The “trap effect” of communication is a metaphor for an effect specifically on the uninterested, unmotivated, uninvolved members of the audience (Schoenbach & Weaver 1985). Those people are “trapped” and subsequently influenced by any type of communication that is frequent and striking enough to overcome their weak resistance. They do not care enough to raise the threshold against attempts to teach them something.
Originally, the trap effect was ascribed only to television and its political impact, accompanied by pedagogical hopes that television does good things to those citizens that other media cannot reach and influence – activates them politically, for instance (Blumler 1970; Noelle-Neumann 1970). In a key article, Blumler (1970) listed some possible reasons for such an effect of television. Political coverage on television, Blumler assumed, reaches more people than any other channel, and consequently also those who would not bother to turn to that type of information in other media. Because of its visual nature and its credibility, television may also be particularly persuasive. Finally, the uninterested among its viewers, once confronted by persuasive messages, could be particularly prone to be persuaded because “an uninvolved audience is a potentially persuasible audience” (Blumler 1970).
Possible theoretical underpinnings of the trap effect are “passive learning” (Krugman & Hartley 1970), “incidental learning” (Culbertson & Stempel 1986), the “inadvertent audience” (Robinson 1973), and Petty and Cacioppo’s (1981) “peripheral route” of information processing. All those concepts postulate that an uninterested (low-involvement) audience learns something from, and subsequently is influenced by, information if that information is only abundant and salient enough – although such an impact may not become deeply engrained in the minds of that part of the audience and consequently may not last long.
Empirical evidence for a particular trap effect of television’s political coverage, plausible as it may sound, has been surprisingly scarce and mixed so far. Most frequently, the trapping power of newspapers has been more impressive. In their literature review, Schoenbach and Lauf (2002) found stronger effects of television on the uninterested, compared to the impact of newspapers, only in the very small segment of totally apathetic citizens. In their study of a campaign for the European Parliament in 12 European countries, Schoenbach and Lauf used the low-key, unexciting nature of that campaign with an uninterested electorate as a setting where trap effects should most likely occur. But even seemingly favorable national conditions, such as considerably more TV news coverage of the European elections than elsewhere and fewer TV channels to evade that coverage, did not support a trap effect of television. Instead, personal conversations were considerably better than television (and newspapers) at persuading the uninterested to turn out and vote.
In a follow-up study, historically and internationally comparative analyses of election campaigns in Europe and the US revealed that a trap effect of television exists, albeit a weak one, if there are not many TV channels to choose from, such as in the US of the 1950s and early 1960s (Schoenbach & Lauf 2004). And newspapers can also overwhelm their uninterested readers. Finally, the richer information environment of first-order (e.g., US presidential) elections seems to be necessary for a trap effect. Low-key elections such as the ones to the European Parliament may not reach the critical mass of information needed for trapping an uninvolved audience. In other words, the trap effect of television is not as self-evident as it seems in theory.
As a reaction, Schoenbach and Lauf have embedded the concept of a trap effect into a wider framework. Is it really plausible to expect a trapping potential only from television – or at least a greater potential than from newspapers? Instead, under certain conditions, trap effects on the uninvolved should occur more or less for all so-called “display” or “push” media (Schoenbach & Lauf 2004) – and that is not only television, but also radio, newspapers and magazines, personal conversations, and posters, for instance.
Display channels typically provide us with a comparatively fixed information offer, supposed to be consumed “as is,” with not too many options for the audience to select or change anything. As opposed to “research” or “pull” media, such as the Internet, display media are able to surprise their audiences more easily and to confront them repeatedly with topics they may not be interested in (see also Noelle-Neumann 1973). Those features should be good for a trap effect.
Research media, instead, allow greater user control. They provide more opportunities to select than display channels, but also require more decisions by their users about what kind of information to look for, and thus make more motivation of their recipients necessary. This is why skeptics fear that the Internet lends itself to only caring about one’s own personal hobbies and avoidance of all types of information one is not really interested in, particularly politics (Sunstein 2002; Tewksbury 2003; Prior 2005).
Indeed, according to a recent and comparative field study, printed newspapers seem to “trap” their audience better than their online counterparts when it comes to being aware of a wider range of societal issues, and of political and economic ones, in particular (Schoenbach & Waal, in press). This is evidence for a trap effect that is not restricted to television anymore. Instead, the trap potential of communication channels, or even of single communication messages, must be envisaged as a continuum – from an information offer that is absolutely predictable and patiently waits to be requested (and thus is not capable of trapping anybody) to one that is both obtrusive and surprising, and thus “catchy,” for everybody.
- Blumler, J. G. (1970). The political effects of television. In J. D. Halloran (ed.), The political effects of television. London: Panther, pp. 68–104.
- Culbertson, H. M., & Stempel, III, G. H. (1986). How media use and reliance affect knowledge level. Communication Research, 13, 579–682.
- Krugman, H. E., & Hartley, E. L. (1970). Passive learning from television. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 184–190.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1970). Der getarnte Elefant: Über die Wirkung des Fernsehens [The camouflaged elephant: On the impact of television]. In D. Stolte (ed.), Fernsehkritik: Die gesellschaftliche Funktion des Fernsehens. Mainz: v. Hase and Koehler, pp. 79–90.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1973). Return to the concept of powerful mass media. Studies of Broadcasting, 9, 67–112.
- Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1981). Attitudes and persuasion: Classic and contemporary approaches. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.
- Prior, M. (2005). News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge. American Journal of Political Science, 49, 577–592.
- Robinson, M. J. (1973). 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.
- Schoenbach, K., & Lauf, E. (2004). Another look at the “trap” effect of television – and beyond. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 16, 169–182.
- Schoenbach, K., & Waal, E. de (in press). Presentation style and beyond: How print newspapers and online news expand awareness of public affairs issues. Mass Communication and Society.
- Schoenbach, K., & Weaver, D. H. (1985). Finding the unexpected: Cognitive bonding in a political campaign. In S. Kraus & R. Perloff (eds.), Mass media and political thought. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 157–176.
- Sunstein, C. (2002). com. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Tewksbury, D. (2003). What do Americans really want to know? Tracking the behavior of news readers on the Internet. Journal of Communication, 53(4), 694–710.