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The Effects of New Media Coverage


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									The Effects of New Media Coverage On Institutional Evaluations

Richard Forgette (contact author) Department of Political Science University of Mississippi 116 Deupree Hall P. O. Box 1848 University, Mississippi 38677-1848 rforgett@olemiss.edu

Jonathan S. Morris Department of Political Science Brewster A-121 East Carolina University Greenville, NC 27858 morrisj@mail.ecu.edu


The Effects of New Media Coverage on Perceptions of Congress

New media sources – primarily cable and Internet sources – are transforming how the public obtains and interprets political news. This research assesses whether this new media coverage affects public perceptions of Political Institutions and political elites in general. Particularly, is new media coverage contributing to the electorate’s perception of institutional party polarization? We present evidence from experiments designed to address this question. Our experimental design is constructed around new media coverage of the State of the Union Address. We control for the source of news (CNN), and examine how CNN Crossfire, CNN Inside Politics, and CNN Online’s coverage and analysis of the State of the Union Address influenced the attitudes and perceptions of subjects. Our findings indicate that drama and

conflict-laden new media decreases public evaluations of political institutions, trust and overall partisan support. The intensity of new media exposure influences the extent of these new media effects.

2 Introduction More Americans get their news today from cable television news than from the nightly network news programs. Additionally, the proportion of Americans who read online news at least three days per week has increased ten-fold over the last eight years.1 These new media sources – primarily cable and Internet sources – are transforming how the public obtains and interprets political news. In this research, we assess whether this new media coverage affects public perceptions of Congress, the president, and the political process. Particularly, do different presentation styles of new media play a role in perpetuating low levels of public trust and institutional approval? This paper first elaborates on an argument still emerging in political science and journalism literatures regarding the evolving relationship between institutions and the media, especially Congress. In brief, this argument suggests that some emerging news outlets have a shared interest in communicating congressional activity to the public as principally a conflict between parties. According to these works, conflict-laden coverage presumably appeals to less publicly engaged viewers by presenting a more entertaining and understandable news story that elevates public perceptions of Congress as a partisan, ineffectual body. Given the growth in consumer choice in an increasingly competitive news media industry, new media sources have increased this coverage style in hopes of gaining a larger share of the viewership. However, what is the causal effect of this new media coverage? Particularly, while public cynicism and highly conflictual media

coverage may correlate, are cynical viewers merely choosing to watch conflict-ridden news media or does conflict-ridden news create a more cynical public?

3 Recognizing limits to survey data for addressing this question, we present evidence from experiments designed to evaluate the effect of different forms of cable and Internet news coverage on subjects. Specifically, our experimental design is constructed around new media coverage of the State of the Union Address. Subjects were exposed to varying frames of new media coverage coinciding with the President’s Annual Address. The State of the Union, thus, provides a natural occurrence for our experiment – evaluating the intermediary role of new media sources on public reactions to institutional conflict. We offer and test hypotheses that suggest different effects from various new media sources. In the next section, we provide context discussing the effects of new media coverage of politics. We then include a section discussing our experimental design and the hypotheses about varying new media effects. The next section is a report and

discussion of our findings from different experiments. Finally, we conclude with a discussion on the role of the new media in the context of American politics. We also

discuss the need to develop more controlled and more mundane experimental designs to examine media effects in the modern new media environment.

New Media Effects The growth of new media – cable and online news especially - is altering not only the manner of political news reporting, it is also transforming the public’s news viewing patterns. Americans are increasingly news “grazers” rather than “habitual” viewers. That is, fewer Americans watch or read traditional news at a regularly scheduled time compared to earlier generations. In fact, since the onset of new media, declines have been dramatic in traditional media use. The proportion of Americans regularly watching

4 the nightly network news has been about halved in less than a decade from 60 to 32 percent. Only 41 percent read a newspaper daily compared to 48 percent just four years ago.2 These longitudinal trends coincide with a generational or age-cohort trend. The decline of the public’s news habits is most evident among those under 30 years old. The continuous availability of cable and Internet news has most affected younger Americans. Among those under 25, there has been about a 40 percent decline over the past eight years in the amount of time spent daily on the news (from 51 to 30 minutes daily) while the proportion receiving no news has more than doubled (14 to 37 percent).3 These young news grazers report that they enjoy the news less and are inclined to follow news only when important (or dramatic) events occur. This underscores the incentive for new media sources to produce a compelling news product—even when covering the mundane. Presumably, the public’s news grazing patterns compels news producers increasingly to emphasize greater urgency, drama, and conflict when framing news. Conflict or drama-laden news is more likely to hold the attention of a more easily distracted and less naturally interested public, and the imperative for increased drama grows as the new sources of news continue to fragment the modern media environment (Bennett 1981; Epstein 1973; Hovind 1999; Paletz and Entman 1981). Additionally, journalistic values and increased criticisms that today’s media are biased toward the left (Coulter 2002; Goldberg 2002) or the right (Alterman 2003) often lead news directors to pursue “balanced” coverage of opposing viewpoints. A left versus right, Republican versus Democrat, format achieves this end.

5 Overall, new media sources add to the level of competition for an overall declining news audience base; also, media market segmentation promotes the incentive toward product differentiation among news media providers. Competing for smaller, less loyal audiences, new media outlets may produce news coverage appealing to those with more narrow issue, entertainment, or ideological interests. Davis and Owens (1998) show that political coverage via the Internet, cable news, and talk shows differs significantly from traditional presentations of news. Furthermore, they find that various elements of drama (scandal, conflict, personalization, etc.) are more prevalent in the new media than traditional news. Cable news appeals to news grazers who want intensive and compelling coverage on immediate, late-breaking stories. Politicians also contribute to new media effects. Congress, particularly, may be complicit in perpetuating partisan-style media coverage. Lichter and Amundson (1994) report the decline of congressional coverage in television network and national newspaper outlets over the last thirty years. Congress members and parties have had to become more assertive in promoting media coverage of the institution via alternative sources such as cable and the Internet. Party and ideological leaders also avail

themselves to cable news outlets as media spokespersons for their group. Congressional party organizations have significantly increased their effort in coordinated

communications strategies (Sellers 2000; Evans 2001). Both parties produce online and cable news to appeal principally to their respective party bases. House Republicans, particularly, have aggressively courted and served a conservative talk radio audience (Davis 1997; Jones 1999). Overall, parties and members activate their electoral base and

6 communicate a coordinated policy agenda by portraying a more ideological, protagonistantagonist public image of congressional conflict. This argument of a symbiotic relationship between the public, new media, and elites is the basis of our empirical study. Particularly, does this new media relationship affect public attitudes toward political actors and institutions? Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995, 2001, 2002) make the compelling case that the American public’s high regard for democracy in the abstract does not translate into support for democratic processes. The public generally prefers “stealth democracy,” weak democratic governments led by altruistic technocrats and without procedural or ideological conflicts.4 Conflict is an inherent part of a politically open society. By definition, a necessary condition of

democratic politics is to provide for conflict “conducted amid the open canvassing of rival interests” (Crick 1992, 18). Therefore, as Hibbing and Theiss-Morse eloquently surmise, democratic processes will “often reveal our lack of certainty, often remind us of our disagreements, and are seldom speedy” (1995, 17). For news sources such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, an everyday challenge is to maintain the reputation of a legitimate political news source while at the same time producing compelling and entertaining news that can ensnare the attention of the everallusive modern “news grazers.” It appears that many new media formats have answered this challenge by focusing on a central aspect of both legitimate political process and entertainment: political conflict. Political conflict, however, can be reported and

embellished to varying degrees, even across different facets within the new media. We stress that all new media are not created equal, and different levels of emphasis on conflict may solicit different responses from viewers. Particularly, the cable talk show

7 genre – including CNN’s Crossfire, Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, and MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews – present a more adversarial approach to covering politics replacing or at least supplementing traditional “talking heads” coverage with a new media “screaming heads” news format. What is it that makes the cable talk programs’ presentation of conflict more intense than other news sources’ discussion of everyday political conflict that naturally occurs as a result of the democratic process? To answer this question, we point to the findings presented by Diana Mutz and Andrew Holbrook (2003), who discuss the central theme of civility. Civility, or a lack thereof, defines the modern political talk show on cable news. In the context of a political campaign, Mutz and Holbrook find that uncivil interactions between candidates in a talk show setting doesn’t necessarily damage public perceptions of the candidates themselves, but there are “detrimental effects on perceptions of political actors and the political system more generally” (18). We believe that the cable talk show perpetuates an uncivil picture of the political system on a daily basis, amplifying the most compelling mainstay of the democratic process—conflict. Our analysis assesses whether new media’s presentation of conflict has an adverse effect on viewers’ perception of political actors, parties, and institutions. We demonstrate that the format and style of coverage—not necessarily the content— influences news consumers. Design and Hypotheses The 2003 State of the Union Address provided a natural experiment for this research assessing new media effects. The Address has been found to have considerable immediate effects on the American public’s perceptions of the most important problems

8 facing the country (Cohen 1995). An annual ritual in American politics, the State of the Union Address in the television era follows a well-developed script or routine. First, the event typically follows a long lull in congressional activity after a prolonged holiday recess. News media, thus, anticipate and prepare for this inaugural political event of a new congressional session. News coverage begins typically two to three days preceding the speech previewing the President’s likely rhetorical themes and issue statements. On the day of the event, media coverage is intense including more commentary with the advanced news release of the speech text. Media coverage approaches frenzy

immediately during and following the evening Address. White House, congressional, and media spokespersons give interpretative pre- and post-speech analysis coverage, including media and political elites “spinning” the speech’s meaning and presidential performance. This pre- and post speech media frenzy provides the stimuli for our experimental design. Studies have shown that media coverage surrounding the Address has a

considerable impact on public opinion (Bartels 1993; Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder 1982). However, our study investigates how different new media sources’ coverage of conflict in this context affects attitudinal change. We crafted two experimental designs exposing subjects to different new media frames covering the State of the Union event. The three media frames used were the CNN Crossfire (high uncivil conflict), CNN News, and CNN Online (lower uncivil conflict). We intentionally selected within the family of CNN new media to control for differences between new media broadcasters. Over 500 individuals participated in either a laboratory or field experiments described below. Subjects were recruited through

9 eleven different introductory courses. They were randomly assigned to one of the three media stimuli or a control group, creating four experimental conditions.5 Participants were not told of the varying media stimuli across groups and were only instructed that the study was to assess generally viewers’ opinions of the State of the Union.6 The laboratory experiment involved 240 participants on the day after the State of the Union Address. Again, subjects were randomly assigned to view one of three media stimuli. Some subjects watched a 10-minute video clip from CNN’s Crossfire that included a spirited debate of the State of the Union speech in which left-leaning Paul Begala and James Carville faced off against right-leaning Tucker Carlson and Bob Novak. In the true spirit of this conflictual new media’s talk show format, the media commentators shouted down, cajoled, and sometimes insulted each other and various political figures. Other subjects were assigned to watch a ten minute clip from CNN’s Inside Politics summarizing and interpreting the State of the Union event, which was primarily mediated by CNN correspondent Judy Woodruff, who was appearing live from Capitol Hill. The clip included a news summary as well as opposing political elites’ comments of the event. Like their rivals at Fox News and MSNBC, CNN News emphasizes timely information through quick-paced (and often highly repetitive) news anchor presentation. Additional information is also readily available through flashy and decorative textual information presented simultaneously in the form of “tickers” or “pop-ups” at the bottom of the screen. Furthermore, quick segues to supplemental video or satellite footage are often accompanied by colorful graphics and sound effects such as explosions, “pops,” or “zips.” While much more subdued than the clip from Crossfire, the Inside Politics

10 stimulus contained discussion with elites from both partisan perspectives (Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer), and issue content and arguments closely resembled the Crossfire news clip. A third group of subjects was taken to computer labs and instructed to read for ten minutes the online coverage of the event from CNN.com. Internet sites exist for each of the major cable news channels, and these sites present images and graphics high in visual appeal. The Internet sites, however, also provide a great deal of information and

flexibility. While Internet news sites do not tend to present news in a fashion that prompts information retention to levels comparable to that of print newspapers (Tewksbury and Althaus 2000), it is safe to assume that online versions of cable news channels have textual information that goes beyond what is presented to viewers onscreen. Online users have a wider range of information to choose from as well as a great deal of flexibility in what information they wish to pursue at any given point in time. The on-screen counterparts do not provide such options. As opposed to watching the news on television, reading the news has been found to prompt less emotional responses from the public as a whole (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1998). A final cohort was exposed to no stimulus, serving as a control group. A number of steps were taken to ensure control across experimental groups in the laboratory experiment. Again, all four groups were isolated from one another and were unaware of the varying media stimuli and study intent. As mentioned before, we first were careful to ensure the topics discussed in each new media frame were very similar. Our video clips from Crossfire and Inside Politics were taken from the same twenty-four hour period, as were the stories from CNN.com online. Both of the video clips were very similar in

11 length, and the online readers had comparable time to read news on the State of the Union from the CNN website.7 The video and online stimuli each addressed similar issues in the context of the State of the Union Address. Specifically, these issues

included the pending war with Iraq (both in the context of domestic and international politics), the state of the U.S. economy, budget policy, tax policy, and the President’s relationship with the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.8 There were also some significant differences in the news frames. The most obvious, of course, was that Crossfire and Inside Politics viewers watched the stimulus for the most part, while online users read the news.9 And, while there has been

interesting research related to reading the news versus watching the news in the context of information retention and emotional responses to political institutions (see Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1998), this was not the sole purpose of our experiment.10 Instead, our intent was to examine closely how the new media’s high-conflict talk show format can negatively influence institutional support. Therefore, the second major difference across groups was the degree of conflict present in the news frame. The Crossfire news clip was a virtual political battlefield with a great deal of conflict between the shows hosts Tucker Carlson, James Carville, Paul Begala, and Robert Novak. The participants not only insulted each other over Iraq, the budget, tax policy, etc., but they were also highly critical of the Democratic leadership in Congress (Carlson and Novak) and President Bush (Carville and Begala). It is also important to note that much of these dialogues and monologues take place with raised voices— sometimes bordering on yelling. A few quotes from the ten-minute discussion illustrate the level of conflict in the stimulus:

12 (James Carville): Welcome to Crossfire. All four of us are here to countdown to President Bush’s big moment to make excuses for the miserable job he’s doing on the economy and to offer distractions like a possible war with Iraq instead of real solutions… (Tucker Carlson): President Bush hadn’t even finished writing his State of the Union Address when what passes for the Democratic leadership attacked the speech as dishonest and misleading…Presiding over a discredited political party is a time consuming job so Senator Daschle (D-SD) apparently hasn’t had a chance to read the newspaper in several years… and they call Bush a moron… (Robert Novak to James Carville): Can I—can I—do you mind if I speak while you’re interrupting (me)? (James Carville in immediate response to Novak): Go—Go ahead if you want to attack me… (James Carville rhetorically to the camera): Sorry, Mr. President, fiscal responsibility went out the window back when you gave your rich Republican friends that big tax cut… it’s just another broken promise. (Tucker Carlson in response to a Carville comment): The speech you just gave [a second before] was a slightly more articulate version of what the Democrats ran on in the midterms [elections], and how did they do? They got spanked like a bad little girl. [Do] you know why? Because people didn’t buy it. (Robert Novak before cut to commercial): Before the left side of the table gets back to whining about the economy, we need to take a short break… There is, of course, conflict present in the Inside Politics frame and the CNN online frame. This conflict, however, is much more subdued and much more mediated. Both frames contain quotes of congressional Democrats criticizing congressional Republicans and vice-versa, but the conflict is presented in a much more traditional manner with journalist interpretation and sound bites. It is the level of conflict that is the main manipulation in this experiment and clearly the most striking difference in the media frames. A content of all three experimental stimuli illustrate that the content of the news stories did not vary significantly. The major themes (the state of the economy and the pending war with Iraq) were consistent across the conditions, which was the result of using the same source (CNN) over the same time period (the day of the State of the Union address).11 The primary differentiating factor from one condition to the next was the style of the coverage: CNN Crossfire provided coverage with an uncivil and

13 combative tone, while CNN Inside Politics and CNN Online provided more civil coverage from a televised and Internet (primarily text) perspective. A field experiment was also conducted involving 312 additional subjects. In this case, subjects were randomly assigned to one of the different stimuli or control groups; however, in this case, subjects were asked to watch or read news coverage outside of a laboratory setting over a four day period preceding and immediately following the State of the Union. The instructions took place in the context of an assignment in which subjects were required only to produce a short summary of their impressions of the media coverage of the State of the Union Address. Our intent was to promote the external validity of the experimental results by incorporating greater environmental distractions and varying levels of viewer attentiveness that are more likely to occur in subjects’ homes or regular settings. Subjects were only told when and how to access the assigned media frame. While the subjects were encouraged to participate, we offered no direct incentives for them to fully comply over the three-day experiment. These subjects' partial

noncompliance was not only anticipated, but partly served as a rationale for conducting the field experiment. Our intent was to effectively introduce real-world distractions by taking subjects outside of a controlled laboratory setting, thus promoting the external validity often lacking in experimental analyses (Kinder and Palfrey 1993; Green and Gerber 2002). Subjects’ self-reported level of cooperation over the three day field

experiment was indeed variable. Only 43 percent of participants acknowledged that they watched or read their assigned media source over all assigned days.

14 Using this multi-method approach provides for greater protection again threats to internal and external validity. The laboratory experiment allows for the ability to make causal connections between the stimuli and attitudinal change—a benefit that cannot be provided by survey research or field experiments. The field experiment contributes greatly by taking the stimuli outside of the sterile laboratory setting to examine the effects of exposure in a more realistic setting.12 In short, a combination of a laboratory and field experiment provides for a much more thorough analysis—especially in the context of media effects, where the sterile laboratory setting does not reflect the realities of the average American’s news consumption habits. After completing the media exposure, subjects in both the lab and field experiments completed a posttest survey. The instrument included multiple measures of respondents’ political evaluations, attitudes, and information retention after the State of the Union media stimulus. Particularly, subjects were asked to assess their levels of approval, perceived conflict and efficacy of political institutions. They were also asked attitudinal questions regarding political trust. The survey instrument also included

questions on respondents’ levels of political knowledge, partisanship and ideological predispositions.13 Differences between experimental groups were compared via

independent sample one-way analysis of variance. In summary, there are different manners in which new media—especially the booming cable news industry—attempt to present political news in a compelling format. Some frequently employed methods include conflict-laden talk shows, visuallystimulating news presentation, and information-rich websites. While there is undeniable overlap across these “new” news styles, we contend that there are discernable stylistic

15 differences that can potentially influence the responses of the news consumer. Most specifically, we are interested in examining how the accentuation of uncivil political conflict in the talk show format can influence political attitudes and institutional evaluations. It is our contention that the tendency to focus on uncivil political conflict in the new media has a more detrimental influence on public support for institutions, individual leaders, and the system as a whole than the information-based and visually stimulating approaches. hypotheses: H1: Uncivil, conflict-laden new media coverage of institutions causes more negative institutional evaluations than other new media. H2: Uncivil, conflict-laden new media coverage of institutions causes negative evaluations of the political system as a whole more than other new media. H3: Uncivil, conflict-laden new media coverage of institutions causes a decrease in support for political parties more than other new media. Based on the above discussion, we propose the following

Results The findings from the laboratory experiments suggest a significant effect from exposure to the various new media sources we presented to subjects. The posttest

questionnaire, which was administered immediately following exposure to the experimental stimuli, uncovered interesting variations in institutional support and partisan attitudes. We will address each of these findings from the laboratory experiment in turn. Table 1 here. Table One illustrates the effect of the experimental conditions on institutional approval and approval for the federal government as a whole. As predicted in Hypothesis One, subjects exposed to the Crossfire news clip recorded the lowest mean ratings for

16 Congress, the President, and the federal government as a whole. Also, it can be seen

from the final column that the baseline for comparison (the control group) reported the highest levels of institutional support in each instance. Also, trust in Congress is

negatively influenced by exposure to Crossfire as well. Although the variation in support for President Bush across groups is only marginally significant, the finding in conjunction with the other two measures of support in Table One illustrates a trend that supports Hypotheses One and Two. Also surprising was the effect of exposure to the less conflictual, more visually-stimulating Inside Politics. While it was not expected that Inside Politics presented the degree of partisan conflict sufficient to generate decreased support for political institutions, the results suggest otherwise in the case of approval for Congress and the federal government as a whole. This finding suggests that it takes relatively moderate levels of conflict in the news to adversely influence support. Injecting additional conflict into the news—especially uncivil conflict that was evident in the Crossfire frame—contributes even further to decays in support. CNN Online, while certainly informative, appears to have no discernable influence on any aspect of institutional support. The partisan nature of the Crossfire frame had an expected negative influence on support for congressional political parties. As Table Two denotes, subjects who watched Crossfire displayed less support for congressional Democrats and Republicans than the control group, although these differences do not reach statistical significance. However, overall support for political parties in Congress significantly dropped as a result of watching the conflictual, partisan nature of Crossfire. While it is certainly the case that intense partisanship has a significant polarizing effect on the public (Ansolabere and

17 Iyengar 1995), we found that the Crossfire frame negatively impacted assessments of both parties in Congress. This finding confirms our third hypothesis. Table 2 here. Viewers of the Inside Politics and Online frames also displayed significantly decreased congressional partisan support, although these levels of support were not as low as the support in the Crossfire frame. It is safe to say that the media coverage surrounding the State of the Union Address contains a degree of partisanship that exceeds day-to-day political news, and these findings indicate this inherent partisanship is enough to solicit overall negative impressions of parties. However, the glaring presence of partisan insults and intense rhetoric on Crossfire had the most damaging effect. This effect empirically demonstrates our contention in Hypothesis Three that partisan conflict translates into less public tolerance for the parties overall. Although the lab experiment demonstrated several significant immediate effects of the different new media frames on subjects, the field experiment was not as clear. To test the effect of the three different experimental stimuli in a more natural setting, we assigned a different set of subjects to watch or read one of the three conditions from CNN (Crossfire, Inside Politics, or CNN Online) over the course of three days. A posttest questionnaire was given the day after the Address and closely resembled the posttest administered to the lab experiment subjects. Using the data from the field experiment, we replicated the analyses run on the lab subjects. The results are much different in the field experiment. Real-world exposure to CNN Crossfire has little-to-no effect on any of the dependent variables that were found to be significant in the laboratory experiment. Institutional support, approval for congressional political parties, political efficacy, and

18 overall approval for the federal government as a whole is not influenced by exposure to new media, according to the field experiment results.14 When comparing the findings from the field and laboratory experiments, there is a stark contrast. The lab stimuli, especially the conflicting frame from CNN Crossfire, had a number of significant effects on evaluations of political leaders, parties, institutions, and the system as a whole. The field experiment, on the other hand, suggested that the new media stimuli presented to subjects are more negligible in the context of determining opinion. The immediacy and intensity of new media exposure varied across experiments. A new media effect wanes over an extended period of time and with less concentrated viewing. We elaborate on these findings in the discussion section of this analysis.

Discussion This research adds to current knowledge by assessing the different effects between new media sources through laboratory and field experiments. We conclude that conflict-ridden new media negatively affects public approval of Congress and the system as a whole, as well as lowering public trust. Our findings are conditional, though, on the immediacy and intensity of new media exposure. The null field experiment results indicate the possibility that intermittent or casual exposure to new media has little to no effect on political attitudes. While the null results in the field experiment may also be a factor of the design (a point we will elaborate on), we did test for interaction effects between the assigned media source and the number of days each subject reported using the source during the field experiment. No relationship was found. We also assessed whether the behavioral

consequences from the lab experiment persisted among subjects one month after the

19 experiment. A post post-test of lab experiment subjects indicated that attitudinal

differences between new media and control group subjects disappeared over time. This finding supports the conclusion that new media effects are dependent on the immediacy and intensity of exposure. There are plausible design-oriented explanations for why the field experiment failed to produce similar results. First, it is possible that the nature of our field

experiment provided for a lack of consistency in exposure to the stimuli. Although two subjects may have reported exposure to the assigned new media frame for the instructed amount of time (three days), the degree of attention paid to the stimuli could have varied dramatically. Perhaps subject A watched intently each day, while subject B only

passively watched, or only introduced the stimulus as “background noise.” Although each subject in this hypothetical case would have reported equal exposure, there is obvious variation that cannot be controlled outside of a laboratory setting. Assuming for a moment that unequal exposure was not a factor, a second possibility is that the duration of the field experiment was not sufficient. That is, perhaps three days of mundane exposure to the stimuli was not extensive enough to bring about significant changes in institutional or partisan attitudes. Some existing experimental analyses that facilitated real-time exposure to various news sources often allowed for the experiment to unfold over the course of one or more weeks (see Tewksbury and Althaus 2000). The nature of our stimuli (coverage of the State of the Union Address) prevented us from extending the period of the field experiment because our design was intended to run concurrently with the application of the laboratory experiment. However, it is certainly possible that, had the duration of our field experiment been extended to allow

20 for a larger volume of exposure to uncivil conflict in the news, effects resembling that of the lab experiment could have evolved. Putting the finding from the field experiment aside for a moment, the findings from the lab experiment portend a significant political consequence from new media among certain viewers and over time. The anticipated further growth of new media and its impact particularly among Americans less than 30 years of age suggest that our lab results point to an emerging political phenomena. A person’s viewing habits matter in determining the extent of new media effects. However, a growing number of Americans are heavily reliant on new media sources for information and evaluating political events. These results are of interest to both Congress and media effects scholars. Congress scholars have struggled with explaining a “disappearing middle” phenomenon in which roll-call measures and public perceptions indicate increasing congressional party polarization despite no corresponding electoral party polarization. Why has Congress become so much more partisan than the electorate over time? Our experimental results present one response to this question. Notably, the intermediary role of new media increasingly contributes to the public perceptions of congressional party conflict. Congress may be more conflictual than in the past; however, new media may have reason to frame a conflict-laden Congress regardless of actual congressional events because high conflict is compelling. Portraying an ideologically divided Congress may serve media interests even if actual legislative policy disputes are much more nuanced and congressional voting coalitions much more complex. Policy nuances and process

complexities may never effectively attract the “news grazers” that have evolved in today’s fragmented new media environment. Conflict and drama appear to be the easiest

21 and most cost effective methods new media sources are using to entice the grazers to move in their direction. Unfortunately, this approach has attitudinal consequences that could eventually threaten the minimal level of trust and institutional support necessary to maintain an effective representative democracy. Media effects scholars are also likely to consider these findings interesting. A wide array of political science and communication research examines the stark and subtle difference between new and traditional media sources of political news. Largely these studies focus on the varying effects of exposure to new versus traditional media. Our analysis builds upon this knowledge by exploring the differences within various new news formats. While controlling for the news source (CNN), we have clearly shown that the more conflict-framed talk show format on cable news has immediate effects on the viewers that differ from other new sources that seek to entertain by other means (general cable news or Internet news). This approach has been shown to negatively influence institutional support, trust in government officials, external efficacy, and support for congressional political parties. We also have shown that the CNN Crossfire frame creates images of a U.S. Congress that is highly conflicting and less efficient. As politically-oriented talk shows such as Crossfire, Hardball with Chris Matthews, and The O’Reilly Factor continue to gain popularity, the implications of our findings become more pertinent. When compared to traditional news coverage of American politics, new media has been found to have several unique attributes, including a stronger emphasis on conflict and entertainment. While much of the literature suggests the influence of new media on the public’s attitudes and behavior is marginal, our findings suggest otherwise.

22 There are immediate attitudinal and emotional responses to brief exposure to the new media that contain high levels of conflict and drama – the same types of new media that are becoming more popular and prevalent. Finally, the analysis suggests a methodological warning for experimental researchers. While it would have been easy to disregard the field experiment findings to present a more convincing case for new media effects, we think that the conflicting results bring to light the importance of media research methodology. Laboratory

experiments involving responses to carefully manipulated stimuli often illustrate significant attitudinal effects, which is an important (and necessary) first step in understanding how news frames can influence the public. However, in the modern era of the television news “grazer,” it is increasingly important to focus on experimental studies’ external validity—in this case, how prolonged passive exposure to “new” forms of political news influences American viewers. Therefore, it is of increasing importance for future research to consider the realities of how these stimuli influence the public in a “real world” setting, and thus develop more accurate methodological techniques that can combine the best aspects of both laboratory and field experiments.


Table 1 Mean Institutional Support by Condition (Lab Experiment) Experimental Condition Crossfire Inside CNN Control Politics Online Group b b Approval for Congress (F 3, 239 = 3.44, 2.59 2.70 2.81 2.96 p<.02)a Trust in Congress (F 3, 240 = 2.66, p<.05)a 3.14b 3.35 3.55 3.57 Approval for President (F 3, 239 = 2.00, 2.54 2.59 2.77 2.89 a p=.11) Trust in President (F 3, 240 = 1.24, p=.30)a 3.10 3.15 3.42 3.49 Approval of federal government as a 2.45b 2.53b 2.60 2.83 a whole (F 3, 240 = 4.83, p<.01) a Oneway analysis of variance results are in parentheses. Higher mean values represent higher levels of support or trust. b Category significantly differs from Control Group using Bonferroni post-hoc test for multiple group comparison (p<.05).


Table 2 Mean Party Support by Condition (Lab Experiment) Experimental Condition Crossfire Inside CNN Control Politics Online Group Support for Congressional Democrats 4.68 5.73 5.34 5.19 (F 3, 240 = 3.15, p<.03)a Support for Congressional Republicans 5.78 5.59 6.00 6.26 (F 3, 240 = 1.04, p=.38)a Overall Congressional Partisan Support 10.46b 11.32b 11.34b 11.45 (F 3, 240 = 4.48, p<.01)a a Oneway analysis of variance results are in parentheses. Higher mean values represent higher levels of support. b Category significantly differs from Control Group using Bonferroni post-hoc test for multiple group comparison (p<.05).

25 References
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Pew Center Report. “Public’s News Habits Little Changed by September 11th.” June 9, 2002. Pew

Research Center for the People and the Press. http://people-press.org/reports/

Pew Center Report, p.3. In comparison, seniors (over 65 years old) spend on average 81 minutes a day gathering news. See the


Pew Center Report, p.7.

In fact, negative public evaluations of Congress can be attributed more to disapproval of the decision-

making process (i.e., democratic deliberation) than “the particular outputs emanating from the process” (1995, 14). The American public wants “democratic decision-making processes in which everyone can voice an opinion, but they do not prefer to see or to hear the debate resulting from the expression of these inevitably diverse opinions. To them, such debate is bickering, haggling, and all talk” (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995, 19).

Randomization was confirmed by testing for significant variation across experimental groups on several

demographic and partisan variables. Specifically, oneway analysis of variance was conducted to compare group means for party identification, ideology, year of birth, race, gender, years in college, and income. The variance (F) for each variable failed to reach statistical significance at p<.20, thus confirming the high probability of successful random assignment.

While the use of a convenience sample of undergraduate college students generally tends to introduce

problems generalizing the findings to a larger population (Sears 1986), the nature of our analysis provided some control over this problem. First, the majority of the participants were upper-classman with varying political attitudes, income, gender, and income that we control for in the analysis. Second, we are

interested in generalizing our findings to “new media” consumers, which tend to be younger Americans. Therefore, while our subjects may not perfectly represent the general population of today’s new media consumers, we are satisfied that our sample is more than adequate in light of the research question.

The Crossfire clip ran 10 minutes, 31 seconds; the Inside Politics clip ran 10 minutes, 5 seconds; and the

CNN Online readers were given 10 minutes to read stories from the website regarding the State of the Union Address.



Although we had no direct control over the subjects reading CNN.com, we did provide specific

instructions that they were to only read stories related to the State of the Union Address from that particular website. The front page of the website was on each computer screen as subjects entered the lab. In total, CNN.com published eight different news stories covering the State of the Union Address and subsequent reaction at home and abroad.

In addition to offering verbal information, cable news programs also offer textual data at the bottom of the

screen in the form of a “ticker”. This ticker was running during both televised frames of the laboratory experiment.

Subsequently, our findings did point to significant differences in the subjects exposed to Crossfire and

the subjects exposed to Inside Politics, indicating that viewing news on television in-and-of itself is not the major correlate for generating emotional responses on the part of viewers.

Transcripts from the experimental stimuli were analyzed in order to gauge the amount of coverage

devoted to the major themes in the televised experimental conditions. Lines of text were counted as a level of measurement. The analysis found that the plurality of the discussion in each televised frame was geared toward the economy and related budgetary issues (Crossfire: 52 percent; Inside Politics: 45 percent), while a smaller proportion discussed the pending war with Iraq (Crossfire: 18 percent; Inside Politics: 30 percent). The remainder of the stories were non-issue oriented and constituted the major divergence in frames (civility versus uncivil conflict). Thirty percent of the Crossfire frame constituted non-descript chatter, insults, and inaudible crosstalk involving multiple journalists speaking (loudly) at the same time. Twenty five percent of the Inside Politics frame included non-descript chatter between hosts and guests and exchanges of pleasantries. An analysis of the archive of CNN online stories available during the time of our experiment found the same prevalent themes, although an analysis of the story headlines found that slightly more attention was given to the pending war with Iraq than the economy (44 percent Iraq; 28 percent economy/domestic; 28 percent other).

As Green and Gerber point out, “The attractiveness of field experimentation stems from the fact that

randomization is performed within a naturalistic setting.” In their estimation, field experiments “speak to the question of causality with far greater clarity and precision than… non-experimental methods” (2002, 811-812).



This posttest-only control group design forgoes the use of a pretest and has been used widely in

experimental research (Campbell and Stanley 1963). It is important to emphasis that the posttest-only control group design does not sacrifice internal validity provided the existence of random assignment to experimental and control groups, which our design contained. This design also removes the internal validity threat of testing, the effect of the pre-testing itself on subjects.

In order to preserve space, we have not included the tables that replicated the lab experiment results

using the data from the field experiment. It is not necessary to include these tables because they illustrate null results for each of the hypothesized relationships and make no substantive contribution to this analysis otherwise.

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