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their policy stands. Usually, this reflects the time limits the networks impose on their stories; most stories are too short to allow full reporting.
Then, too, when television news buries a brief issue position reference amidst campaign hoopla, its full impact is lost even on the attentive voter, who is often distracted by the accompanying
pictures. Perhaps, the video dimension of television news generally
impedes the transmission of "hard" issue information.
pictures can engross the viewer, but they are also more open-ended
than the spoken or printed word. Pictures give viewers more freedom
of interpretation, allowing them to read into an event what they
want to read into it.
Each of these observations about television news points to a
vagueness in its presentation -- a vagueness which we believe leads
television news viewers to exhibit a peculiar behavior on our issue belief scales. Compared with newspaper readers, the issue awareness of high television news viewers had a tendency to "slip" during the election. They were more likely than newspaper readers to move from a scale position of greater certainty about a candidate's issue position to one of less certainty. We suggest that the openness
* What we mean by a tendency for voters' issue awareness to "slip" can be illustrated by returning again to the scale used to measure voters' issue awareness:
George McGovern favors an immediate withdrawal of u.s.
troops from Vietnam
Assume, for example, that a voter was at the position marked "x" at the start of the general election campaign. If he moved to the right during the campaign, his awareness on this issue "slipped" during the campaign, since his belief became less accurate. Such "slippage" was more common among high television news viewers than high newspaper readers.
of television news reporting, and its video dimension, may con
tribute to this unstable response pattern.
Indeed, as day-to-day news sources, newspapers consistently seem more effective than network newscasts as communicators of issue information. Restricted by neither time nor hamstrung by an inefficient audio channel, newspapers are able to carry more extensive and exhaustive issue information.
The newspaper medium also permits the viewer greater control over his information intake. In television news, once the show begins, continuous attention is required if the information is to be obtained. The pace is controlled entirely by the medium. Newspaper exposure is quite different. The reader controls the pace, the selections, and the attention level. This audience control facilitates comprehension and is a major reason why level of newspaper exposure is more strongly related to increased issue awareness than level of exposure to television news.
Moreover, television news lacks the audience reach of news
papers. Although the public attitudinally prefers television news
over newspapers, its behavioral preference is just the opposite.
Harold Israel and John Robinson, in an important study of the demo
graphic characteristics of network news audiences, report that
during a two week period 52 percent of the population did not watch
a single network newscast. Based on this datum as well as others,
the authors conclude that newspapers teach substantially more people
than television news. Although not so strikingly, our own data
15 supports the Israel-Robinson finding.
In part, the reach of television news is reduced by severe spatial and temporal limitations. Unless a potential viewer is
near a television set, at precisely the right time, television
news is an inaccessible information source. Newspaper access is
obviously not so severely constrained.
These observations are not to suggest that television is an un important news source. At the outset of this paper, we indicated
the standard we would use to judge media impact was precise, but
narrow. The narrowness of our initial standard has caused us to ignore the role of the mass media in providing voters contextual information about issues, in aiding voters to develop judgments about a political personage's character and leadership capacity,
and in forming voter attitudes on policy preferences. In every one of these omitted areas television news may have considerable impact. But using the simple standard we employ, television news is an overrated source of voters' issue information. Its content, its format, and its audience simply belie the common, but facile, judgment that television news has a considerable impact on voters' information about candidates' issue positions.
Televised Political Ads as an Information Source
Nearly everyone watches some prime-time television sometime during a week. Because political ads are brief and appear during prime-time entertainment shows they carry their messages to a vast
Moreover, televised ads reach voters who ignore political information in other mass media. Continuous exposure to politics on television news and in newspapers requires a conscious effort
from voters. Not surprisingly, a sizeable minority of Americans
make no such effort on any regular basis. However, because many of these same Americans watch television's entertainment programming, in which political spots are imbedded, televised ads can provide them with unexpected, low effort political information.
These politically inattentive voters are fertile ground for the issue in formation that ads contain. Prior to advertising exposure, these news avoiders are much less likely than news users to already possess the information conveyed by ads. Political spots help reduce this information gap.
Televised ads have been widely criticized, with some justification, for oversimplifying complex campaign issues. But the simple repetitive nature of televised ads enhance their ability to get across their message. Completely controlled by the candidates, ads can be used as frequently as the budget permits to hammer away at certain specific and limited themes. As the findings of mass communication and advertising research make clear, repetition and simplicity play key roles in learning, and political ads stress again and again the same straightforward messages.
Political ads are probably-- message-for-message-- more effective communicators than either product ads or television news stories. Every four years, a complete absence of ads about presidential candidates gives way to saturation advertising. Television
viewers can hardly miss the change. At the campaign's outset, voters appear to be particularly attentive to these intruders on their daily fare. For example, approximately 75 percent of all voters who told us, using unaided recall questions, that they could remember seeing a political commercial, could also accurately describe its intended message. This percentage far exceeds the intended message recall for product advertising and, from our analysis of unaided recall of television news stories, far exceeds the remembrance of day-to-day news stories.
Since televised political ads are often considered vehicles for candidate "image" messages, their issue content has been overlooked. But our data indicate they convey a considerable amount of information about candidates' issue positions. In fact, messages about the issue positions of Nixon and McGovern were communicated more clearly and more frequently through televised advertising than television news. Explicit references to the 18 candidate issue positions totalled 303 mentions and 135 minutes on televised ad
vertising, and only 106 mentions and 65 minutes on the average
network newscast during the general election period. This greater
emphasis is apparent in the differential effects of level of exposure
to the two media. Televised political ads had impact because they carried the information; television news had little information and
This is not to say that televised ads are necessarily a better source of political information in general. In the presentation of another area of political information, ads are weak and network