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date: 23 May 2019

Public and Elite Perceptions of News Media in Politics

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of the research on individual’s perceptions about and attitudes toward the news media. It discusses research on trust in media, hostile media perceptions, and perceptions of media influence, also known as third person perceptions. All three perceptions are shaped by both cognitive and self-enhancement mechanisms and all have important political consequences. The chapter argues that perceptions about the news media among the elite have largely been ignored by scholars but are consequential in shaping the political world. When politicians perceive that media are powerful, they react by initiating coverage and cooperating with the requests of journalists. When a certain issue is expected to receive substantial media attention, politicians react by initiating legislation or discussion about that topic. Thus, politicians’ perceptions of media the may be at the heart of a decades-long process of mediatization of politics.

Keywords: trust in media, hostile media perception, third person effect the influence of presumed media influence, mediatization, impersonal influence

Importance of Area

This chapter deals with individuals’ perceptions about and attitudes toward the news media. People’s views of media, particularly their conceptions of media influence, shape politics in many important ways. For example, many of the Egyptian protestors in Al-Tahrir Square carried signs in English, not because they anticipated that such signs would directly force President Hosni Mubarak to resign, but because they expected the international media to influence world elites to pressure Mubarak to do so. In the first six months of his presidency, President Barack Obama held four prime-time press conferences (the same number held by George W. Bush in his entire presidency) and made a record number of presidential appearances on talk shows, comedy shows, and online video messages. According to some analysts, this strategy was designed to influence the public to support his relatively unpopular policy initiatives (Senior, 2009). Some politicians participate in reality shows because they think doing so may positively affect voters. Some voters, in turn, change their votes because they think other voters are affected by media messages (Cohen and Tsfati, 2009; Golan, Banning, and Lundy, 2008).

Research investigating people’s perceptions of media has focused on three main areas: trust in media, hostile media perceptions (HMPs), and perceptions of media impact (“third person perceptions”). In addition to reviewing the literature on lay citizens’ views of media, this chapter argues that the perceptions about the news media among the elite, which by and large have been ignored by scholars working in this domain, are consequential in shaping the political world.

(p. 566) Definitions

The notion of trust in media applies the definition of the general concept of trust to the specific context of the relationship between the audience and media (Kohring and Matthes, 2007). General trust is defined as a “risky undertaking with the expectation of a future reward” (Luhmann 1979, 42). The truster expects some benefit or at least reduced damage to result from the interaction with the trustee, but has no empirical way to verify that this expectation is justified. In the context of the audience’s trust in media, the potential gains for trusters include obtaining valid, accurate, comprehensive, and unbiased information about the world. The potential risks involve, for example, wasting one’s time on news consumption only to discover later that the information obtained from the news was wrong. As a consequence, the potential “losses” resulting from violations of trust in media may include voting for the “wrong” candidate or party or buying the “wrong” stock, based on inaccurate media information. Research demonstrates that trust in media is composed of several elements, including the audience’s trust in the news’s selection of topics, journalists’ selection of facts, the accuracy of depictions, and journalistic assessments and interpretation of the facts (Kohring and Matthes, 2007). Thus, trust in media may be defined as the expectation that journalists will report the news professionally (Tsfati, 2003a).

While trust in media is an expectation directed at news institutions in general, hostile media perceptions are targeted at particular messages. The hostile media phenomenon occurs when members of two opposing political groups evaluate the same, relatively even-handed, news clip (e.g., in the initial study, about the 1982 Beirut massacre) as biased against their point of view (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985). Later studies replicated these findings about hostile media in other contexts, using both experimental and survey designs. While the initial design in this paradigm used relatively balanced news clips as the stimulus material, the findings have since been extended to cases in which media coverage is clearly imbalanced (Gunther et al., 2001). Scholars have also documented a relative hostile media phenomenon “in which each group perceives news coverage to be either more hostile to, or at least less agreeable with, their own point of view than the opposing group sees it” (Gunther and Chia, 2001, 690).

Third person perceptions (TPP) relate not to perceptions of bias, but rather to those of media influence. Such perceptions may focus on the news media in general or on the impact of a specific news message. Research on the third person effect stems from W. Phillip Davison’s (1983) observation that people tend to perceive media messages as having a greater effect on others than on them. More recent work on the influence of presumed media influence (Gunther and Storey, 2003) has concentrated on general perceptions of media influence on others, particularly on the attitudinal and behavioral consequences of such perceptions.

(p. 567) Major Findings

Factors predicting and explaining trust in media, hostile media perceptions (HMPs), and TPPs have been reviewed elsewhere (e.g., Choi, Yang, and Chung, 2009; Lee, 2010; Perloff, 2009; Tal-Or, Tsfati, and Gunther, 2009; Tsfati and Cohen, 2013). For the sake of brevity, the main explanations are summarized in Table 39.1. There is a relative consensus among scholars investigating the TPP that self-preservation processes play a role in shaping this phenomenon. On the other hand, most research on the predictors of the HMP has focused on cognitive processes. Relatively little is known about why people trust or mistrust the news media. While each of these perceptions is explained by similar but distinct psychological processes, all three produce important political consequences.

Table 39.1: Summary of the Main Explanations of Trust in Media, Hostile Media Perception, and Third Person Perception

Trust in media

HMP

TPP

Cognitive explanations: Perceptions about media reflect respondents’ use of social cues and information.

  • Trust in media is influenced by the accuracy of media predictions (Major and Atwood, 1997).

  • Elite cues containing criticism of media shape media trust, over and above any real evidence of bias in news (Watts et al., 1999; Ladd, 2012). This may explain why, in the US, conservatives (Lee, 2010) esp. frequent talk radio listeners, tend to mistrust media (Jones, 2004).

  • Journalistic practices (like quoting) shape audience trust in the message (e.g., Sundar, 1998).

  • Social information (e.g., stereotypes) about reporters and anchors is considered when people assess credibility (Weibel, Wissmath, & Groner, 2008).

  • People mistrust public media in countries scoring high on democratization and private media in countries scoring low on democratization (Tsfati and Ariely, 2013)

When assessing the impact of media on others, people use their knowledge of

Other cognitive processes such as stereotypes (Scharrer, 2002) and attribution errors (Rucinski and Salmon, 1990) operate when estimating media impact on others.

Self-enhancement (motivational) explanations: Perceptions about media stem from internal motivation to preserve one’s self-value.

People mistrust media when media messages conflict with their important beliefs and attitudes. This is why extreme partisans mistrust media (Gunther, 1988).

Personality and political factors

General trust and political trust (Lee, 2010), political conservatism, and attitude extremity (Gunther, 1988) shape trust in media.

Previous attitudes toward media predict HMPs (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994).

Self-monitoring (Tal-Or and Drukman, 2010); Paternalism (McLeod et al., 2001).

Social factors

Cues from the interpersonal environment are factored into credibility judgments (Eveland and Shah, 2003).

Negative effects of discordant reader comments on HMPs among highly ego involved individuals (Lee, 2012).

Social relationships affect perceptions of media impact (Henriksen and Flora, 1999, Table 2).

People’s mistrust of media moderates the influence of media on the audience and shapes audience news media selections (e.g., Tsfati, 2002). At least when it comes to agenda setting (Tsfati, 2003b), framing (Druckman, 2001), priming (Miller and Krosnick, 2000), learning effects (Ladd, 2012), and public opinion perceptions (Tsfati, 2003a), trusting audiences are more influenced by the news media than audiences who are mistrustful of mainstream news coverage. Trusting audiences also tend to have more mainstream media exposure in their news diets, especially if they score low on cognitive needs (Tsfati and Cappella, 2005).

Trust in media may have macro-level political ramifications as well. According to some accounts, the increase in audience distrust of the news media over the past forty years has been an important contributor to the growing polarization of the American political system (Ladd, 2005).

While most research on the HMP has focused on the causes of this perceptual bias, several explorations have documented its consequences. Results indicated that HMPs can have an effect on opinion climate estimations, political and social alienation, and other outcomes (Tsfati, 2007). While an association between HMP and general trust in media has been documented, the causal mechanism underlying this association is still unclear. Some scholars argue that general attitudes toward media shape HMPs (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994), while others contend that HMPs shape trust in media (Tsfati and Cohen, 2005a). Research also demonstrates that HMPs affect audience estimations of public opinion. According to this line of research, dubbed “the persuasive press inference,” people perceive that slants in present media coverage will have an impact on future public opinion. Thus, HMPs contribute to perceptions of a hostile climate of opinion (Gunther, 1998; Gunther and Christen, 2002).

Most research on the outcomes of public perceptions of media has focused on the effects of perceptions about the impact of media. This line of research, also dubbed “the behavioral component of the TPP” or “the influence of presumed media influence,” demonstrated that people’s perceptions regarding media impact matter, albeit indirectly, because individuals react to these perceptions as if they were real (e.g., Tal-Or, Tsfati, (p. 568) (p. 569) and Gunther, 2009). Most work in this domain has focused on audience support of message restrictions in reaction to perceptions of influence of harmful political messages (Salwen, 1998; see Xu and Gonzebach, 2008; and Feng and Guo, 2012 for meta-analyses). However, TPPs are not as likely to predict support for censoring the news (e.g., Salwen and Driscoll, 1997) as they are to forecast the embrace of censorship of violent or sexual content, perhaps because public concern about freedom of speech is stronger in the political domain.

In addition to these “restrictive” reactions, scholars have proposed that some of the reactions to perceptions of media impact are “corrective.” Rojas (2010), for example, demonstrated that those who attributed high levels of influence to biased media are more disposed to take political actions such as trying to persuade a friend to vote for a specific candidate or expressing their views offline (by attending rallies or protests or signing petitions) or online (by posting their views in online forums) in order to blunt the presumed effects and counteract the biased messages “that would otherwise sway public opinion” (343). Barnidge and Rojas (2014) demonstrate that such corrective attempts are targeted particularly at people who hold opposing opinions.

While Rojas focused on expressive “corrective” responses to perceptions about the effects of media—reactions in which “people use the communication tools at their disposal to make sure their views are heard” in what they perceive as a biased public sphere—other research has focused on more active behavioral outcomes. Golan, Banning, and Lundy (2008) suggested that when people conclude that less-sophisticated others are influenced by political advertising, they may be more likely to vote in order to compensate for the possible electoral participation of those duped by such content. Similarly, Cohen and Tsfati (2009) demonstrated that in a multiparty system, perceived media influence on others may under some circumstances be related to strategic voting. Specifically, when people believed that media may have affected the voting decisions of others, they were more likely to vote for a party other than the one they most prefer. For example, people who had originally intended to vote for a small party may switch their support to a larger one, because they conclude that negative news coverage of their preferred party will cost it the votes needed to gain representation.

An extreme form of “corrective” political action may involve violent political protest. Right-wing Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip who believed that Israeli public opinion about the settlements was heavily influenced by unfavorably biased media coverage were more likely to report that they would forcefully resist government efforts to uproot them (Tsfati and Cohen, 2005b). This reaction could also be perceived as corrective, because the settlers believed that without the role played by media, the public would never have supported what they saw as an irrational, unilateral withdrawal initiative. While behavioral intentions rather than actual behaviors were documented in this study, and while the study was conducted in a unique and extreme context, the results confirm that perceptions about the power of media may prompt various types of reactions that may include political violence.

According to some scholars, TPPs may not lead just to various restrictive and corrective political responses. Perceptions about the impact of media and the third person effect may also be involved in other theories about media effects and processes. Huck, Quiring, and Brosius (2009) propose that TPPs underlie the agenda-setting effect: Issues that receive media attention are not directly perceived as the most (p. 570) important collective problems. First, individual audience members perceive that the focus on these issues in news media makes the general public think that they are important. Consequently, individual audience members assume that if such issues matter to so many people (presumably, because of media coverage), then they must be important public issues. The TPP may also account for the spiral of silence effect. Noelle-Neumann’s (1974) model implies that people may not express their personal opinions because they feel that the news media cause other people to hold contrary opinions (for a discussion of and evidence about the spiral of silence in the TPP context, see Mutz, 1989). Thus, the TPP may indirectly influence spiral of silence processes through its effect on perceptions about the climate of public opinion (Willnat, 1996).

When considering the consequences of the audience’s perceptions about media, we must keep three important facts in mind. First, the effects of perceptions of media influence are amplified when they are coupled with perceptions of media hostility (Rojas, 2010), especially among audiences who are personally and emotionally involved in the issues on which the news media are reporting (Tsfati, 2007). Second, while many of these results are based on correlational designs that raise questions about causality, experimental research has established that perceptions of media impact are the cause of behavioral intentions (Dillard, Shen, and Vail, 2007; Tal-Or et al., 2010). However, the possibility of a reverse effect potentially operating simultaneously has never been examined experimentally. Finally, evidence demonstrates that the three distinct perceptions—trust in media, hostile media perceptions, and third person perceptions—are empirically related. While the statistically significant relationship between HMPs and TPPs has long been established (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985; Perloff, 1989), work documenting the association between both of them and trust in media is relatively recent (Choi, Yang, and Chang. 2009; Tsfati and Cohen, 2005a; Wei, Lo, and Lu, 2011).

Elite Perceptions

In contrast to the huge volume of studies dedicated to public perceptions about media, relatively little study has addressed the possibly more consequential perceptions of the elite (Dewberry, 2014). Commenting on politicians’ perceptions about media, several scholars used anecdotes to demonstrate that what politicians think about media power shapes political life (Cohen, Tsfati, and Sheafer, 2008). The most well-known example is Democratic candidate Gary Hart’s decision to withdraw from the 1988 presidential primary race in the United States. Hart, a front runner at the time, withdrew from the race because of an embarrassing article that had not yet been printed, but that was expected to undercut his prospects (Becker and Kosicki, 1995, 54; Mutz, 1989, 4). As Mutz put it, “Whether public sentiment in response to that article would have truly eliminated Hart from the race became a moot point; Hart’s assumptions about media impact, right or wrong, changed the course of the election.”

(p. 571) Very few scholars have investigated politicians’ perceptions about the power of the media, probably because of the difficulty of obtaining the cooperation of elected legislators and officials. The few empirical investigations that are available—examining members of parliament in Sweden (Stromback, 2011), Israel (Cohen, Tsfati, and Sheafer, 2008), and Belgium and the Netherlands (Van Aelst et al., 2008); American congresspersons (Bennett and Yanovitzky, 2000); and local officials in Sweden (Johansson, 2004)—all demonstrated that politicians believe that the news media are enormously influential. In one of the studies, for example, 91 percent of Belgian politicians “completely agreed” that “the media make and break politicians,” and 87.8 percent completely agreed that “the mass media have too much political power” (Van Aelst et al., 2008, 501; the equivalent rates in the Netherlands were 70.9 and 68.8 percent, respectively). Results also demonstrated that politicians’ TPPs are significantly and substantially larger than those of average citizens (Johansson, 2004), and that the former’s perceptions about the influence of the media are much stronger than those of journalists (Stromback, 2011; Van Aelst et al., 2008).

Research has documented that politicians’ perceptions about the power of the media are not only sizeable, but they also shape their interactions with the news media. Cohen, Tsfati, and Sheafer (2008) interviewed members of the Israeli Knesset and obtained data from Knesset reporters about the motivation and efforts these members of Knesset (MKs) invest in pursuing news coverage. A very strong statistical association was found between MKs’ perceptions about the impact of the media on the audience, their motivation to be covered by media, and the efforts they expended in obtaining such coverage. Given the important role of motivation as an almost-necessary condition for obtaining media coverage, the desire to gain such coverage and the amount of effort invested in achieving this goal were the best predictors of the actual amount of news media coverage received by the MKs, as measured by content analysis. The findings demonstrate that perceptions about the power of the media have a substantial, indirect effect on politicians’ appearances in the media. This effect was fully mediated by the motivation to gain media coverage and the MKs’ efforts in achieving this goal. For the most part, journalists’ “routine” coverage of politics is initiated by the politicians themselves, and journalists do not often actively seek information that they are not “fed.” Thus, politicians who invest in appearing in the news, issue press releases, maintain close ties with journalists, and cooperate with journalists’ requests are very likely to receive such coverage. In other words, because of the degree to which most beat journalists tend to rely on or react to information they receive rather than initiating inquiries, the more politicians believe that the media have a strong influence on voters, the more they are covered frequently by the news media.

These findings, confirming both widespread belief among politicians in the impact of news media in politics and the effects of these beliefs on media motivation and efforts, may explain research findings demonstrating that politicians themselves report that much of the behavior of political actors is motivated by the urge to get journalists’ attention and coverage, an urge that scholars call “media salacity” (Brants et al., 2010).

(p. 572) However, perceptions about news media power not only shape politicians’ public relations efforts but also affect other aspects of their work. When a certain issue (such as drunk driving, the environment, or terrorism) is expected to receive substantial media attention, politicians react by initiating legislation (Baumgartner, Jones, and Leech 1997; Yanovitzky and Stryker, 2001). Presumably this institutional response takes place because legislators expect to receive news coverage as a result of their activity on the newsworthy topic, and because they expect that this coverage will bring them favorable public support. As Walgrave and Van Aelst note: “Political actors … do not primarily react on media coverage itself but on (presumed) public opinion…. [P]olitical actors anticipate the expected media impact on the public and build their political strategy on that premise” (2006, 100).

Scholars have also pointed out that much of the media activity of politicians is aimed at influencing their counterparts in the policymaking process. In other words, a politician may covet news coverage because she perceives that this coverage will affect fellow politicians, making her seem more prominent and attracting the attention of these fellow politicians to the issues and initiatives close to her heart (Cook, 1989; Kedrowski, 1996). It is well known that political actors use the media to communicate with each other (e.g., Walgrave and Van Aelst, 2006, 100), but at least part of the motivation for this mass-mediated communication within the political system seems to relate to the presumed reaction of other politicians to the communicated message.

Thus, politicians’ belief that news media influence both voters and other political actors explains at least in part their pursuit of news coverage. These perceptions may be at the heart of a decades-long process scholars call “the mediatization of politics” (Altheide and Snow, 1979; Ericson, Baranek, and Chan, 1989). Defined by some as an “increasing intrusion of the media in the political process” (Mazzoleni and Schulz, 1999, 248) and by others as “the unconditional surrender of politics … to the logic of the media system” (Meyer, 2002, 71–72), mediatization processes seem to be driven to a large extent by politicians’ perceptions that media have a powerful influence on politics. Drawing on their conviction that media make and break elections and political careers, politicians conclude that they need to comply with media demands and logic in order to succeed in the political realm (Stromback, 2011; Stromback and Esser, 2014).

If elite perceptions about the impact of media on voters and politicians are the cause of the growing takeover of political life by the media, then perceptions about the impact of media may help us understand why the introduction of C-SPAN has had an influence on filibustering in the US Senate (Mixon, Gibson, and Upadhyaya, 2003), why during the 1970s and 1980s politicians were increasingly trying to speak in short sound bites in order to accommodate the production values of television news (Hallin, 1992, 13–14), and why politicians even admit time and again that attracting media attention is an indispensable part of their work. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that politicians’ perceptions about the power of the media have had a tremendous influence on their work and on their interactions with the news media.

(p. 573) Unanswered Questions and Future Research Directions

This chapter has focused on three empirically related perceptions: trust in media, hostile media perceptions, and perceptions of media impact. While ample research has been dedicated to the factors underlying these perceptions and their consequences for democratic citizens, not much empirical research has been devoted to the sources and consequences of politicians’ perceptions of media. We do know that politicians believe that media have a stronger influence on others and on society than laypeople believe they do. In addition, there is some indication that the size of the effects of these perceptions of influence on politicians’ behavior is larger than in the case of ordinary citizens. However, we do not know why politicians and laypeople differ in their perceptions about the influence of media or why the reaction of the former to perceived media impact seems to be much stronger than that of the latter. Is it merely because of politicians’ greater involvement with media and politics? Or is it because politicians are possibly more paternalistic or score higher on self-monitoring than ordinary citizens? These questions should be addressed in future research.

Another set of issues for scholars relates to the accuracy of politicians’ perceptions. Interestingly, while research on lay citizens’ perceptions about media demonstrates that these views are rather sensible cognitive errors or self-serving misperceptions or exaggerations, research on politicians seems to argue that their perceptions of media impact are the result of careful deliberations and consultations with experts and that their reactions to these perceptions are strategically planned rather than spontaneous. Is it possible that politicians are wrong in perceiving that the mass media have a sizeable impact on their careers and on political life? It is difficult to answer this question conclusively, given the current state of research on the effects of communication on voters. Some empirical research shows that media coverage of candidates does indeed affect their electoral success (Bartels, 1988; Zaller, 1992). However, even in these studies the evidence points to statistically moderate effects, in a way that suggests the possibility that the image of the news media’s make-or-break role in politics is at least somewhat exaggerated. Again, more research is needed to assess the accuracy of both lay citizens’ and politicians’ perceptions of media.

The chapter reviewed evidence that trust in media is empirically associated with HMPs and that both are correlated with perceptions of media power. Another set of unanswered questions relates to the mechanisms underlying these associations. Do trust and other deeply held attitudes toward news media undergird HMPs and TPPs, or is it possible that it is specific interactions with presumably hostile and influential texts that shape the more general trustful or mistrustful attitudes? The evidence reviewed in this chapter suggests that the perceptions about the news media held by the public and the elite are related. We know that elite cues regarding news media, especially (p. 574) elite allegations that they are untrustworthy, have a stronger impact on public trust in media than do the actual fairness and balance of the news media (Domke et al., 1999). However, could it be that the reason for politicians’ attacks on the news media has to do with the negative public sentiments toward the news media expressed in public opinion polls? Could it be that blaming the news media, their so-called hostility and their power, is a strategy utilized by politicians to increase their own popularity and public support? The relationship between public and politicians’ perceptions about media should also be further examined in future research.

Virtually all of the hundreds of studies about perceptions of media and their consequences occur in the context of traditional media channels. Another challenging question is how this model will play on the contemporary stage of online political communication. On the one hand, online media are often perceived as potent. Pundits and the general public have already pointed to this power to account for a variety of political consequences, from the “Facebook Revolution” in Egypt to the Obama “YouTube” and “MySpace” election. On the other hand, online media offer audiences a great deal of information about how others think and react to mediated messages. Audience reactions to online news stories may contain information that would positively or negatively affect our trust in the message and our perception of its hostility. Merely seeing how many readers visited a news story or watched or liked a political speech or an election ad may shape our perception of the power of these texts. Trust in media, HMPs, and TPPs are still inferences and will most probably remain inferences in the future. However, they are inferences potentially shaped by a technology that gives us all a new and far more interactive connection to the public sphere. That interactive connection increases our ability to learn what others are reading and watching, what they like, and how they are reacting—information that is pivotal to trust in media, HMPs, and presumed media influence.

The normative implications of these findings raise a final set of questions as well. Scholars investigating citizens’ perceptions about media celebrate the fact that audiences emerge as more competent and powerful in research on the HMPs and TPPs and media trust (e.g., Tsfati, 2002) than in many other studies in the “effects” tradition, which portray audiences as less conscious and relatively more passive. Citizens appear from studies on media perceptions as critical and active, holding the ability to resist media portrayals in a reception-theory manner. When they react to media portrayals, they incorporate what they think they know about media and their influence in their reactions. However, when considering the ramifications of research on politicians’ reactions and perceptions, it is not as clear that there is a reason for celebration. Are politicians’ perceptions about the enormous effects of media and their actions in response to such perceptions detrimental for democratic life? Or perhaps on the contrary, are such perceptions and reactions beneficial because they keep public officials attuned to the criticisms and concerns of the Fourth Estate?

The main implication of this chapter is that we should pay more attention to perceptions about the news media in political communication theory building. Audience perceptions about media shape politics in a variety of ways. They may also be a key (p. 575) mechanism underlying important political communication theories (such as agenda setting and the spiral of silence) and the explanation for important political processes such as the mediatization of politics. In addition to trying to explain audience mistrust of the media, HMPs, and TPPs, we should also try to understand how these perceptions affect the interactions among politicians, news media, and citizens. The consequences of HMPs, TPPs, and trust in media should be tested in additional contexts. Furthermore, we should demonstrate the temporal sequence advanced by current theories more rigorously. A more detailed explanation of the conditions under which politicians react to their perceptions about the power of media seems warranted. Thus, as always, much is left for further research.

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