Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes
The news media have been disrupted. Broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting, editorial control to control by “friends” and personalization algorithms, and a few reputable producers to millions with shallower reputations. Today, not only is there a much broader variety of news, but there is also more of it. The news is also always on. And it is available almost everywhere. The search costs have come crashing down, so much so that much of the world’s information is at our fingertips. Google anything and the chances are that there will be multiple pages of relevant results.
Such a dramatic expansion of choice and access is generally considered a Pareto improvement. But the worry is that we have fashioned defeat from the bounty by choosing badly. The expansion in choice is blamed for both, increasing the “knowledge gap,” the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics, and increasing partisan polarization. We reconsider the evidence for the claims. The claim about media’s role in rising knowledge gaps does not need explaining because knowledge gaps are not increasing. For polarization, the story is nuanced. Whatever evidence exists suggests that the effect is modest, but measuring long-term effects of a rapidly changing media landscape is hard and may explain the results.
As we also find, even describing trends in basic explanatory variables is hard. Current measures are beset with five broad problems. The first is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information. Second, survey measures of news consumption are heavily biased. Third, behavioral survey experimental measures are unreliable and inapt for learning how much information of a particular kind people consume in their real lives. Fourth, measures based on passive observation of behavior only capture a small (likely biased) set of the total information consumed by people. Fifth, content is often coded crudely—broad judgments are made about coarse units, eliding over important variation.
These measurement issues impede our ability to answer the extent to which people choose badly and the attendant consequences of such. Improving measures will do much to advance our ability to answer important questions.
Nichole M. Bauer
Women are under-represented at every level of elected office in the United States. As of 2018, women held just under 20% of seats in Congress, 25% of state legislative seats across the country, only six women serve as governor, and, of course, a woman has yet to win the presidency. The political under-representation of women is not unique to the American context. Indeed, women’s under-representation is a feature of other Western Democracies. Even under the leadership of female prime ministers, women hold only 32% of seats in the United Kingdom parliament and 31% of seats in the German parliament. Conventional wisdom suggests that feminine stereotypes may disadvantage female candidates. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as sensitive, emotional, and weak, and these are qualities voters do not traditionally associate with political leadership. Rather, voters associate political leadership with masculine traits such as being tough, aggressive, or assertive. The extent to which voters use these stereotypes in political decision making in the American context is not entirely clear (See Attitudes Toward Women and the Influence of Gender on Political Decision Making.)
There are three ways that feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect political decision making: candidate strategies, campaign news coverage, and vote choice decision. The alignment between masculine stereotypes and political leadership frequently pressures female candidates to emphasize masculine qualities over feminine qualities in campaign messages. Motivating these masculine messages is the perception that voters see female candidates as lacking the masculine qualities voters desire in political leaders. Male candidates, because of the alignment between masculinity and leadership roles, do not face this pressure. Female candidates will, however, highlight feminine stereotypes when these strategies will afford them a distinct electoral advantage. The use of masculinity in candidate strategy leads the news media, in turn, to use masculine stereotypes rather than feminine stereotypes in their coverage of both female and male candidates.
The ways that candidates and the news media engage with gender stereotypes affects how voters use these concepts to form impressions of female and male candidates. Voters will use feminine stereotypes as heuristics to form impressions of the ideological and issue priorities of female candidates. Feminine stereotypes can hurt the electoral prospects of female candidates, but the negative effect of feminine stereotypes only occurs under a limited set of conditions. Voters will use feminine stereotypes to rate female candidates negatively when female candidates explicitly emphasize feminine qualities, such as being warm or compassionate, in campaign messages. But, voters respond positively to female candidates who emphasize positive masculine qualities. In sum, whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision-making depends on the extent to which voters see messages, either from campaigns or the news media, that reflect femininity or masculinity.
Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck
Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.
Aubrey Westfall and Özge Çelik Russell
Religion is a central and comprehensive identity for billions of people all over the world. Politicians and other political actors recognize the vitality of religion and use it for political purposes, deliberately signaling religion, religiosity, or religious values and connecting them to political outcomes or behaviors in an effort to influence the political preferences of religious practitioners. The most efficient way to make the connection between religion and politics is through religious cues. Religious cues create information shortcuts linking religious identity or values with a political candidate or issue. Religious cues are used by political and religious actors in secular and religious contexts and are typically one of two general types: identity cues, which engage an individual’s religious identity and activate an in-group/out-group effect, and linkage cues, which link religious values or beliefs with an issue or candidate. Identity cues are particularly tricky to use in secular contexts because they have been shown to have strong alienating effects on nonreligious people, thereby defeating the intended purpose of the cue sender. For this reason, coded religious language called “implicit cues” is used with greater frequency in political discourse where only the religious cue receiver recognizes the religious cue for what it is. This strategy allows a political candidate to reap the benefits of the cue without risking alienation.
While scholars have made substantial progress in using experimental methods to disentangle the ways religious cues influence political behavior, there is ample opportunity for more research exploring different types of religious cues and the way they interact with other forms of cues and identities. Furthermore, most of the research on religious cues has focused on Christian cues in the United States, and a more diverse range of religions and contexts should be explored to understand the way religious cues influence political behavior. Researchers should also expand the definition of “religious practitioners” to explore how religious cues influence the growing number of people who do not affiliate with a religion or engage in practices traditionally associated with religiosity but do identify as religious. This would help to expand conceptualization of political behavior to more accurately reflect lived political experiences. Embracing these opportunities will allow the scholarly community to gain a better understanding of the varied political dynamics of religious cueing, which offers insights into how fundamental identities and attitudes are linked, thereby shedding more light on the complex dynamics of political behavior.
Despite predictions that urbanization, economic development and globalization would lead to the recession of religion from public life, populations around the world continue to be highly religious. This pattern holds in most parts of the Global South and also in some advanced industrial democracies in the North, including in the United States. In grappling with the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on political life, a growing body of literature pays attention to how clergy–congregant communication might shape listeners’ political attitudes and behaviors. Considerable debate remains as to whether clergy–congregant communication is likely to change political attitudes and behavior, but there is a greater consensus around the idea that exposure to religious communication can at the very least prime (that is, increase the salience of) certain considerations that in turn affect how people evaluate political issues and whether they participate in politics. Religious communication is more likely to exert a persuasive and a priming influence among those already inclined to select into the communication and when the source of the communication is credible. More research is needed on the duration of religious primes and on the effects of religious communication in different political and social contexts around the world.
Contemporary political information processing and the subsequent decision-making mechanisms are suboptimal. Average voters usually have but vague notions of politics and cannot be said to be motivated to invest considerable amount of times to make up their minds about political affairs; furthermore, political information is not only complex and virtually infinite but also often explicitly designed to deceive and persuade by triggering unconscious mechanisms in those exposed to it. In this context, how can voters sample, process, and transform the political information they receive into reliable political choices? Two broad set of dynamics are at play. On the one hand, individual differences determine how information is accessed and processed: different personality traits set incentives (and hurdles) for information processing, the availability of information heuristics and the motivation to treat complex information determine the preference between easy and good decisions, and partisan preferences establish boundaries for information processing and selective exposure. On the other hand, and beyond these individual differences, the content of political information available to citizens drives decision-making: the alleged “declining quality” of news information poses threats for comprehensive and systematic reasoning; excessive negativity in electoral campaigns drives cynicism (but also attention); and the use of emotional appeals increases information processing (anxiety), decreases interest and attention (rage), and strengthens the reliance on individual predispositions (enthusiasm).
At the other end of the decisional process, the quality of the choices made (Was the decision supported by “ambivalent” opinions? And to what extent was the decision “correct”?) is equally hard to assess, and fundamental normative questions come into play.