Because there are various concepts of public opinion there are no general statements about the effects of mass media on it. Instead, the effects of mass media have to be related to specific concepts. Moreover, different study designs and methods have to be taken into consideration. According to the quantitative concept, public opinion is regarded as the distribution of individual opinions within a population and measured by representative opinion polls. According to this approach, the intensity and tone of media coverage directly influence public opinion. Most studies are based on a linear-effect model: the more often the media cover an issue, the more people believe it to be important; and the more often the media present certain opinions, the more people adopt these opinions. The intensity and tone of media coverage are measured by quantitative content analysis. In some studies, they are not measured but estimated; possible effects are concluded from media use (Robinson 1976). As well as the intensity and tone of media coverage, the framing of news stories can influence public opinion. Framing refers to the media’s reporting of issues or events structured along certain perspectives, and to the audience’s processing of that content according to predetermined schemas. As demonstrated in several studies, people’s interpretations and conclusions are mostly in line with media frames.
Media Effects In The Quantitative Concept Of Public Opinion
The assumed influence of media coverage on public opinion can be analyzed using cross-sectional or longitudinal designs. In cross-sectional designs, the distribution of media coverage on several issues, or the distribution of various opinions on one issue, is compared over a short period of time (several days or weeks) to the distribution of corresponding opinions within the population.
In longitudinal designs, the development of intensity and/or tone of media coverage on individual issues (or persons, institutions, etc.) during a rather long period of time (several months or years) is compared to the development of corresponding opinions (Ader 1995). In most studies, general trends in media coverage are compared with general trends in public opinion (aggregate data analysis). Here, the intensity of media use and the type of coverage presented by different mass media is neglected (MacKuen 1981; Page & Shapiro 1992, pp. 341–347). In a few studies, based on the intensity of individual media use and the type of coverage presented by the relevant media, an index of media input is calculated and related to opinions held by individuals (individual data analysis; Kepplinger et al. 1991). If media coverage has an effect on public opinion, trends in public opinion should be predictable from data about trends of media coverage. This has been done using advanced mathematical models of the relationship between causes and effects (Fan 1988; Zaller 1992).
As the term implies, media coverage is related to something which gets covered – events, opinions, etc. Media coverage might or might not present an adequate picture of the distribution of opinions or the changing number of certain events in the course of time. Some people might have first-hand information about the reality covered by the media, others might not. Opinions can be influenced by either individual experience or media coverage, or by both sources of information. In these cases information based on personal experience can contradict or support information provided by the mass media. Depending on the mixture of information, personal experience can minimize or maximize media effects. Therefore, several authors have tried to separate the relative influence of real-world indicators and media coverage on public opinion (Combs & Slovic 1979; Erbring et al. 1980; Behr & Iyengar 1985).
Influence On Behaviors
Media-induced public opinion may influence behavior. For example, in the early seventies the coverage of German news media painted a picture showing that a breakdown of the oil supply in the country was ahead – although there was enough crude oil in stock. Because people became concerned they took precautions and bought unusual quantities of gasoline and diesel, which in turn led to scattered bottlenecks in delivery and sharp price increases. Six years later, when the quantity of imported oil really had dropped considerably, the media rarely covered this development and, in consequence, the population did not become concerned and did not change their habits (Kepplinger 1983).
Media-induced images of reality are also relevant for voting decisions. For example, although in 1992 there was an economic upturn in the US, the television networks presented the situation of the economy as twice as bad as in the previous year. Thus most Americans thought of the economic situation as bad (Ladd 1993). Since the assessment of the economic situation has a strong impact on the image of leading politicians, George Bush’s popularity went into free-fall and challenger Bill Clinton won the election (Katz & Baldassare 1994).
Influence On Social Perception
According to the functional concept of public opinion, societies need a consensus on some basic issues. A consensus can only be achieved if at least a significant minority accepts which issue should be discussed, and if the formation of opinions is based on individual insight (see below) or on social forces. The functional concept stresses the importance of the latter. In this case, media coverage can be regarded as an intervening variable which modifies the psychological dynamic of opinion formation. As Walter Lippmann (Lippmann 1922) and others have stressed, the pictures in our heads about groups, events, and the like are often attended with representations of how other people think about these objects. Likewise one’s own opinions, attitudes, and intended behavior are seen in the light of the positions held by others. The formation of public opinion thus emerges from the individual’s actual interaction with other people together with the symbolic interaction with generalized others; both influence one’s own opinions and behavior.
Perceptions of how most other people think stem from the individual’s direct experience, mainly through conversation, as well as indirectly from the media. Media coverage therefore influences not only how people imagine politicians, whom they have rarely met personally, for example, but also how they imagine the climate of opinion (Fields & Schuman 1976; Gunther 1998). The perception of the climate of opinion can affect whether people are willing to speak out in public or whether they keep silent. For example, in the eighties the German news media covered nuclear energy unfavorably. In consequence, an increasing part of the population thought the majority would oppose nuclear power plants. Supporters of nuclear energy were decreasingly willing to voice their position in public. In the course of ten years the relative majority of supporters became a minority while the initial minority of opponents became the relative majority (Noelle-Neumann 1991).
If the mass media present an inadequate picture of the distribution of opinion in society, they may convince members of the minority that they represent the majority opinion and make members of the majority believe they belong to a minority. These conclusions might be suggested by most people’s conviction that the media have a stronger impact on other people than on themselves. This in turn can influence individuals’ willingness to express their opinions in public (Mutz 1989), and thus explain the emergence of a silent majority: through the agency of the mass media the views of elites and avant-gardes may incorrectly appear as being widely held. The minority position can thus appear as a majority opinion, which causes the actual majority to keep silent or reduces their willingness to speak out.
Media Role In The Qualitative Concept Of Public Opinion
According to the qualitative concept public opinion is the consequence of intellectual insights. In this approach the media serve as a forum for discourse, and media coverage is not primarily seen as the cause of opinions but as the prerequisite of reasonable conclusions (Habermas 1989). Because only a small portion of the population is interested in such discourse and has enough knowledge to take part (Neuman 1986), the qualitative concept is also referred to as the “elite concept of public opinion.”
According to the qualitative concept, media coverage and public opinion are more or less identical. This is especially true for the coverage of high-quality media such as the leading newspapers. Therefore, public opinion can be deduced from media coverage. This is an idea held by many politicians, who often distrust opinion polls (Herbst 1998). As far as media coverage shapes the opinions of the majority, there are similarities between the qualitative and quantitative concept that have largely been neglected: present trends in media coverage can be interpreted as future trends in mass opinions. For instance, the spread of minority positions in society can be analyzed by multi-step models which include direct and indirect media effects on various types of individuals and groups (Hilgartner & Bosk 1988).
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