To take part in the democratic process, citizens should be well informed about politics, which implies they should keep up with current affairs through the news media. Given this essential role of the media for democracy, it seems important to know to what extent and why citizens actually use political media content. While comparatively few empirical studies have focused exclusively on these questions, exposure or attention to political content is often measured in studies of political media effects. Indeed, political media use is considered important because what people see or hear in the news media can influence their knowledge, attitudes and opinions, and political participation.
Conceptual Issues And Research Problems
Political media use refers to people’s usage of both political media (such as newspapers or news magazines) and political content in all kinds of mass media, including the Internet. Political content normally means nonfictional content dealing with political events, issues, institutions, etc. (e.g., political news, commentary, round tables).
Research on political media use is fraught with problems, and common approaches have been increasingly criticized in recent years. Inaccuracies are highly probable because “political information” or “news” can mean different things (to respondents), including short or in-depth, accessible or demanding, or even nonpolitical material. While usually counted as “political information,” newspapers, radio, and television news cover not only domestic politics, foreign affairs, and economic news (often referred to as “hard news”) but also sports, culture, and human-interest themes.
Recipients’ contact with politics in the mass media can take very different forms, varying in terms of motivation, attention, and regularity. People seek information about specific themes purposively, they follow current affairs habitually, and they encounter political content incidentally. Hence, just measuring quantitative exposure seems of limited utility, at least if research interest is in news processing and learning. Finally, self-reported exposure probably overestimates political media use not only because of inaccuracies but also due to social desirability.
This overview mainly relies on data from a large number of studies and countries (western Europe and the US) and focuses on general patterns and relationships that are fairly stable over time and across media-use measures (measures mostly pertain to frequency of use; time spent using political information has been measured in rather few studies).
General Patterns Of Exposure
Most adults are at least somewhat interested in current affairs, and regularly use the mass media to keep up. Compared to entertainment media use, however, political information seems relatively unimportant to most of the audience. But it is hard to tell exactly how much of the time people spend with media is devoted to political content. Schulz (2007) estimates that share conservatively at about 10 percent.
Television continues to be the most important source of current affairs information if judged by audience size, frequency of use, or people’s impression as to where they get most of their news. Television tends to present politics in a particularly vivid, emotional, personalized, entertaining way, and is thus more accessible and attractive. Daily newspapers and the radio remain important, but in some countries the Internet has already passed these media as a source of political news (at least among younger people).
News or politics is often integrated with other types of content that are more attractive to many citizens (e.g., music on the radio). In this way, even less politicized media users may encounter politics quite regularly. In one form or another, this phenomenon appears to hold for all media (including the Internet) although the discussion so far has centered on television.
However, most of this incidental exposure is not exposure to in-depth political information but to news designed to appeal to a broad audience. The same applies to political content available in public places (e.g., in bars). On the other hand, cable TV and the web have expanded citizens’ possibilities to get political information far beyond typical news coverage, including easy access to parliamentary debates, parties’ news releases, and much more (with accordingly small audiences).
Correlates Of Political Media Use
While there is no specific theory of political media use, research suggests a variety of explanatory factors. Researchers have measured exposure or attention to news or other political content and examined their relations to demographics and an increasing number of other variables. This overview is based on studies that have taken the correlations between at least some of these explanatory factors into account.
Motives or gratifications: people mainly turn to political media content to keep informed about current affairs. Even if information-oriented motivation dominates, people also use news for diversion and entertainment. News use helps structure the day and often becomes a routine or habit, even a ritual. Social motivation also appears to be important: news and other political content provide us with themes and arguments for discussions. In general, citizens tend to prefer sources that reflect and confirm their own political views.
Interest in politics: quite strongly related to education, this is probably the most important factor linked with political media use. Interest in politics may almost be equated with interest in political media content. Those who are more interested in politics tend to use news media (especially hard news) more extensively, purposefully, and actively.
Social environment: political media use is shaped by socialization influences, specifically parental information habits. Discussions with family members, friends, and colleagues motivate people to keep up with current affairs. Citizens’ political media use tends to be higher if they are well integrated into discussion networks, and if these networks are large, active, and heterogeneous (increasing the likelihood of citizens’ being confronted with different opinions).
Education: studies usually find a positive relation between level of education (which indicates cognitive abilities and information processing capabilities) and newspaper reading, in particular for quality papers. A similar pattern holds for in-depth political information in other media, including television (but not for TV news). The effects of education on political media use are in part mediated by interest in politics.
Income: there is also a fairly consistent relationship between (household) income and political media use, particularly often found for newspaper reading. Besides financial resources, lifestyle and occupation-related motives could play some role here.
Age and/or cohort membership: political media use increases markedly during youth and adolescence, along with political interest. In old age, it may decline again due to deteriorating cognitive abilities and changing information needs. In the adult population, age has positive correlations with newspaper reading and television news viewing, while Internet news use tends to be higher among younger people. Older persons generally appear to be more interested in current affairs information. However, such differences between age groups may reflect not only processes of aging (called age effects) but also cohort effects, meaning stable differences between birth cohorts (i.e., people born in the 1930s, the 1940s, etc., who have been shaped differently by the changing times). In particular, cohort effects have been found for newspaper reading.
Gender: known differences between men and women are largely confined to newspaper use, with men reading more frequently. Women also appear to be somewhat less interested in politics, probably to a large part because of gender-related socialization and role patterns (education, employment, occupation, etc.). This gender gap is larger in the older cohorts of the population, and it has narrowed in recent decades, a trend likely to continue.
Further correlates of political media use that have been examined less frequently include personality factors such as need for cognition, desire for control, and opinion leadership, values (postmaterialism), attitudes (identification with a civic duty to keep informed), and exposure to other news media (e.g., TV news may prompt viewers to seek further information in newspapers). Finally, there are differences between countries: in Europe, political media use – most clearly, newspaper reading – tends to be higher in the north and below average in the south. The US also shows rather low levels of political media use.
In times of war or political crisis, interest in and exposure to news rise considerably, and television’s role as the favorite news source is further strengthened. More interesting are long-term trends. In the past five decades, new media have greatly expanded the range of political content available to a broader audience, even if politics’ share of total media content has declined. Political media use expanded as well in the postwar decades (in absolute terms), probably in part due to rises in educational attainment, women’s employment, and political interest.
It appears that in postwar western Europe, political media use increased up to the 1970s (and in part also in the 1980s) but has declined somewhat since. In the US, an even more marked decline in news use has occurred, particularly during the past 10 or 15 years. Trends reported in the literature differ, however, which may be explained by the time periods, countries, and measures of media use they are based on.
In the US, young people in particular seem to have reduced their news use (at least in the old media), a trend that has received much attention lately. Traditional news sources are facing hard times as the younger cohorts increasingly turn to online news and weblogs, and even to news content available on mobile devices such as cell phones or PDAs.
Although it is not clear how far this downward trend extends to Europe, there is ample evidence that newspaper reading has declined not only in the US but also in many western European countries, particularly strongly among young people. A considerable part of the overall decline seems to be due to a cohort effect, meaning that newspaper use will drop further as the older cohorts are successively replaced by younger people who are reading less frequently.
In economic terms, the gap between news supply and news demand has widened. Facing stronger competition, news media have made efforts to keep or expand their audiences by more entertaining presentation and by emphasizing soft news. If these more popular forms serve to attract politically less interested people to news, they may not be as bad for democracy as many critics say (Norris 2000). On the other hand, hard news and in-depth political information could get increasingly marginalized – if not displaced – and more difficult to find.
Undoubtedly, an ever-increasing amount and variety of political information is available today. Expanded choice (of both news and entertainment content) facilitates but also forces selectivity, thus creating further potential to avoid news. At the same time, new distribution avenues generate new chances of exposure (in public places, on the web, etc.), and at least top news seems to be nearly omnipresent today. Scanning and monitoring the news (often while engaged in other activities) is becoming more common. The evolving political media use apparently no longer corresponds to the ideal of the “informed citizen.” But “monitorial citizenship” – a concept advanced in 1998 by Schudson in his book The good citizen – may be more realistic anyway, given the growing complexity of our societies, politics, and media systems.
- European Commission (ed.) (2006). Eurobarometer 64: Public opinion in the European Union. At http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb64/eb64_en.htm, accessed September 12, 2006.
- Lauf, E. (2001). Research note: The vanishing young reader. Sociodemographic determinants of newspaper use as a source of political information in Europe, 1980–98. European Journal of Communication, 16(2), 233–243.
- Norris, P. (2000). A virtuous circle: Political communications in postindustrial societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Pew Research Center (2006). Online papers modestly boost newspaper readership: Pew Research Center biennial news consumption survey. At http://people-press.org, accessed September 12, 2006.
- Schudson, M. (1998). The good citizen: A history of American civic life. New York: Free Press.
- Schulz, W. (2007). Politische Kommunikation [Political communication], 2nd edn. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.