Four potential mechanisms explore the linkages between partian media outlets and attitudinal polarization, as well as discusses how such outlets cause polarization and influence American politics more generally: partisan media outlets can have direct effects on their audience, indirect effects on the broader population, effects on the news media, and effects on political elites. Some challenges and questions remain to be answered in each area in the hopes of spurring more, and broader, work on these media institutions.
Matthew P. Motta and Erika Franklin Fowler
Political advertising, especially negative advertising, is a prominent feature of contemporary political campaigns in the United States. Campaigns use advertising strategically to persuade citizens their candidate is preferable to the alternatives; to mobilize like-minded supporters to get out to the polls to cast a ballot for their candidate; and to acquire citizen-personal information, so they can more effectively target individuals with appropriate persuasive or mobilizing messages. Online advertising is growing, but television advertising volume has largely been on the rise, too, with 2014 being a plateau. Evidence about trends in advertising content and effects of advertising on citizens come from television advertising in particular. Over the past decade, candidates have consistently sponsored a majority of advertising on the airwaves although their share does appear to be declining in legislative races. Interest group sponsorship of political advertising has grown, especially in Senate and presidential races, taking advantage of recent legal changes in the campaign finance landscape. Negativity is the dominant form of television advertising, constituting more than 65% and as much as 75% of all congressional general election ads (and as much as 87% of presidential ads) on air since 2006. Parties and interest group sponsors are more likely to air negative advertising by candidates, but candidates do not refrain from going negative. In fact, candidate negativity comprises roughly half of all negative ads on air. Negative ads are more likely to cite specific sources and therefore are generally considered more substantive. TV advertising is unlikely to contain partisan or ideological cues, in part, because it is targeted at swing voters. Early studies of advertising cast doubt on their effectiveness, but more recent work suggests that advertising effects are small (mattering at the margin in the most competitive contests) and often conditional. That is, advertising effects often vary in relation to characteristics of the messages being aired, the individuals who view them, and contextual factors relating to the campaign more generally. Scholarship suggests that advertising has persuasive but short-lived influence on citizens and that advertising volume and negativity may aid mobilization efforts (although the influence of negativity may be conditioned upon ad characteristics and timing). Technological advances in the way TV advertising is deployed is increasing campaigns ability to target citizens in a fashion similar to online advertising, which has implications for how well researchers can continue to study it. Scholars have made considerable progress in studying 21st-century advertising effects, but a number of logistical hurdles and unanswered research questions remain.
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.
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Students of public opinion tend to focus on how exposure to political media, such as news coverage and political advertisements, influences the political choices that people make. However, the expansion of news and entertainment choices on television and via the Internet makes the decisions that people make about what to consume from various media outlets a political choice in its own right. While the current day hyperchoice media landscape opens new avenues of research, it also complicates how we should approach, conduct, and interpret this research. More choices means greater ability to choose media content based on one’s political preferences, exacerbating the severity of selection bias and endogeneity inherent in observational studies. Traditional randomized experiments offer compelling ways to obviate these challenges to making valid causal inferences, but at the cost of minimizing the role that agency plays in how people make media choices. Resent research modifies the traditional experimental design for studying media effects in ways that incorporate agency over media content. These modifications require researchers to consider different trade-offs when choosing among different design features, creating both advantages and disadvantages. Nonetheless, this emerging line of research offers a fresh perspective on how people’s media choices shapes their reaction to media content and political decisions.
Thomas J. Leeper
Empirical media effects research involves associating two things: measures of media content or experience and measures of audience outcomes. Any quantitative evidence of correlation between media supply and audience response—combined with assumptions about temporal ordering and an absence of spuriousness—is taken as evidence of media effects. This seemingly straightforward exercise is burdened by three challenges: the measurement of the outcomes, the measurement of the media and individuals’ exposure to it, and the tools and techniques for associating the two. While measuring the outcomes potentially affected by media is in many ways trivial (surveys, election outcomes, and online behavior provide numerous measurement devices), the other two aspects of studying the effects of media present nearly insurmountable difficulties short of ambitious experimentation. Rather than find solutions to these challenges, much of collective body of media effects research has focused on the effort to develop and apply survey-based measures of individual media exposure to use as the empirical basis for studying media effects. This effort to use survey-based media exposure measures to generate causal insight has ultimately distracted from the design of both causally credible methods and thicker descriptive research on the content and experience of media. Outside the laboratory, we understand media effects too little despite this considerable effort to measure exposure through survey questionnaires. The canonical approach for assessing such effects: namely, using survey questions about individual media experiences to measure the putatively causal variable and correlating those measures with other measured outcomes suffers from substantial limitations. Experimental—and sometimes quasi-experimental—methods provide definitely superior causal inference about media effects and a uniquely fruitful path forward for insight into media and their effects. Simultaneous to this, however, thicker forms of description than what is available from close-ended survey questions holds promise to give richer understanding of changing media landscape and changing audience experiences. Better causal inference and better description are co-equal paths forward in the search for real-world media effects.
Thomas J. Billard and Larry Gross
As the primary vector by which society tells itself about itself, popular media transmit ideas of what behavior is acceptable and whose identities are legitimate, thereby perpetuating and, at times, transforming the social order. Thus, media have been key targets of LGBT advocacy and activism and important contributors to the political standing of LGBT people. Of course, media are not a monolith, and different types of media inform different parts of society. Community media were an important infrastructure through which gays and lesbians and, separately, transgender people formed shared identities and developed collective political consciousness. Political media, such as newspapers, news websites, and network and cable television news broadcasts, inform elites and the mass public alike, making them an important influence on public opinion and political behavior. Entertainment media, such as television and film, cultivate our culture’s shared values and ideas, which infuse into the public’s political beliefs and attitudes. Generally speaking, the literature on LGBTQ politics and the media is biased toward news and public affairs media over fictional and entertainment media, though both are important influences on LGBTQ citizens’ political engagement, as well as on citizens’ public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and their subsequent political behaviors. In the case of the former, media—particularly LG(BT) community media—have played an important role in facilitating the formation of a shared social and then political identity, as well as fueling the formation of, first, separate gay and lesbian and transgender movements and then a unified LGBTQ movement. Moreover, digital media have enabled new modes of political organizing and exercising sociopolitical influence, making LGBTQ activism more diverse, more intersectional, more pluralistic, and more participatory. In the case of the latter, (news) media representations of LGBTQ individuals initially portrayed them in disparaging and disrespectful ways. Over time, representations in both news and entertainment media have come to portray them in ways that legitimate their identities and their political claims. These representations, in turn, have had profound impacts on public opinion toward LGBTQ rights and citizens’ LGBTQ-relevant voting behavior. Yet, the literature on these representations and their effects overwhelmingly focuses on gays and lesbians at the expense of bisexual and transgender people, and this work is done primarily in U.S. and Anglophone contexts, limiting our understanding of the relationships between LGBTQ politics and the media globally.
Recognizing its causal power, contemporary scholars of media effects commonly leverage experimental methodology. For most of the 20th century, however, political scientists and communication scholars relied on observational data, particularly after the development of scientific survey methodology around the mid-point of the century. As the millennium approached, Iyengar and Kinder’s seminal News That Matters experiments ushered in an era of renewed interest in experimental methods. Political communication scholars have been particularly reliant on experiments, due to their advantages over observational studies in identifying media effects. Although what is meant by “media effects” has not always been clear or undisputed, scholars generally agree that the news media influences mass opinion and behavior through its agenda-setting, framing, and priming powers. Scholars have adopted techniques and practices for gauging the particular effects these powers have, including measuring the mediating role of affect (or emotion). Although experiments provide researchers with causal leverage, political communication scholars must consider challenges endemic to media-effects studies, including problems related to selective exposure. Various efforts to determine if selective exposure occurs and if it has consequences have come to different conclusions. The origin of conflicting conclusions can be traced back to the different methodological choices scholars have made. Achieving experimental realism has been a particularly difficult challenge for selective exposure experiments. Nonetheless, there are steps media-effects scholars can take to bolster causal arguments in an era of high media choice. While the advent of social media has brought new challenges for media-effects experimentalists, there are new opportunities in the form of objective measures of media exposure and effects.