Research has shown that human beings are biased information processors. This study investigates an important potential example of biased information processing: when ex ante assessments of a media outlet’s ideological orientation “cause” individual’s to perceive bias. We conduct an experiment in which subjects evaluated the content of a news report about the 2004 presidential election identified as originating from CNN, FOX or a fictional TV station. Our results suggest that in an increasingly fragmented media marketplace, individuals not only distinguish between media outlets but, more importantly, outlet “brand names,” and the reputations they carry, function as heuristics, heavily influencing perceptions of bias in content. Individuals sometimes “create” bias, even where none exists. This suggests that assessments of media content operate on a more nuanced level than has been captured in previous research.
You can download this paper, in pdf format, along with a replication dataset here.
Democracy requires that citizens’ opinions play some role in shaping policy outcomes, including in foreign policy. Yet, while the literature on public opinion and foreign policy has made great progress over the past several decades, scholars have reached no consensus concerning what the public thinks, or thinks about, with respect to foreign policy, how it comes to hold those opinions, or whether those opinion do or should influence foreign policy. In this chapter, we first review the extensive gains in scholarly knowledge in the area of public opinion and foreign policy over the past several decades (with a particular emphasis on relatively recent work). We then suggest a framework, based on the concept of market equilibrium, aimed at synthesizing the various disparate research programs that together constitute the literature on public opinion and foreign policy. To do so, we incorporate a third strategic actor, the mass media, which we believe play a critical role alongside citizens and elites in shaping public attitudes about, and influence upon, foreign policy. Our goal is to clarify the multifaceted relationships between these actors and foreign policy outcomes.
You can download the current version of this chapter, in pdf format, here.
Research has shown that messages of intra-party harmony tend to be ignored by the news media, while internal disputes, especially within the governing party, generally receive prominent coverage. We examine how messages of party conflict and cooperation affect public opinion regarding national security, as well as whether and how the reputations of media outlets matter. We develop a typology of partisan messages in the news, determining their likely effects based on the characteristics of the speaker, listener, news outlet, and message content. We hypothesize that criticism of the president by his fellow partisan elites should be exceptionally damaging (especially on a “conservative” media outlet), while opposition party praise of the president should be the most helpful (especially on a “liberal” outlet). We test our hypotheses through an experiment and a national survey on attitudes regarding the Iraq War. The results show that credible communication (i.e., “costly” rhetoric harmful to a party) is more influential than “cheap talk” in moving public opinion. Ironically, news media outlets perceived as ideologically “hostile” can actually enhance the credibility of certain messages relative to “friendly” news sources.
Since the 1980s, the mass media have changed the way they cover major political stories, like foreign policy crises, and, as a consequence, in what the public learns and believes about these events. More media outlets cover major political events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. When they do cover a political story, soft news shows do so differently than the traditional news media, focusing more on “human drama,” and especially the character and motivations of decision-makers, as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy, and less on the political or strategic context, or substance, of policy debates. Consequently, many Americans who previously ignored politics now attend to some information about major political events, like wars, via the soft news media. Less politically engaged Americans who learn about major events from the soft news media are more suspicious of the motives of political leaders and less supportive of their policies than their non-soft-news-consuming, or more-politically-engaged counterparts.
Soft news, in turn, is gaining popularity around the world. Consequently, these changes have important implications for democratic politics both in the United States and abroad. Most importantly, a large number of relatively apolitical, and hence particularly persuadable, potential voters are now tuning in to politics via soft news outlets. This gives politicians an incentive to develop strategies for reaching out to soft news consumers. Such individuals care less about the nuances of policy and more about the personality of leaders and any sensational human drama that a policy, like a war, entails. Soft news consumers care less about geopolitics than about body bags. Politicians who want their votes are therefore likely to emphasize body bags rather than geopolitics. In short, the “new” media environment is changing both the style and substance of politics in democracies.
You can download this article, in pdf format, here.
Do the news media provide voters with sufficient information to function as competent democratic citizens? Many have answered “no,” citing as evidence the proliferation of entertainment-oriented “soft news.” Yet, public affairsoriented “hard” news is often unappealing to politically inattentive individuals. We argue that news “quality” depends upon how well it enables citizens to determine which candidate best fits their own preferences. In this regard, for politically inattentive citizens, we argue that soft news is more efficient than traditional hard news. Drawing on the logic of low-information rationality, we derive a series of hypotheses, which we test using the 2000 National Election Study.We find that politically inattentive individuals who consumed daytime talk shows (a popular form of soft news) were more likely than their nonconsuming, inattentive counterparts to vote for the candidate who best represented their self-described preferences. This suggests soft news can facilitate voting “competence” among at least some citizens.
Slate.com editor-at-large Jack Shafer wrote an article about this study, You can find it here. "UCLA Today" also did a feature story on the study, which you can find here.
A supplementalappendix for this paper, including expert survey questionnaire, NES variable definitions and coding, additional discussion of several concepts addressed in the paper, as well as a variety of robustness, reliability and validity tests, is available, in pdf format, here.
In an effort to show themselves as “regular guys,” the 2000 presidential election found presidential aspirants commiserating with Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell, Queen Latifah and Regis Philbin, trading one-liners with Jay Leno and David Letterman, discussing rap music with MTV's youthful viewers and even courting the kid (or perhaps parent) vote on Nickelodeon. This study is a preliminary assessment of the impact of entertainment-oriented talk show coverage of presidential politics, using the 2000 election as a case study. I consider why entertainment-oriented TV talk shows might choose to cover presidential politics, why candidates choose to appear on talk shows, and who is likely to be the primary audience for such coverage. This discussion yields a series of hypotheses concerning the effects of talk show coverage of presidential politics on public views of the candidates and the campaign. I test my hypotheses through a content analysis of campaign coverage by entertainment-oriented talk shows, traditional political talk shows, and national news campaign coverage, as well as through a series of statistical analyses employing the 2000 NES. I find that talk show coverage of presidential politics does indeed influence voter attitudes. In particular, net of partisan preferences and a variety of other demographic and political factors, voters who rely primarily on entertainment-oriented TV talk shows as a source of campaign information are more likely to find the opposition candidate “likeable,” as well as to cross party lines and vote for him, relative to their more politically aware counterparts who pay closer attention to traditional news outlets.
This article is available for download from JSTOR here.
You can download a zip archive containing the 2000 NES variable definitions and re-coding, as well as the content analysis data and coding form, from this article here.
This study investigates the differences in coverage of foreign policy by the soft and hard news media, and the implications of such differences for public attitudes regarding the appropriate U.S. role in the world. I find that, relative to traditional news outlets, the soft news media place greater emphasis on dramatic, human-interest themes and episodic frames and less emphasis on knowledgeable information sources or thematic frames, while also having a greater propensity to emphasize the potential for bad outcomes. I then develop a conceptual framework in order to determine the implications of these differences. I argue that the style of coverage of soft news outlets tends to induce suspicion and distrust of a proactive or internationalist approach to U.S. foreign policy, particularly among the least politically attentive segments of the public. I test this and several related hypotheses through multiple statistical investigations into the effects of soft news coverage on attitudes toward isolationism in general, and U.S. policy regarding the Bosnian Civil War in particular. I find that among the least politically attentive members of the public, but not their more-attentive counterparts, soft news exposurebut not exposure to traditional news sourcesis indeed associated with greater isolationism in general, and opposition to a proactive U.S. policy toward Bosnia in particular.
In this study, I explain why, despite the potential credibility enhancement associated with generating domestic audience costs, leaders frequently opt to “go private,” by conducting foreign policy out of the public spotlight. I argue that leaders (in this instance U.S. presidents) are likely to prefer to forego the potential benefits of audience costs (such as enhanced credibility in the eyes of an adversary) in crises involving relatively modest strategic stakes, unless they are confident of success in a fight. There are two reasons for this. First, public scrutiny disproportionately raises the potential political price of a bad outcome, thereby decreasing a leader's willingness to incur a large political risk for a relatively small strategic or political gain. Second, the reactions of the domestic “audience,” once a leader seeks to engage them, is not entirely predictable. Hence, leaders' efforts to generate audience costs can sometimes backfire, leading to reduced, rather than enhanced, credibility. I test my hypotheses with data on U.S. behavior in all international crises between 1946 and 1994. My results show that when U.S. national security interests in a crisis are modest, American presidents are indeed less likely to speak publicly about potential adversaries, unless they are quite confident of success if a fight ensues.
You can download a zipped excel spreadsheet containing the data for this article here.
If you or your institution subscribe to Ingenta, you can download a pdf copy of this article here.
Most previous research on the influence of domestic politics on international conflict behavior treats public opinion as endogenous to political institutions, leaders’ preferences, or both. In contrast, I argue that public opinion is more accurately characterized as partially exogenous. I further argue that, partly as a consequence, public scrutiny can inhibit U.S. presidents from using force as a foreign policy tool, particularly when the strategic stakes in a dispute are relatively modest. The literature on domestic audience costs, in turn, holds that public scrutiny may enhance a democratic leader’s credibility in the eyes of a potential adversary, thereby increasing his likelihood of victory in a dispute. Yet, it also raises the potential political price of a bad outcome. Democratic leaders are therefore cross-pressured by the simultaneous advantages and disadvantages of public scrutiny. As a preliminary test of the theory, I conduct a plausibility probe of the influences of public opinion on the decision making of Presidents Bush and Clinton with respect to the 1992-1994 U.S. intervention in Somalia. I find that only by considering the constraining effect of public scrutiny can we fully understand these two presidents’ policies regarding Somalia.
Democracy is more than just another brake or booster for the economy. We argue that there are important indirect effects of democracy on growth through public health and education. Where economists use life expectancy and education as proxies for human capital, we expect democracy will be an important determinant of the level of public services manifested in these indicators. In addition to whatever direct effect democracy may have on growth, we predict an important indirect effect through public policies that condition the level of human capital in different societies. We conduct statistical investigations into the direct and indirect effects of democracy on growth using a data set consisting of a 30-year panel of 128 countries. We find that democracy has no statistically significant direct effect on growth. Rather, we discover that the effect of democracy is largely indirect through increased life expectancy in poor countries and increased secondary education in non-poor countries.
In “Any Good News in Soft News?” Markus Prior investigates whether or not, beyond enhancing their attentiveness to select political issues, consumers also learn about politics from soft news. He presents evidence suggesting that the audience for soft news is much smaller than that for hard news, and that a self-expressed preference for soft news outlets is associated with at most sporadic gains in factual political knowledge. He concludes that the public appears to learn about politics from the soft news media at most only sporadically. In this commentary, I argue, contrary to Prior, that the audience for soft news outlets is, in fact, quite large, perhaps rivaling that for hard news. I further argue that long-term retention of factual political knowledge – the focus of Prior’s web-based survey -- is a highly restrictive definition of learning. By broadening our definition, taking into account recent insights from cognitive and social psychology concerning human information processing, it becomes possible to understand how consuming soft news might indeed be associated with learning about politics, but not necessarily with an enhanced long-term store of factual political knowledge. I present evidence that consuming soft news influences the attitudes of politically inattentive individuals and that, in at least some fairly predictable contexts, consuming soft news is also associated with enhanced factual political knowledge. I conclude that while Prior’s finding of an absence of evidence of consistent factual political knowledge effects represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political significance of the soft news media, it does not constitute compelling evidence of absence of any meaningful learning about politics associated with consuming soft news. Hence, as Prior acknowledges in his conclusion, it is premature to conclude that there is no good news in soft news.
This study argues that, due to selective political coverage by the entertainment-oriented, soft news media, many otherwise politically inattentive individuals are exposed to information about high-profile political issues, most prominently foreign policy crises, as an incidental byproduct of seeking entertainment. I conduct a series of statistical investigations examining the relationship between individual media consumption and attentiveness to a series of recent high-profile foreign policy crisis issues. For purposes of comparison, I also investigate several non-foreign crisis issues, some of which possess characteristics appealing to soft news programs, and others of which lack such characteristics. I find that information about foreign crises, and other issues possessing similar characteristics, presented in a soft news context, has indeed attracted the attention of politically uninvolved Americans. The net effect is a reduced disparity in attentiveness to select high profile political issues across different segments of the public.
Replication datasets for this article are available for download as zipped Excel files here.
Scholars have repeatedly confirmed the phenomenon of relatively short-lived spikes in presidential approval ratings immediately following the occurrence of sudden, high profile foreign policy crisis events. Despite the massive attention heaped upon the rally phenomenon, relatively little attention has been paid to its constituent elements. Yet, recent research has found that different groups of Americans respond differently to presidents’ activities according to their interests and attentiveness. In this study, I disaggregate public opinion along two dimensions: political party and political sophistication. I argue that, in responding to presidential activities, particularly such high profile activities as the use of force abroad, different groups of Americans weigh various individual, contextual and situational factors differently. I investigate all major U.S. uses of force between 1953 and 1998 and find that the propensity of different groups to "rally" does indeed vary according to individual circumstances. Moreover, these differences are refracted through variations in the external environment. To explain these differences, I employ two models of public opinion change. The first emphasizes the importance of threshold effects in explaining opinion change. That is, individuals who are closest to the point of ambivalence between approval and disapproval are most likely to change their opinion in response to external circumstances. The second emphasizes both the propensities of different types of individuals to be exposed to a given piece of information, and their susceptibility to having their opinion influenced by any additional information. My results offer a more nuanced picture of the nature and extent of the rally phenomenon than has been available in previous studies. My findings hold important implications for other, related, scholarly debates, such whether, and under what circumstances, the use of force can successfully divert public attention from a president's domestic political difficulties.
You can download a pdf copy of this article here. (Note: This is an electronic version of an article published in International Studies Quarterly. Complete citation information for the final version of the paper, as published in the print edition of International Studies Quarterly is available on the Blackwell Synergy online delivery service, accessible via the journal's website at http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journals/ISQ or http://www.blackwell-synergy.com.)
Presidential popularity research has treated public opinion as a monolithic entity. Yet research in economics suggests that different sectors of society may respond differently to external events. History has judged FDR as one of America's greatest leaders in large part because he maintained his popularity throughout the Depression and World War II. During this era, the primary explanatory variables in presidential popularity scholarship ? the economy and war ? assumed their most extreme values of the twentieth century. Yet FDR’s public support has received little systematic attention. Compiling partially disaggregated time-series data from 1937 to 1943, we investigate FDR’s popular support among different economic classes during both national crises. We find that Roosevelt's peacetime support divided along class lines; while during the war class divisions blurred. Roosevelt's popular support was indeed conditioned by external events, refracted through the interests of different societal groups. We conclude that public support for modern presidents should be similarly studied as the sum of opinions among heterogeneous constituencies.
This article is available for download on JSTOR here.
The time-series data for this article is available for download as an Excel file here .
Attention has recently focused on the distinctive foreign policies of democracies. We examine the domestic policy consequences of democracy. Building upon a model of the state as a monopoly provider of public services, we hypothesize that democratic states will seek fewer monopoly rents and produce a higher level of public services than autocracies. We also hypothesize that changes in regime type will produce fairly rapid and disproportionate effects on the level of public service provision. We test these hypotheses both cross-sectionally and over time for a variety of public service indicators. The statistical results strongly support our expectations. Democracies indeed provide significantly higher levels of public services, substantial changes in regime type appear to produce disproportionately large effects on public service provision, and the lag between changes in the level of democracy and in the level of public goods appears quite short, suggesting that periods of "democratic transition" may be more rapid than commonly supposed.
If you or your organization subscribe to Sage Publications, you can download a pdf copy of this article here.
The time-series data for this article is available for download as a zipped Excel file here .
For the past 30 years, presidents have enlisted prime-time television to promote their policies to the American people. For most of this era, they have been able to commandeer the national airwaves and speak to "captive" viewers. Recently, however, presidents appear to be losing their audiences. Two leading explanations are the rise of political disaffection and the growth of cable. We investigate both by developing and testing a model of the individual’s viewing decision using both cross-sectional (1996 NES survey) and time-series (128 Nielsen audience ratings for presidential appearances between 1969 and 1998) data. We find that cable television but not political disaffection has ended the golden age of presidential television. Moreover, we uncover evidence that both presidents and the broadcast networks have begun adapting strategically to this new reality in scheduling presidential appearances.
The time-series data for this article is available for download as an Excel file here.