Bruce M Sabin
Home  Teaching  Road Trips  Fan Club  Contact


       Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder wrote News That Matters to address questions regarding how the media affects the political views of the public. The role and strength of media in politics had been debated for decades. Through a long series of experiments, the authors found that media can have a tremendous influence on peoples' political perceptions.

       The authors begin by dividing potential influences into two categories: agenda-setting and priming. Agenda setting is the ability of the media to lead people to think about certain issues. Priming is the ability to influence the viewpoint through which people judge an issue.

       In some of the agenda-setting experiments, participants were shown, over a period of time, what they believed were regular newscasts recently recorded from television. The authors had edited the newscasts, though, to include specific stories. The effect of the editing was the have a particular issue repeatedly chronicled in the news. For example, each day the participant might see newscasts which all had been edited to include stories on lack of military funding. What the authors found was that this agenda-setting did in fact change the issues participants had considered important. Viewers who were not concerned about lack of military funding prior to seeing several news stories on the topic were more likely to consider the issue important after the experiment.

       With evidence of the success of agenda-setting, the authors wanted to know what types of stories were more effective. The authors devised two categories: how ‘vivid' the story was and whether the story was a ‘lead' story. A vivid story is one which portrays an issue as it relates to specific people. By contrast, pallid stories approach an issue from a statistical or less personal side. The authors hypothesized that stories that were vivid would be more effective. Similarly, the authors thought that lead stories would seem more important to viewers. The vividness hypothesis was not generally supported. In most cases, whether a story was vivid or pallid had little impact on the viewers. The exceptions were when the viewer seeing the vivid story found some personal connection to the character in the story. The lead story hypothesis was supported. Stories that were used to start a newscast were influential to viewers, presumably because viewers think of lead stories as being the ‘big news' for the day.

       The authors successfully demonstrated the potential affects of agenda-setting. Of course, their research did not show that agenda-setting actually takes place, but rather that the media has the potential power to affect national agendas. Also, it is important to note how agenda-setting related to individual groups of people. Those who were most likely to succumb to agenda-setting are those who are less educated. The authors write on page 54: "Education is everywhere the universal solvent, and the relationship is always in the same direction. The educated citizen is attentive, knowledgeable, and participatory, and the uneducated citizen is not."

       In their research on priming, the authors sought to discover the degree to which media can change the measures that people use to evaluate issues. If the economy is a concern for people, can the news affect whether people view it as the responsibility of Congress or the President? Iyengar and Kinder's research indicates the answer is yes.

       Priming can be used to affect the results of national polling. For example, the authors point out on pages 64 and 65 that people are much more likely to express support for the current tax structure if they are first asked about their support for tax funded programs. In other words, after saying they support a variety of programs, it becomes less likely that people will then claim they want taxes decreased. The initial questions about support for programs ‘primed' respondents to later say they support taxes.

       Through a series of experiments, the authors demonstrated that television news was able to affect the standards people used to evaluate presidential performance and character. They write: "The more television coverage interprets events as though they were the result of the president's actions, the more influential such coverage will be in priming the public's assessment of the president's performance" (p. 82). If the news consistently suggests that an economic downturn is the result of a presidential policy, then the public will overwhelmingly believe that the president has caused the downturn. On the other hand, "When television coverage discounts the president's role, so, too, do viewers" (p.86).

       Interestingly, while political sophistication made people more resistant to agenda-setting, it did not help people resist priming. Presumably, those who are involved in the political realm cannot be convinced merely by news that a minor issue has become important–as agenda-setting can with the uninvolved. Priming, though, is accomplished more easily with the sophisticated, possibly because they already are concerned with the issues that they are being primed to consider.

       Iyengar and Kinder do believe there are limits to the ability of news to make people think certain issues are important, though. On page 118, the authors wrote:

                           "[We do not] think that television news could long sustain a story that was
                           radically at odds with other credible sources of information.... Though, again, we
                           have little direct evidence. We believe that the networks can neither create
                           national problems where there are none nor conceal problems that actually exist."

       I am not sure, though, that the news is as limited as the authors suggest. Consider the public's concern over the ‘epidemic' of school violence following several highly publicized school shootings. Numerous researchers showed that Americans believed school violence was increasing, even though the actual numbers of violent crimes on school grounds had been declining for years. Similarly, there was the "Summer of the Shark" where the nation was convinced the shores of Florida had become a feeding-frenzy for sharks, despite the fact that the number of attacks was normal. The summer of 2002 saw several high-profile kidnapings, and again, many in the public became scared over the ‘increasing' number of kidnapings. Again, there was no actual increase. And of course, the infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds demonstrates that the news has such credibility that many viewers will trust just about anything it says (though the broadcast was not actually news, many people thought it was).

       Iyengar and Kinder worked hard to create valid experiments. However, it is difficult to know whether their results are generalizable outside of their experiments. Viewers were exposed to news in a controlled and somewhat contrived setting. The authors did try to make the experimental setting as realistic as possible. Participants were encouraged to bring their family and watch television the same way they would had home. The situation was still unnatural, though. Additionally, when research forges into new territory, generalization is always risky. News That Matters is an excellent contribution to our knowledge of political behavior. However, it still leaves many questions to be answered, such as does the news actually use its power, and if so, how does the media come to decide what agendas to push or what issues to prime?

Andrew G. Smith
Rachel Gonzales and Bo Hatch
Stephanie L. Herron

Agape, Sophia, Servitutis: de Deo, cum Deo, pro Deo