“Political cognitions” refers to the ability of human beings to acquire and possess political knowledge through perception, reasoning, or intuition. Citizens’ cognitions about politics come mainly from information supplied by the mass media – television, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet – because most political happenings are beyond the day-to-day experiences of citizens. Dependence on mass media has consequences for peoples’ cognitions about politics and makes it important to investigate what kinds of information mass media produce.
Media As Sources Of Cognitions
Despite news professionals’ claims of balanced reporting, information provided by the mass media is biased. Indeed, complete neutrality is impossible. Media personnel must choose what political stories to report, whom to use as story sources, and how to present the narrative of political events. By highlighting certain issues, people, and details, and framing them to reflect particular perspectives, the media affect how people interpret information and use it for political decisions. For instance, Clinton’s approval ratings rose during the Lewinsky sex scandal when news media framed the event as a conservative war waged against a liberal president rather than focusing on the ethical issues concerning the sexual behavior of the president.
The news media are often blamed by democratic theorists for the public’s lack of civic participation and knowledge. These theorists charge that the media provide insufficient political information for effective participation in public life. However, other theorists absolve the media of blame, noting that the number of important issues under consideration at any one time is so great that citizens cannot possibly be fully informed about all of them. Even if people know the details of an event initially, they soon forget them and retain only the gist of the story and their reactions to it. Nonetheless, citizens can make sound political decisions without knowing most of the facts about which social scientists quiz them when judging their civic competence.
The media do deserve blame for often failing to present political information in ways that citizens can easily process and remember. Political events are frequently presented as discrete happenings, unconnected to any political history and narrative. Political stories rarely focus on the aspects that the majority of citizens find most interesting and memorable. That makes it difficult for people to commit these stories to long-term memory, and exacerbates the already considerable negative effects of inattention and apathy.
Distinguishing media impact on citizens’ attitudes from the impact of multiple other information sources is difficult. Experiments have been useful in isolating mass media effects but raise questions about the validity of the findings in real-world settings. Experiments have revealed ample evidence of profound media effects on citizens’ political attitudes. Citizens tend to adopt the dominant frames that are offered by the mass media. Consequently, their political attitudes conform to the mainstream opinions featured by the media, which in turn reflect the views of those political elites on which the media rely heavily as information sources. Not only do media messages affect the tenor of political attitudes, but media selection of issues has an agenda-setting effect. The emphasis of media coverage, especially if stories are prominently placed, indicates to citizens which issues are significant and which can be safely ignored. Political issues that are emphasized in media stories are much more likely to be described as one of the “most important” issues than are issues receiving lesser attention (Iyengar 1991).
Though political messages in the media unquestionably affect the political attitudes of citizens, the process involves more than a simple transfer of information. People are not blank political slates and their political cognitions are not completely determined by media information. People combine their own experiences, biases, motivations, and stereotypes with the political information they consume. Their built-up expectations and beliefs about political issues and events provide a lens through which they view and interpret new political messages. Political cognitions thus represent a melding of content and framing of political messages with citizens’ existing political attitudes and biases. Because existing attitudes and biases guide citizens’ opinion formation, this process has been dubbed “motivated reasoning” (Lundgren & Prislin 1998).
Cognitive Processing Needs And Capabilities
Political scientists have different conceptions of how much breadth and depth of political knowledge average citizens need in a democracy to perform their civic duties. While most deem a well-informed and active public essential, they disagree about the standards that should be applied. Judged by idealistic standards about citizens’ roles in a democracy (the “ideal” citizen), average citizens are woefully uninformed about current and historical political facts. They know too little about their current government officials and political institutions, current domestic and international political issues, political geography, and political history.
Political realists concede that citizens have neither the cognitive capabilities nor the motivation to process the vast amounts of political data necessary to fully understand the major political issues requiring attention at various times. Still, people do pay attention to news stories, but they concentrate their attention on the limited amount of information that they find interesting and relevant to their own lives and essential for fulfilling their civic obligations. They participate only selectively in the political process. Although democratic idealists are disturbed by limited learning, economic theories suggest that it constitutes rational behavior because it is a waste of intellectual resources to obtain detailed political knowledge about matters that do not appear to be of immediate concern (Downs 1957). Motivation to learn political information peaks at times of crisis when citizens may have to take action but it tends to be low at other times.
Citizens are “active information processors and meaning constructors” rather than passive consumers of political messages (Gamson et al. 1992). However, they tend to choose political messages that provide information with which they already agree. Selective exposure then reinforces existing beliefs. Information that conflicts with established beliefs is avoided because it can produce cognitive dissonance, which is an uncomfortable mental state (Festinger & Carlsmith 1959).
Citizens use cognitive shortcuts in order to simplify and efficiently process political information. They are also unsystematic cognitive processors who do not search their entire memory for relevant political information when expressing political opinions; instead, they tend to use information that is readily available from memory and made salient by the media. For instance, when the media routinely frame politics in terms of politicians’ personalities instead of political issues, personality factors become paramount in people’s thinking and behavior (i.e., voting).
Although cognitive political processing is an individual activity and a major part of human identity, it also has social components. For instance, people monitor their social environment and alter their political communication to conform to the political norms of their society. People also alter their search of political information and their own political communication based on what they believe to be the majority or consensus political opinion (Mutz 1998).
Just as the media act as major sources of information and influence on political cognitions, social factors heavily influence political thinking. Ethnicity, nationality, age, socio-economic status, education, religion, and gender are all social factors that strongly influence political thinking and attitudes. In fact, these social factors are often the central focus of political issues that are important to people, and form the core of their political identities. For example, political attitudes about the role of women in society cannot help but be affected by a person’s nationality, religion, and, of course, gender.
Emotions And Political Information Processing
Many political topics are dramatic and apt to arouse citizens’ emotions. In fact, political rhetoric is deliberately constructed to appeal to feelings like pride, love of country, anxiety, or fear. Despite the pervasiveness of emotion-arousing appeals, emotional influences on thinking have been condemned in the past as irrational and harmful, and contrary to the prized canons of rationality.
Advances in neuroscience demonstrate that earlier views were mistaken. Emotional arousal releases hormones that enhance human perceptions, speed reactions, and deepen and sharpen memories. In fact, emotional arousal provides the spark that sets off human thinking processes. The emotional arousal produced by many political messages therefore has a major impact on rational political thinking and on the conduct of politics. This is especially true during stirring political events like fiercely contested elections, revolutions, or civil and international wars.
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