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E-Political Socialization, the Press and Politics

The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China


Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German

This book examines the state of print and electronic media in the United States of America, Europe, and China. The latest mass communication advances demonstrate that we live in an increasingly media-centric world. The chapters include theoretical and empirical studies that shed light on the meaning of this development. The trajectory of people’s move to electronic communication is a global phenomenon affecting their daily life. Does this trend aid or impede democracy? Is there an emerging digital divide contributing to an increasing gap between the rich and poor people and nations? The four parts of this book explore various aspects of political socialization and its relationship with different media, including print, broadcasting, and the Internet.
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15 The Electronic Media Deficit

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Chapter 15

The Electronic Media Deficit

Mary A. Hepburn

Professor Emeritus, Vinson Institute of Government, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA


In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal in the United States declared that television has become a “destructive force” in society because it entices people to spend many hours in front of the TV screen, away from civic activities and social relations in their communities. Two decades earlier, American professor Neil Postman (1979) warned that television was developing into a learning system that competes with the schools and predicted that TV would eventually dominate. Entreating educators to pay attention to the dramatic changes taking place in the communication of news and entertainment, Postman urged them to teach students about television’s effects, biases, and relationship to learning. Few educators were concerned. The public generally considered television a promising, convenient conveyor of news and family entertainment to their homes. Educators in schools and colleges saw videotape as a handy replacement for bothersome 16mm-film projectors. At home, educators (like most of the American public) viewed for short periods the evening news, short dramas, or variety shows. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there seemed to be little awareness or discussion among civic/political educators of the growing power of television to socialize and instruct (Hepburn, 1990).

In the 1970s, courses for political educators taught about “socializing agents” that supported “regime norms.” In civics courses, textbooks and teachers conveyed to students a view of the several “agents” that shaped them politically: family, school, peers, church and other social groups, and the media. These agents were not considered of equal importance in the civic development of young people. Family was considered most influential, exerting particularly strong sway on political identification and partisanship (Jennings and Niemi, 1974). The school’s influence was considered minimal, based mainly on a study of high school students (Langton and Jennings, 1968), which later was challenged by educational researchers for the lack of measurement validity and reliability (Hepburn, 1980). Meanwhile, Torney, Oppenheim, and Farnen (1975) showed that classroom experiences do affect civic understanding. Social and church groups were considered to significantly influence civic attitudes and behavior in that early literature (Easton and Dennis, 1965; Sigel, 1965). But there was little discussion of the mass media. Social conditions received some attention. Some studies examined how Blacks experienced a duality in the US political culture (Marvick, 1965; Greenberg, 1970). Societal conditions were often extraneous to the “agents” model. Moreover, the influence of each agent was likely to be examined independently, providing a somewhat disconnected picture of the process.

The sources and use of media have changed political learning. The interaction of the electronic media with family and social factors affected the process. Political educators and political socialization researchers now consider electronic media’s extensively direct effects on youth and its indirect effects on all other who interact with young people. Mass media shape perceptions of the young and mature population as well. The electronic lifestyle of the majority of Americans (a change that now affects much of the world) must be considered when theorizing about or studying how political learning takes place. ← 319 | 320 →

Pervasiveness of Electronic Mass Media

In the US, television is now the main source of both news and entertainment. About 99% of US households have at least one television set and 74% have several sets (Nielsen, 1998). Family viewing has declined and separate viewing by children and adults has increased as the number of TV sets in the household increased. Cable programming is found in 74% of households, greatly expanding the number of networks and independent stations that can be accessed. About 54% of children have a television set in their bedrooms; 87% of households have a VCR; and about $10 billion is spent annually on video rentals, double the amount spent at movie theaters (Meidascope, 1997).

In American households, average weekly viewing time has increased annually from 43 hours in the early 1970s to about 51 hours in the mid-1990s. Weekly viewing is highest (59.4 hours) in homes with four or more children, which is more than 8 hours per day! Children aged 2-11 spend an average of 22 hours a week watching TV (Nielsen, 1993, 1998). During prime time (7 to 11 p.m.), about 7 million teenagers and 9 to 10 million pre-teens are watching TV (Media Dynamics, 1996).

TV lifestyle appears to be related to social-economic conditions. People with low incomes watch more TV than those with higher incomes. People with more formal education watch fewer hours of TV than those with less education. The heaviest viewers are older people, especially retirees, some of whom watch 40 or more hours a week (Mediascope, 1997). Nielsen (1993) reports ethnic differences as well. African American children aged 2-11 view about 55% more TV than same-aged children in all other households. African American men (18 and older) watch 90% more daytime TV than their counterparts in other households. In Hispanic households, while adults viewed less television than Americans generally, teens and children watched more TV (Nielsen, 1998).

The Content and Effects of the Electronic Media

Communication by television is based on visual effects combined with sound. Television programming is usually vivid, fast-paced, and accompanied with voices and music, evoking emotional responses. Advertising is injected every few minutes into all types of programs on commercial TV in the US. Television news shows feature several short, dramatic, fast-paced reports of unconnected and sometimes insignificant events. The format for news seldom informs viewers about significant public issues, especially for the majority who admit that TV is their only source of news. One detailed analysis of TV news broadcasts and audience understanding concluded that news delivery failed to inform Americans about important issues and events (Davis and Robinson, 1989). The researchers determined that broadcast companies show little concern about the quality of news; they are mainly concerned about increasing the size of the audience. One analyst of American media ← 320 | 321 → observed that TV news operates on “borrowed time” in a commercial entertainment-oriented media system (Neumann, 1987).

News items are immersed in advertising, so the thoughts of viewers must shift from world events to soft drinks, automobiles, or laxatives; from Congressional decisions to running shoes, cosmetics, and headache pills (all products treated in colorful, dramatic, emotional presentations). The Internet now allows people to get more news in more detail by searching for it and printing it, but Internet news reports are also surrounded by flashing, colorful advertising to divert attention to products for sale. In 1998, only about 28% of Americans used the Internet (Nielsen, 1998).

The great majority of Americans rely on TV news and place a high level of confidence on television coverage. Close to 60% are inclined to believe television over newspaper, radio, and magazines (Stanley and Niemi, 1993). Apparently, people do not consider how easily video cameras can mislead and few evaluate the selection and presentation of news on most TV channels. Years of electronic news consumption, received in quick, brief visuals and sound bites of speech, produced a shorter attention span for news and less understanding of public affairs, especially for those who have little background knowledge (Adatto, 1993).

In a ploy to make news programs more engaging, hard news and light entertainment are subtly mingled. Vignettes of one individual’s personal tragedy or gain are used to present a public issue. (For example, if the state builds a highway across this land, it will cut off “his” grandfather’s farm; should this highway be extended? Or, the murder of “her” son took place in a district without a police station; should more police stations be built?) News presented this way offers little or no aggregate data related to a public issue, but leaves strong images of a single dramatic case. A political issue is presented as one person’s problem; research show that these narrow personal narratives have a negative effect on viewers’ cognition. In this way, TV news oversimplifies complex public issues, ignores implications for the community or the whole society, and suppresses thinking about possible public solutions (Iyengar, 1991). Such news coverage actually decreases the recall of information about public issues or a political event (Milburn and McGrail, 1992).

Another content problem in US television is the preponderance of violence in programming. Psychological, sociological, and medical researchers find that violent action attracts a lot of viewers, including children. Consequently, the producers and directors of television dramas (both fiction and non-fiction) trying to attract large audiences often include fast action and vivid violent scenes in the programs. Large national studies of the content of television programming clarify the degree, quantity, and the various contexts within which network shows, movies, and cable programs present acts of violence for viewers (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 1995; National Television Violence Study, 1996, 1998). The majority of programs (57% in 1996, 60% in 1998) were found to contain violence and often included numerous violent acts. Much of the gratuitous violence ← 321 | 322 → is produced by Hollywood in movies that end up on TV. Not only are researchers concerned about the magnitude of violence on TV programs, the public also is worried. A national survey by the Pew Research Center (1997) reported that 75% of Americans say there is too much violence in non-news programs. But are people affected by it? Does heavy viewing of violence contribute to incivility and violent behavior?

Research teams from several leading universities found that most entertainment programs and TV movies include overt, vivid depictions of physical force, harm, and killing (National Television Violence Study, 1996). The American Psychological Association (1993) and the American Medical Association (Walsh, Goldman, and Brown, 1996) gathered research evidence of effects on young children, especially those who are heavy viewers and particularly those who experience no moderating influence by concerned adults. They tend to learn from TV that aggressive or violent behavior is appropriate in given life situations. They act out the violence they see in their play and in family life (Minow and LaMay, 1995). As these same children mature, they are also more aggressive and violent as teenagers; for some, it carries on into adulthood. Prolonged viewing of violence often has a desensitizing effect, leading to callous acceptance of violent behavior. For some young people, the daily scenes of killings, rapes, and beatings create fears (fear of being in dark areas, of being in school, of violence). There are signs that aggressive and even violent expression is increasing in American society. Incivility is widely reported in government, business organizations, and social groups. Fear also has civic implications. People are less likely to be out and about in their communities if they harbor fears of becoming victims.

Newspapers are changing their content in reaction to the popularity of television. An interesting example of the influence of one news medium on another is evident in research sponsored by newspaper editors (ASNE, 1996) who examined the media habits of young people aged 16 to 30. In the US, this group is referred to as “Generation X” (the first to be fully “raised” on television). Editors who sponsored this study of media tastes wanted to find out what newspapers can do to attract young adults to read papers. The survey showed that they enjoy night-time comedies; adventure-dramas about cops, crime, and emergencies; and daytime talk shows. Their favorite cable channel is MTV, but they also like sports and recent movies on cable networks. They claim to find role models in the TV shows; these shows were also their main sources for fashion ideas and public information. TV is ingrained in their lives. “For these young people, television served as a baby sitter, entertainer, educator, and a form of company for latchkey kids” (ASNE, 1996).

The newspaper editors group concluded that “we’ve got a good chance to connect with most of them if we make our papers more relevant to people in their teens and 20s” (ASNE, 1996, p. 7). Specifics are laid out in the report, challenging newspapers to cover the leisure pursuits of these young people (“fitness, cyberspace, career opportunities, budget dating, news on renting apartment”). Other ← 322 | 323 → statements from the report: “Put more resources into sports.” “Do features on where to take dates, new and trendy restaurants, clubs and entertainers.” The report advised that stories about rock stars be placed on the front page. Many Americans have seen this change in local print news. TV and the Internet are changing the content, style, and aims of print news. Consequently, the quality of print news about public issues and politics is declining, making it more difficult for the ordinary citizen to know what is happening in the public political arena.

Even when away from a TV set or computer, Americans are seldom far from electronic broadcast influences. An old media, radio, is enjoying a new popularity and use. Radio broadcasts accompany Americans on the jogging trail, on buses and planes, and while seated in their cars (commuting or trapped in traffic jams). Many stations that used to broadcast music and short news summaries now send out national or regional talk shows voicing the opinions of the hosts and the call-in audience. Shows discuss every aspect of life: medical advice, social and marital advice, car repair, legal matters, and viewpoints on politics. People seem to enjoy having “a say.” But, similar to the Internet, there is seldom a check on the authenticity or accuracy of what is said. Talk radio shows tripled between 1989 and 1994; some of these shows are credited with contributing to a kind of populist negativism toward government and civic affairs.

Implications: Need for a Socialization Model for the Electronic Age

While television is currently most pervasive, all forms of electronic communication exert subtle influences on the social-political-economic thinking of users and ultimately affect behavior. The Internet changed the speed and form of written communication. It also is making TV and radio more interactive since broadcast stations encourage users to communicate via e-mail. Because the Internet is a more interactive mode of communication, some consider it more democratic. Nevertheless, in democratic societies, the public should view all forms of the media analytically and critically. Democracies shun censorships and rely on informing citizens so they can evaluate and make choices. How do we embed a critical perspective in political education? How can we assure that it is understood by professors who educate civics and political science teachers who, in turn, are responsible for the civic education of students in school. One step forward is to look for a more timely model of the socialization process.

Civic educators and socialization researchers must be cognizant of the significance of electronic media for political learning, especially in the lives of young people. Although the old model is still found in textbooks and teaching plans, it is clearly outdated. Agents of socialization are often discussed as contributors to the formation of public opinion with little examination of how the mass media interact with each of these other influencing factors in the context of societal conditions. ← 323 | 324 → Among the textbooks used to train civics and government teachers, few examine the power of the media in shaping perceptions and political attitudes of young people. Consequently, there is a lack of critical discussion of mass media.

This omission in civic/political education in the US seems related partly to the fact that neither “media literacy” nor “critical viewing education” has been integrated into civic education. In the 1970s, there were several education projects in the US designed to raise students’ critical consciousness of television (Brown, 1991), but these instructional research projects died during the 1980s and their materials are now unavailable. In Australia, Canada, and many other countries of Europe and Latin America, media literacy education and research have developed and remained remarkably strong across the disciplines, including political science education. Today, students in every democratic nation need systematic studies of the media in school. Media studies should include research on content and delivery as well as analysis of subtle psychological influence. In every civics class, students should examine and discuss media effects on politics, public opinion, and civility in the society (Hepburn, 1995).

The outmoded perception of the socialization process probably was reinforced by the lack of professional exchange beyond the traditional history and social sciences. Civics educators were quite isolated from psychological theory and research. Few may be aware of recent questions about the relative influence of parents and peers and the proposition that parents have less long-term influence on socialization than was assumed (Harris, 1995). Meanwhile, medical research and mass communications studies provided evidence of electronic mass media effects. Clearly, cross-disciplinary sharing benefits political socialization research and instruction.

To more accurately conceptualize political influences in today’s electronically charged society requires an examination of interrelated forces that influence the socialization of young people. Let me suggest one approach. Drawing on the Lewinian field theory, it is instructive to depict students in their psychological “field” or the psychological world within which they learn. The concept of cognitive-field is useful for analyzing how young people perceive and respond to their psychological environment. It encourages thinking in terms of several interdependent factors that motivate learning and behavior. The field includes political, social, and economic conditions that affect youths’ awareness as well as the school environment in which they operate each day. The field includes their social, cultural, and religious experiences plus specific conveyers (or “agents”) of electronic media, which young people see and hear many hours daily and which not only affect them directly, but also indirectly by influencing the other factors in their social-psychological environment. Listening, reading, watching, and thinking about those media experiences shape attitudes and behavior. ← 324 | 325 →


There is adequate research to make us aware that the electronic media are now intricately involved in socialization from the early years. Political news and political imagery is immersed in vibrant, flashy ads, lively colorful animations, violent fearful crimes, shocking explosions, and hours of programming on various pop culture celebrities. Neil Postman (1990) foresaw that television would become “the command center of our culture.” There are signs that the Internet is also gradually assuming that kind of powerful role. Yet within this environment of high-speed and colorful communication, the American public shows less interest in politics and public issues. For example, college freshmen express the lowest level of interest in politics in 30 years (Sax, et al., 1998). Patterson (1987) finds that the American public, which is increasingly indifferent to politics, has fewer psychological defenses. Patterson (1987, p. 53) said, “Once we have an uncommitted and uninvolved electorate, we also have an electorate vulnerable to the media’s image of politics.” Clearly, we need more research on media and civic learning; we also need an appropriate model for conceptualizing who youths gain political awareness from and learn the attitudes that shape their thinking about political life. Both educators and researchers are likely to benefit from greater insight into the media-barraged psychological field where political learning accumulates. The new model presented here is an effort to emphasize media interconnections of socializing agents and the interaction with social background factors in a psychological field charged with electronic images and sounds. It also implies the importance of political education that teaches students to critically analyze and evaluate the media messages around them. Perhaps these perspectives on political socialization will motivate rethinking about the complexities of the field and what it can contribute to the understanding of civic life in an age of seductive electronic communication.


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