Book reveals media choice hurts political participation

From the Nov. 12, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

As the presidential election season approaches, many people are steeling themselves for the onslaught of political coverage on television, on the Internet and in the print media. But for some Americans, the next 12 months will be like any other period, because they largely ignore political news. With the myriad of media choices available today, anyone without an interest in politics can pretty much tune out Hillary Clinton and John McCain in favor of any of the thousands of entertainment offerings available in every type of media.

In his new book, "Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections," Markus Prior, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs, takes on this phenomenon. He has found that the explosion of media choices created by technology has had a profound effect on participation in the political process.

Prior's research focuses on the intersection of political science and the media. He arrived at Princeton in 2002 after earning a master's degree in political science from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in communications from Stanford University. His book, published by Cambridge University Press, is an expanded version of his dissertation, which won the E.E. Schattschneider Award, given by the American Political Science Association for the best dissertation in American government. He recently discussed his views on how technology has reduced people's inadvertent encounters with the news and why elections have become polarized.

You start your book by taking us back to the media universe in 1970, which couldn't be more different from what exists today.

Television consisted essentially of three networks, and many people watched news. At the height of the broadcast era, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, almost half of all Americans watched one of the three network newscasts at 6:30 p.m. on a regular weekday evening.

Now, that doesn't mean half of all Americans desperately wanted to watch news every day. But people didn't have much of a choice -- most households only got three or four channels -- and they usually didn't turn off the television. So, whether they cared or not, many people were politically informed, at least on some basic level. They may not have paid a whole lot of attention to the news, but it was on for 30 minutes a day, and viewers learned something about politics from time to time, even if news was on in the background. Before cable television, many people who were less interested in politics were often inadvertently exposed to the news.

How much of the population watches one of the three major broadcasts these days?

Today it's down to less than 10 percent.

People have a lot more choices today, and they're choosing not to watch the news.

Right. Thirty years ago, people were not necessarily so much more interested in the news, but they couldn't exercise their preferences for something else -- sports, soap operas, comedy shows -- because the technology wasn't there. They wanted to enjoy some passive entertainment when they came home after work, so they didn't get up and turn off the television when news was on. Remember, they also didn't have remote controls. Their viewing preferences in some sense didn't matter much then, but now they do. Now people who don't like political news have an easy time avoiding it.

But in a way what you're saying seems counterintuitive. Isn't having more choices better?

Well, it depends on what we mean by better. If by better you mean having more fun with the media and getting more of the kind of content you want, probably most of us would say we're better off. Few people would say, "Well, I liked it better when there were three choices." The general experience with media has become better for many of us due to these technological changes. But as political scientists we also care about things like the engagement of the public in the political process, and that's where not everything is better. Having these choices allows some people to escape from the news much more easily than they used to be able to. They are not participating in politics anymore, be it passively or actively, and that can create problems for a democratic system.

But for some people, having all these choices means they're taking in more political news, right? They're watching CNN or Fox News or C-Span?

Yes, a sizable segment of the population enjoys having this additional political content. About 20 percent of the respondents in my survey liked news better than all or almost all other program genres. They are the ones who actually take advantage of the increased political offerings on television. If you put together all the cable news channels and the smaller providers of political information on television, you get several million people watching these kinds of programs. And the Internet is obviously a paradise for news junkies.

News junkies are consuming a lot more political information than before. They learn more, and they go to the polls more. At the other end of the spectrum are what I call entertainment fans, the people who never liked the news very much. Now they can get away from the news, so as a result they become less informed over time and less likely to vote. Put these two groups together -- one participates at higher rates and the other tunes out -- and you end up with greater inequality in the distribution of political knowledge and participation.

How will the fact that a large segment of the population ignores the news affect the 2008 presidential election?

Politicians are very aware of these trends. We have seen more and more attempts by politicians to either appear on entertainment media or to be entertaining. Fred Thompson announced he was running for president on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," but he wasn't the first to do this. Bill Clinton played the sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992. What's interesting is that political advertising on entertainment shows could become quite important, because those ads might become the only way to reach entertainment fans.

How did you gather this information about media preferences and political involvement?

I used a survey company to survey 2,300 people, a representative sample of the general population, to assess people's preference for news compared to other content. Then I related their preferences to their political knowledge and their propensity to vote. What I found is that if you have access to these technologies -- cable television, the Internet -- and you don't like the news, your political knowledge and participation drops. On the other hand, if you don't have these new technologies yet, your media content preferences have little impact on your political knowledge and participation.

What else did you discover about the characteristics of news junkies and entertainment fans?

I found that there are not that many demographic differences between the two groups, which is very surprising. The entertainment fans are just as educated, for example. You would think people who are interested in the news would perhaps be more educated -- that's certainly one of the expectations that I had -- but I don't find it. There are just as many educated people who don't like the news. Entertainment fans are not younger or older than news junkies, they're not more likely to be male or female and they're not more likely to be poor or rich.

One might conclude that representative democracy can work this way. Both news junkies and entertainment fans are happy with their situation because they get the media experience they want. And since there are no significant demographic differences between the two groups, news junkies may demand the kind of political outcomes that the entertainment fans would want. The news junkies could function as the entertainment fans' proxies.

The only problem with this argument is this: The only dramatic difference between news fans and entertainment fans is that news junkies are much more partisan -- they identify strongly with a party -- while entertainment fans don't care very much about politics and don't have strong opinions. Despite their demographic similarities, strongly partisan news junkies might not be such good representatives for indifferent entertainment fans after all.

Your research also led you to a new explanation for the perception that the American electorate is more polarized now than ever before.

I show that changes in the media environment have contributed to polarization. But the effect of cable and the Internet is not to make people more partisan, which is what most of the other explanations for polarization presume. You often hear the claim that people who used to be relatively moderate Democrats are now really far-out liberals, and middle-of-the-road conservatives are now ultra right-wing Republicans.

That's not the mechanism I see in play. Rather, polarization is the result of a selection effect: Entertainment fans don't vote anymore, and since they are moderate or indifferent in their political views, we end up with fewer moderate people going to the polls. The news junkies, on the other hand, were always more partisan, but now they make up a larger share of the people who vote. So that's why you see polarization of voting behavior when you compare the average voter today to the average voter from 30 years ago. Voters are more polarized, but you have to keep in mind that you're comparing different groups. Thirty years ago there were a lot of entertainment fans among voters, and today there are a lot fewer of them.

What's your next project?

In my next research project, I will try to understand where these news preferences come from. It seems reasonable to assume that one's preference for either news or entertainment is relatively stable. The most interesting next question is: How does a person develop this preference? Why do some people develop an interest in politics and the news, and others don't? I don't know the answer yet, but I will try to find out.