Major changes are sweeping the American political system, and the mass media are a powerful force behind many of them. Elections are now waged through the mass media, which have supplanted political parties as the major intermediary between office seekers and the electorate. Greatly increased campaign costs and more frequent and direct exposure of the public to its potential leaders have accompanied this development. Activists have turned more and more to the media, and less to traditional grassroots organizations, to mobilize support for their causes. From the stance of the Indians at Wounded Knee to the pleas of antiwar demonstrators in the streets to the demands of organized labor in the factories, the media are increasingly a major instrument of advocacy. Public policy is also being created more and more through the media. Elected officials have increasingly turned to the media to mold and activate public opinion and, by this means, to gain support for their policy goals both from the mass public and from elites in the public and private sectors.“Decisions about what the public will know rest increasingly on the beliefs of a small elite which determines what the public should know.”
The increasing reliance of political elites on the media has accompanied an increasing concentration of media in fewer hands. This trend is most noticeable in the corporate giants that dominate the broadcast industry, but is evident as well in the increasing proportion of chain-owned newspapers, and the growing national reputations of a few independent newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Decisions about what the public will know rest increasingly on the beliefs of a small elite which determines what the public should know.
Despite the clear and significant changes wrought by the media, and the hopes and fears accompanying these changes, not much is known about how the media operate, how political elites interact with media elites to affect the media agenda, or what effect this agenda has on the American people. Systematic research on the mass media has lagged far behind the media’s rapid growth as a political instrument. Most of our knowledge about the mass media comes from particularistic and unsystematic observations by media and political elites and from scholarly research conducted, in the main, some 25 years ago, before the mushrooming influence of the media (especially television) occurred. The pioneering studies by Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research found the media to have minimal effects upon voters and to serve mainly as reinforcers or catalysts of pre-existing attitudes and behavioral tendencies.1Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet, The People’s Choice (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944); Bernard Berelson, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee, Voting (University of Chicago Press, 1954); Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence (Free Press, 1955). Research conducted in the past few years2For example, Jay G. Blumler and Denis McQuail, Television in Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1969); Chris Argyris, Behind the Front Page (Jossey-Bass, 1974); Leon Sigal, Reporters and Officials (D. C. Heath and Co., 1973); Thomas E. Patterson and Robert D. McClure, Political Advertising (Citizens Research Foundation, 1973). has largely dealt with segments of the media-politics complex and has not covered the entire process.
As a step toward filling these gaps in knowledge, the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior3The members of the committee are Ben H. Bagdikian, Washington, D.C.; Leo Bogart, Newspaper Advertising Bureau; Richard A. Brody, Stanford University; Steven H. Chaffee, University of Wisconsin; Philip E. Converse, University of Michigan; Herbert Hyman, Wesleyan University; F. Gerald Kline, University of Michigan; Thomas E. Patterson, Syracuse University; Eleanor Bernert Sheldon, Social Science Research Council (chairman); Ithiel de Sola Pool, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The committee’s work is funded by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation. Forrest Chisman of the Foundation’s staff has participated in all meetings of the committee. was established by the Council in September 1974. The committee has proposed an integrated research agenda for the 1976 election. Through several research teams, the committee intends to study the entire media process, from the formation of the media agenda to the impact of the agenda on the American people. Research teams will examine the influence of media elites and institutions, political figures and governmental institutions, and the flow of events on the determination of what the media communicate and what is ignored. They will also study the effects of media communications on the public’s thinking and behavior, from images of political leaders to feelings about issues, to vote preferences, to attitudes toward government. The scope of the total research design can be reduced to two global questions: (1) How is the media agenda formed? (2) What impact does the agenda have on the public?
How is the media agenda formed?
The decisions of media elites and the choices made by candidates and their advisors are obviously paramount in influencing what is communicated through the media and what is ignored. How media elites define their roles, the journalistic norms that guide their behavior, and the imperatives of the organizations they represent most likely affect what these elites place on the agenda and what they leave off. Candidates are similarly affected by their outlooks and the demands of their organizations. Their beliefs about the use of the media in the campaign and such organizational restraints as the availability of campaign funds will affect what they communicate—or attempt to communicate—through the mass media. Also, the events occurring during the campaign period—their nature, importance, timing—will influence what is transmitted by the media. Some events require coverage, while other events afford leeway as to whether and how they will be reported.
Moreover, the agenda-setting process is a dynamic one, involving interaction between media elites and candidates in the context of the campaign’s events. The working relationships, the respective reputations, and the shared values of media elites and candidates will affect their interactions and, thereby, the form of the media agenda. Furthermore, candidates and media elites influence the course of some events, as they try to exploit, and even create, events.“It is not precisely known how the views that media elites and candidates have of the media affect their choices.”
However, knowledge of the actual nature and importance of these various influences on the election news is unclear. It is not precisely known how the views that media elites and candidates have of the media affect their choices. It is not entirely clear how organizational imperatives affect the agenda. It is not fully understood how the nature of events dictates event coverage. It is uncertain exactly which candidate-media interactions are important or how these interactions impinge on the agenda. It is not known exactly how much control candidates and media elites have over the course of those events that appear on the agenda.
These influences are important to understand, for the political consequences are vast. These influences can affect the unfolding of the campaign, and what the American people come to think of and know about the candidates. Media decisions about the kinds and amounts of coverage given to various candidates may define the public’s images of the office seekers and their public visibility, thereby affecting the candidates’ fortunes and the fate of the political positions they advocate. Decisions about what events and social problems will be emphasized, and which ignored, can narrow the election, thus aiding one candidate and hurting others. Decisions about the meaning of events, what they say about the candidates’ fitness for office and their likelihood of winning, can similarly influence the course of an election. Clearly embodied in these choices are public and private policy decisions that have a clear, direct influence on American politics and that form the target of this research plan.
Four teams of scholars will share the responsibility for examining the influence that media elites, candidates, and events have on the shape of the media agenda. Each team has a specific research task, but the tasks are complementary. Together, the teams will provide a body of knowledge for understanding the process of agenda formation and for informing public and private policies relating to this area.
The media as organizations. The first team, directed by F. Gerald Kline of the University of Michigan, Steven H. Chaffee of the University of Wisconsin, and Leon V. Sigal of Wesleyan University, will examine institutional news-generating and dissemination practices, within and between major national media organizations, during the campaign year. “Generative” media institutions, which produce most of the news that is distributed locally by the many “derivative” news outlets, include the major wire services, news magazines, broadcast networks, and a few megalopolitan newspapers. These media are important to understand in some depth, not only because of their size and reporting capabilities, but because they are prime movers in determining the focus of the day’s news. Their crucial importance stems from their influence on the efforts of other media, on campaign organizations, and on one another.
Within each organization, three generic work functions will be examined in the course of this research: the surveillance-reportorial input, the packaging-transmittal output, and the assignment-management functions. A central goal will be learning how each medium’s internal coordination of these functions, and of its interactions with other media, determines the way in which it handles unanticipated campaign news events.“Three waves of interviews are planned, one during the primaries, one at convention time, and one during the campaign itself.”
In order to accomplish this central goal, it will be necessary to monitor the content produced by the media and obtain information about the media organizations themselves. The former will be accomplished through the careful archiving and analyzing of the media content as described below. The latter will be obtained through interviewing of elites and observation. Extended interviews, focusing on the three functions mentioned above, will be held with working personnel within the organizations listed above: reporters, editors, producers, assignment and rewrite desk personnel, etc. Three waves of interviews are planned, one during the primaries, one at convention time, and one during the campaign itself. Prior to each wave, the research group will meet to plan the interview schedules for different types of personnel. Field observation and interview periods of one week or more per wave are anticipated.
Interactions between the media and candidates. The second team,4The other investigators on the team are Christopher Arterton, William Becker, Lawrence G. Goodwyn, Donald R. Matthews, and Jeffrey L. Pressman. directed by James David Barber of Duke University, will focus on media-candidate interactions: how candidates affect the media, how the media influence candidates, and the resultant impact on what the media prints and broadcasts. An understanding will be sought of how and why the mass media decide what to present, as they describe and evaluate the election.
The media are seen as important shapers of the national agenda—defining the key questions, setting the major themes, choosing the criteria of relevance. The media are also seen transmitting a political epistemology; they teach the meaning of the election to the electorate. Inevitably, too, the media produce evaluations; consciously or not, they preach the rights and wrongs of what is occurring. Of particular interest will be the media’s role in winnowing the field of presidential candidates from many aspirants to the two candidates receiving the major party nominations. Unsystematic observation suggests that the mass media are enormously influential in this winnowing process. Systematic research will determine precisely how the media influence party nominations.
Six waves of focused interviews are scheduled. The first wave took place in spring 1975; the last will take place after the 1976 election. Interviews will be held with candidates for the presidency; with their campaign managers; with reporters and editors at major dailies, news magazines, and television networks; and with other bellwether journalists. The same people will be interviewed in each wave. Intensive research on media-candidate interaction will take place in four key states during the primary season, which will include participant observation. Ten national and regional newspapers and the three news magazines will be clipped, and television reports and specials (including relevant segments of the three evening news programs) will be compiled for content analysis.
“Critical” events and their handling by the media.5The Langs’ work is part of a combined study of critical events which includes an audience component directed by Sidney Kraus and John Robinson of Cleveland State University. The critical events proposal is actually a single project with these two components. Gladys and Kurt Lang of the State University of New York at Stony Brook plan intensive case studies of five critical events in order to focus on the degree of correspondence between several levels in the total communication system: (1) between the experience of participants and media reports of these events; (2) between what national news media disseminate about these events and what is available to a local audience; and (3) between the local media output and public perceptions of these events. Events such as the nominating conventions, televised debates, international crises requiring a presidential response, a mass demonstration that poses a threat to public order, or a scandal concerning a vice presidential candidate can be considered strategic research sites for observing in detail how the news media—by their presence, by what they report or withhold, by reaching a public, and by eliciting a certain response—structure political reality.
In studying “critical events,” the Langs will rely on flexible research procedures to obtain ephemeral data. These procedures involve observations at the site of events that are likely to have an impact on collective definitions as well as content analyses of reports of these events in the news media.“Local news outlets have considerable choice in what material will be used and how it will be presented and, thus, have great control over what their audiences will be exposed to.”
News decisions of local media sources. Thomas E. Patterson of Syracuse University will examine the agenda decisions made by media elites at the community level. Of greatest concern will be the selection process through which decisionmakers in daily newspapers and television affiliates determine which of the alternative news items—made available from national sources such as the wire services and networks—are relayed to the local audience. Local news outlets have considerable choice in what material will be used and how it will be presented and, thus, have great control over what their audiences will be exposed to. And local media elites do exercise their options; considerable variation exists between media in different locations throughout the country and even between different media in the same location in what they relay to their audiences. Thus, an understanding of the process by which they select certain news items, and ignore others, is of compelling importance. Explanations will be sought in such factors as the news perspectives, journalistic norms, and political biases of these local elites, as well as other possible influences such as staffing, news space, and normal news-handling procedures.
The data for this research will be obtained primarily through (1) interviews with local media elites which will take place at four different periods of the campaign, (2) systematic observations of local news operations on four occasions during the campaign, and (3) comparison of the news content communicated by local media over the course of the campaign with the potential content made available through national sources. The analysis will be conducted on the daily newspapers and television affiliates in four cities.
What impact does the media agenda have on the public?
One fact is known about the impact of the mass media on the American public: the effects of the media are seldom direct or hypodermic. Rather, mass communications normally function among and through mediating influences, such as people’s political predispositions and the uses they make of the mass media.
Beyond this basic observation, however, our understanding of media effects is imprecise, and speculation far exceeds documentation. It is frequently said, for example, that television news has more influence on voters’ images of candidates than the newspaper, but that the newspaper has more impact on the electorate’s issue awareness. This has not yet been fully demonstrated. It is also widely believed, as another example, that televised political advertising has greater impact on people who are less interested and involved in politics than on those individuals who are greatly interested in politics. But this relationship also has not been fully examined.
Nor are the specific effects of the media understood. For instance, the media’s projection of candidates’ images has been discussed widely, particularly in popular writings, but the media’s actual effect on images is unknown. And, while it is clear that the media provide voters with much of their information and focus people’s attention on certain public matters, it has not been clearly established how much influence the media have in these areas, or what conditions mediate the media’s impact. Moreover, many observers feel that the media can define campaign situations for the public, but even this has not been carefully examined. Further, some observers feel that public sentiments such as alienation and ideological beliefs are influenced by the media, but recent research has not tested this premise. Other observers, primarily those actively involved in politics, believe that the media have substantial influence on vote choice, but few studies have carefully looked at the question.“Emerging from the research will be an extensive source of information about the media’s impact on voters during a presidential election.”
The media’s impact on the public during the campaign. Three teams of scholars will share responsibility for assessing the media’s impact on the public. The first team, directed by Thomas Patterson, will examine the media’s influence during the campaign. It will address a wide range of topics, encompassing most of the questions about media impact raised by candidates, policymakers, media personnel, political observers, and social scientists. Examined will be the impact of television news, newspapers, news magazines, and televised political advertising on voters; the impact of the media during primary elections, the party conventions, the general elections; the media’s effects in different electoral and media situations; and the media’s impact on a variety of personal reactions from people’s images of candidates to their response to the issues to their vote preferences. Emerging from the research will be an extensive source of information about the media’s impact on voters during a presidential election.
The study will depend on a panel survey of voters, spanning the entire election period from before the primaries to Election Day. Interviews will be timed so that media effects can be isolated for the key phases of the campaign: primaries, conventions, the general election. Additionally, interviews will be conducted in several carefully selected media markets so that media effects on voters residing in nonprimary and primary states, in media-abundant and media-sparse locations, can be studied. The panel survey will be augmented by a detailed content analysis of the media sources to which interviewees are exposed.
The media’s impact on the public between elections. This project, headed by Warren E. Miller of the University of Michigan, will represent the culminating step of a four-year, three-election study involving a national panel of the American electorate, designed to examine the long-term impact of mass communications on political behavior. Completion of this phase will permit close scrutiny of both the agenda-setting and influence functions of the diverse mass media during the entire Watergate period. The research team will examine the ways in which shifts in emphasis across the media have contributed to changes over time in aspects of the national political scene salient for the citizenry. Also examined will be the contribution of shifts in media descriptions and evaluations of political figures and issues to those changes in popular perspectives on policies, candidates, and parties that lead to differences in national election outcomes over the 1972–76 period.
A representative sample of the American electorate, personally interviewed in 1972 in connection with the presidential election, was reinterviewed at the time of the 1974 congressional elections. The 1972 interview had gathered general information on respondents’ media usage. The detail of this information was augmented considerably in 1974. In addition, a large amount of data on the specific content being disseminated by the various media within the primary sampling areas of the national survey was assembled. The 1976 reinterview would complete this work by filling in information on continuities in media use and the ultimate perceptions, attitudes, and voting choices of the electorate panel.
The impact of “critical events” on voters. This research team, directed by Sidney Kraus and John P. Robinson of Cleveland State University, will focus on the impact of five critical events on the electorate. Both scheduled and unscheduled events, such as the nominating conventions, televised debates, or an international crisis requiring a presidential response will be examined for their impact, through the mass media, on the voters. The research will discover how the media structure the political reality of the mass public.
Short telephone interviews will be used in several locations to determine the immediate impact of media handling of events and as a screening device to identify target groups for more intensive follow-up interviews to discover media exposure and how persons arrived at their particular definitions of an event.“The data obtained will serve the elite research by providing measures of the media output that results from the actions of these elites.”
A content analysis of the media. A media content analysis project will support both the research on media and campaign elites and the research on the audience effects of the media. The project will involve an exhaustive content analysis of over 100 newspapers spread throughout the country, the television networks regular newscasts, and weekly news magazines such as Time and Newsweek. Examined in the content analysis will be methods of news presentation and measures of news content in the various sources. The data obtained will serve the elite research by providing measures of the media output that results from the actions of these elites. The data will serve the audience effects research by providing measures of media content that can be related to people’s reactions to politics. A similar content analysis project was conducted at the University of Michigan under the direction of F. Gerald Kline for the 1974 elections. Kline will also direct this phase of the research, which will concentrate on media materials collected during the 1976 election and also cover some retrievable media materials from 1972.
The committee’s continuing role
The individual research projects described here were developed by the research teams; the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior will remain in existence during the field research phase to guarantee that the research product will be fully integrated. The committee will monitor the work of the various research teams and, through periodic meetings, review the teams’ progress toward their separate goals and the combined goals. The committee will also serve as a policy body and will be prepared, if necessary, to take whatever steps are required to insure the success of the overall project. Additionally, the committee’s staff will serve as a continual liaison between the committee and the teams and between the teams themselves. The staff will provide an ongoing channel for the full exchange of information.
The research promises to provide important intellectual and practical gains. To achieve these ends, an ambitious publication plan is intended. It is expected, within two years of the completion of the field work, that each research team will produce one or more book-length monographs. A major commercial publisher has already indicated a willingness to publish the series. The decision to publish the findings as a series of monographs reflects the division of responsibility between the research teams and their dependence on different perspectives and methodologies. However, a volume that ties together the separate research findings will be written and added to the series.
Although the scholars doing the field work will have initial rights to the use of the data, the research will also serve the broader social science community. The data sets created by the research will be released to the social science community within eighteen months after their preparation, in a form suitable for additional analysis. This time period will protect the initial efforts of the research teams but not discourage other researchers with an interest in the data. To achieve wide availability and use, the data sets will be placed in the archives of research consortiums such as the University of Michigan’s Inter-University Consortium for Political Research.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is author of the book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, published in October 2013, and has written extensively on public opinion, mass media, and politics. He was a member of the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior from 1974 to 1980.
Ronald P. Abeles is a social psychologist who served on the staff for the Committee on Mass Communications and Political Behavior, which was active from 1974 to 1980. He worked at the Council from 1974 to 1978. He also served as president of the American Psychological Association’s Division (20) on Adult Development and Aging and has worked for the NIH.
This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 29, No. 2 in June 1975. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.