The term “video malaise” was coined by political scientist Michael Robinson in 1975 in reference to a hypothesis that viewership of televised public affairs programming results in an increased sense of malaise, or vague cynicism or detachment, regarding political institutions, processes, and actors. The rationale was based on a discernible decrease in the 1960s and 1970s in political trust, confidence, and efficacy among US citizens, coupled with the rise of television news and related programming as their dominant source of political information. Various scholars and critics had previously claimed that television posed a unique presentation format and a perceived negative tilt against established political institutions and values. Similar views were voiced in other western democracies.
Some empirical evidence at the time provided partial support for the proposition, but other data were contradictory, as is more the case recently. Nonetheless, the notion gained intellectual and popular currency in part as a result of ongoing conflicts over the role of mass media in western democracies, and the presumed influence of television in particular on political and social culture. More recent work has attempted to tie variations on video malaise, or more generally “media malaise,” to such phenomena as decreased credibility in both the media and political institutions, characteristics of political campaigns (especially negative advertising), and increased social and civic isolation resulting from media use. These arguments remain compelling to many, despite largely sketchy and conflicting research evidence.
Assumptions About Media Influence
Reasoned speculation about the potential for mass media influence on political and social norms and values grew rapidly after World War II, especially in the US. Most of the scholarship emphasized reinforcement of existing norms and values rather than change. Lazarsfeld and Merton’s prescient 1948 essay, “Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action,” defined several social functions of mass media as operating in that sense. However, they noted one potential dysfunction: a “narcotizing dysfunction” view of media posed that increased public attendance to a rising “flood” of mediated information could lead to less social action, superficial involvement, and political apathy and inertness. Kurt and Gladys Lang suggested (1959) that television in particular could lead to more passive political activity.
Empirical research of the era, however, worked against such arguments. The largely campaign-based media effects studies of the 1940s and 1950s supported the then-popular “minimal effects” view of media, including television, on voter knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors. It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that research began taking a broader view of possible media influences on public opinion beyond voting, including political socialization, participation, and the shaping of attitudes and values. The first published research evidence linking television public affairs viewership with political malaise appeared in 1976 in an American Political Science Review article by Michael Robinson. Robinson combined a series of experiments with re-analyses of several survey datasets, impressively making an “equivocal” case that television news viewership was linked to indicators of political malaise in national population samples of US adults, and giving experimental evidence that exposure to a televised negative portrayal of the Pentagon resulted in less positive beliefs about the military.
Coining The Term
The specific rationale Robinson initially offered for the video malaise proposition is intriguing. As noted above, television had become by far the major source of political news for most of the public, and, equally if not more important, much of that viewing audience was less politically involved to begin with. Robinson termed this portion of the audience “inadvertent”: they were likely watching television for other reasons, and inadvertently came across political information they would likely not have gotten otherwise, e.g., from newspapers or interpersonal sources. With television in many cases as their only source of political news, the effect became magnified for them. News audiences also uniformly ascribed high credibility to the programming, high trust in television news anchors, and belief in the accuracy of information being provided; hence, television news had more persuasive capability.
Insofar as the medium itself is concerned, Robinson pointed to considerable evidence that television news, unlike print, almost inherently plays up a more dramatic or thematic portrayal of events, following storylines to maintain audience interest. It tends to be more interpretive, which Robinson concluded lends itself to more negativism, contentiousness, and anti-institutionalism than would the same event reported in print. Rather than an inherent bias against one political party or faction or another, one can argue that television news took a more negative tone against one and all traditional establishments. Moreover, taking a historical view, in the US this research was evolving within the time frame of the debilitating departure of US armed forces from Southeast Asia, with all of the cleavages in American society and culture that spanned that era, not to mention the hard-to-imagine ongoing political drama of Watergate. Whatever the merits of arguing that television was more negativistic than other media, the raw material for such coverage was present.
Evidence From Subsequent Studies
The inadvertent audience rationale behind video malaise was specifically tested in a study of the 1999 European elections, and found wanting. Schoenbach and Lauf (2002) posited that less politically interested citizens were “trapped” into viewership of televised campaign information by heightened coverage of the election on fewer available channels, and would thus be more influenced by television than other sources. However, less interested voters were largely able to tune out election coverage, and even for those who did not little television influence was found.
An extensive analysis of several American and European datasets by Norris (2000) found little if any evidence of media or video malaise, and in fact most of the findings flowed in the opposite direction: greater attention to news media including television correlated with higher levels of trust, confidence, and engagement in the political system. Norris carefully posits a case for “a virtuous circle,” in which positive political dispositions lead to greater attention to political public affairs content, which in turn reinforces engagement in civic matters. While the data presented are post hoc and correlational at best, they do work against the malaise contention, and Norris’s rationale is a compelling one that takes into account changes in media systems over recent decades. For example, in explaining why the views of the less or more negatively politically involved are not reinforced by media, Norris points to the more recent multimedia, multichannel information and entertainment environment, in which it is far easier for the disinterested or dismissive to tune out political content and choose more pleasing alternatives. Further, to the extent that the disengaged are exposed to news media, they may see it as less credible, given considerable evidence that trust in government and the news media are well correlated.
More recent findings indicate a reciprocal downward trend in trust in both political institutions and the media, with general political malaise more likely to pull down the stature of the news media (Jones 2004). Other work has suggested that attacks and counterattacks between news media and government officials can contribute to the diminished credibility of both.
Conditions For Media Malaise Effects
Norris also suggests that media malaise is more likely to exist with respect to specific kinds of political issues and content. Cappella and Jamieson (1997) and others offer extensive research on “strategic” news coverage of politics that emphasizes the contest-related or competitive aspects of politics, as well as candidate style, candidate tactics, and media depictions, as opposed to presumably more substantive coverage of political issues, candidate and party values, and the like. The argument goes that more strategic coverage leads to more citizen cynicism regarding politics and less engagement. While the link between strategic news and cynicism has been reasonably well established, the relationship to political engagement is less clear. More recent research focused on European Union and integration issues indicates that impact on cynicism is a matter of degree and type of strategic news (De Vreese 2005). Further, the case is made that several studies have been unable to clearly link moderate levels of cynicism to political participation, and that perhaps a modicum of cynicism generated by strategic news or other means is not unhealthy for the politically more active.
Even more to the point regarding television, recent evidence points to incivility in political discourse as adversely affecting trust in government (Mutz and Reeves 2005). Televised, heated political arguments that transcend social norms for discussion and debate appear to reduce such trust, while stated differences of opinion in themselves do not. Unfortunately, greater incivility in political discussions appears to promote greater viewership and interest, while more polite and reasoned discourse may have trouble finding an audience. Arguably, written debates or reports of them, no matter how acrid, are unlikely to depict to audiences the same emotional fervor as the more intimate televised experience. Yet other evidence appears to consistently suggest that negative political campaigning can be an effective strategy, perhaps particularly in mobilizing voter participation (Martin 2004).
Research focusing on media malaise propositions over the past three decades has largely lacked coherency and cohesion. Theoretic perspectives, operationalizations of the concepts involved, and frames of analysis have greatly varied from study to study. Part of the problem may be the typical intellectual drift that can occur when more emphasis is placed on demonstrating the impact of an independent variable, e.g., television news, than on explaining the likely multitude of influences on a dependent variable such as political malaise, no matter how specifically defined. One suspects it may now be even harder to clarify linkages between mass media and political dispositions given the converging of media channels, the computer-driven personalization of media sources, and their more interactive nature.
- Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- De Vreese, C. H. (2005). The spiral of cynicism reconsidered. European Journal of Communication, 20, 283–301.
- Gross, K., Aday, S., & Brewer, P. R. (2004). A panel study of media effects on political and social trust after September 11, 2001. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 9, 49–73.
- Jones, D. A. (2004). Why Americans don’t trust the media: A preliminary analysis. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 9, 60–75.
- Lang, K., & Lang, G. E. (1959). The mass media and voting. In E. Burdick & A. J. Brodbeck (eds.), American voting behavior. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, pp. 217–235.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Merton, R. K. (1948). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. In L. Bryson (ed.), The communication of ideas. New York: Harper, pp. 95–118.
- Martin, P. S. (2004). Inside the black box of negative campaign effects: Three reasons why negative campaigns mobilize. Political Psychology, 25, 545–562.
- Mutz, C., & Reeves, B. (2005). The new videomalaise: Effects of televised incivility on political trust. American Political Science Review, 99, 1–15.
- Newton, K. (1999). Mass media effects: Mobilization or media malaise? British Journal of Politics, 29, 577–599.
- Norris, P. (2000). A virtuous circle: Political communications in post-industrial societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Robinson, M. (1976). Public affairs television and the growth of political malaise: The case of the “selling of the Pentagon.” American Political Science Review, 70, 409–432.
- Schoenbach, K., & Lauf, E. (2002). The “trap” effect of television and its competitors. Communication Research, 29, 564–583.