their distaste for the opposition. This reinforcement is another media constraint known as selective perception (Denemark, 2009). Pre-decided individuals pay closer attention to their own candidates campaign and often avoid listening to opposition campaigns. If opposing policies are unavoidable, voters will often miss-perceive information to further reinforce the reasons behind their choice (Denemark, 2009). In this respect, while the media may have a large impact on a voter's attitudes, so long as it is in support of their beliefs, the media has very little initial impact as the attitudes are already pre-existing.

Once a voter has made up his or her electoral decisions, further exposure to the media will often lead to media messages being confirmed or challenged with others. Due to the behavioural fact that individuals will most often associate with others sharing the same beliefs, their attitudes and political behaviour is thereby reinforced amongst acquaintances, be it family, friends or colleagues. This once again adds to the reinforcement effect, thereby leaving the voter unaffected by the media. The impact of the media in respect to such constraints can once again be summed up via individual traits. Depending on the political makeup of the individual, the media will have varied effects. Essentially, it all depends on receptivity. Doris Graber believed that any effect the media has on voting behaviour depends entirely upon interaction between media messages and its viewers. Voters are either receptive to the messages being shown, or they are not. This depends on political interest, awareness and as previously mentioned, political loyalties. In order for the media to have a much larger impact, a balanced must be obtained between all three aspects, and a key voter will appear.

Although media impact due to particular constraints is found to be minimal, individual voters have been found have certain qualities that are essential to election outcomes. Receptivity to media messages is largely dependant upon individual interest, awareness and political loyalties and the key to this is a voter's predisposition (Graber, 1997). As previously determined, voters who have strong partisan loyalties and pre-determined voting patters will have an extremely small receptivity to media messages and therefore media impact on their attitudes and behaviours is minimal. On the opposite end of the scale are disinterested individuals who form a relatively large proportion of the population. Such individuals have very small, if any, partisan loyalties and generally do not make up their minds to vote until the very last minute. In Australia, although these voters are forced to make a choice, often the choice is irrelevant due to such profound ignorance leaving them completely unreceptive to any form of political media coverage. In America and Britain, these individuals do not even have to vote, which means they are also very likely to be unreceptive to campaign coverage. The key voter is the one who takes middle ground. They are not too informed about politics that they are impervious to media persuasion, and they are not too disinterested to not even bother casting a vote (Denemark & Devereux, 2002). Their political behaviour can often be determined by the media as this particular proportion of individuals generally makes an electoral decision once the election has been called, or within the first few weeks. This indicates that their receptivity to media cues is high, and they can often be swayed to vote one way or the other by campaign advertising.

In more recent elections, voter turnout around the world has become dismal, with figures dropping as low as 61.3 percent in the United Kingdom in 2005 (Caulfield, 2009), and 61.7 percent in the United States in 2008 (McDonald, 2009), which was boasted to be the highest voter turnout in forty years. While much deliberation exists regarding the reasons behind such low voter turnout, voter cynicism is found to be one possible reason, fuelled by the strategy-focussed media reports aired in every election to date. Keeping voters interested is hard enough when voter discomfort and dissonance becomes a factor. Although the primary purpose of negativism within political campaigns is to disseminate negative propaganda about the opposition, such pessimistic campaigning simply adds to any pre-existing cynicism a voter may have regarding the political process. Cynicism effectively evolves from feelings of mistrust. Once the mistrust is there, a cynics initial response to the subject at hand will begin with mistrust, and therefore must be persuaded in the opposite direction in order to remove the cynicism (Jamieson & Capella, 1997). The media attempts to establish a connection of trust by endeavouring to reach a voter on a personal level. Campaigners do this by `advertising' their candidate, often by informing the public that all decisions are being made to preserve a common interest. A voter's perceptions of a candidate's motivations are often what determines their level of trust (Jamieson and Capella, pp 142, 1997). In the media, 77 percent of campaign coverage focuses on the candidates personal qualities (Neuman, 1986). This means that identification with a candidate is indeed an interpersonal process (Jamieson and Capella, 1997). If the media fails to establish a believable and trustworthy candidate, voter cynicism will result. Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Capella believed that voter cynicism was indeed a result of trust, but also a result of the changing preferences of media campaign coverage. Effects on cynicism were largely dependent on exposure to strategy-based news as opposed to substantive or issue-related news (Jamieson and Capella, 1997). Their research revealed that the more interested a person is in politics, or political-related jargon, the more likely that individual will absorb new information regarding that topic. Although the media may not impact the individuals overall vote, it can still activate a voters cynical attributions in much the same way a voters attitudes can be reinforced by the media. This conditioning can also affect individuals falling into the middle-ground category. If they have a moderate amount of interest, political cynicism can still result. Those completely disinterested in the workings of politics already seem to have adopted an amount of voter cynicism.

The mass media is utilised and manipulated in elections year after year promoting and obliterating candidates, all at the expense of the voting public. Originally thought to have a substantial impact on individual attitudes and behaviours, the mass media has recently been revealed to impact only a minority of voters with the ability to sway the election. While completely disinterested voters remain disinterested and devout partisans can never be discouraged, moderately interested and involved voters are the key to media impact. Once the target is established, media messages go about their business preaching to a minority privy to the subtleties of media cues. For several reasons the media remains constrained, relying entirely on the receptivity of its audience, which, if not dealt with appropriately, could become cynical and untrustworthy at the negativism of a campaign ad. Effectively, the mass media does not control the attitudes and behaviours of the voting public, instead we control the mass media.