Sharon E Jarvis & Soo-Hye Han. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
Political communication is the exchange of information between a nation’s leadership, the media, and the citizenry. As an academic discipline, it draws from research in political science, psychology, mass communication, journalism, communication studies, rhetoric, sociology, history, and critical and cultural media studies.
At the core of political communication scholarship is a fascination with how political elites, the press, and the public persuade each other. To learn more about these patterns of influence, scholars study the texts associated with political campaigns, governance and the formation of public policy, political and social movements, political socialization processes, citizen organizing, political entertainment programming, and politics on the Internet.
Perhaps because of the number of contexts examined, there has been a conscious effort to avoid offering strict definitions of what is and what is not political communication. Key terms included in most definitions, however, include political symbols and language; elites, press, and publics; political processes; actual or potential effects; the regulation of conflict; and the functioning of political systems.
Assumptions of Political Communication
Political communication scholars generally hold a set of common assumptions about this subfield.
First, political communication is a dynamic process. It is not automatic. At best, a political candidate, the press, or a citizen can control just a part of a message; other political forces (including oppositional candidates, another political party, adversarial interests), the media, and the citizenry are constantly questioning and challenging any statement. Moreover, political psychologists note that individuals understand messages in complicated ways, often processing incoming data through partisan stereotypes, personal reactions to the speakers, and emotional responses to a message’s content. So while political leaders and the press may have the resources to start many political conversations, competing forces also shape the scope and direction of any political discussion.
Second, political communication is tied to power. Most political communication scholars study campaigns, governance, and public policy. In most of these instances, political elites are discussing plans for allocating society’s resources. To paraphrase the political scientist V. O. Key, the person who frames the conversation guides its outcome. For this reason, the conversation between political elites, the media, and the citizenry features a constant negotiation for control of the political agenda. Political communication scholars listen intently to this discussion to trace how resources are allocated in a polity.
Third, political communication is guided by a normative concern. How can the exchange of information between political elites, the media, and the citizenry best contribute to effective and just governance? Empirical and theoretical studies, alike, harbor an explicit or implicit desire to locate processes to aid political elites in communicating their messages, help the media best inform the electorate, and encourage citizens to hold elected officials accountable to them.
Fourth, political communication occurs in a context. All messages and processes are influenced by the cultural and social norms of a system, the economic and legal structures in place, and the channel or medium through which entities communicate. While most studies in the United States focus on national concerns, many scholars believe that future comparative work will sharpen what is known about American practices and allow researchers to ask macrolevel questions to advance the theoretical and empirical development of the subfield.
Fifth, political communication is closer to citizens than political activity. To paraphrase the political scholar Murray Edelman, people are more likely to encounter political messages than to engage in political actions (such as voting, volunteering, or protesting). For this reason, the language of politics is critically important, as it introduces political understandings, frames political possibilities, and prevents certain issues or policies from being discussed.
History of Political Communication
The history of political communication can be traced broadly back to Greek democracy or specifically to the formation of institutional divisions in scholarly associations. Scholars also point to seminal pieces in political persuasion such as Aristotle’s Politics and Rhetoric, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Foundational works in the American context include The Declaration of Independence, Common Sense, The Federalist Papers, and the Gettysburg Address.
In tracing political communication patterns in historical contexts, researchers have attended to advancements in information technologies and how these tools have altered both the message landscape as well as the democratic discussion. Notable innovations include the printing press, the political pamphlet, the newspaper, radio, film, television, and electronic technologies (including the Internet, mobile phones, personal digital assistants such as Blackberries, etc.). Each of these developments have increased the reach of political messages, and, according to their specific properties, altered the political landscape. Namely, the printing press helped disseminate information that was largely held by the elites; the partisan pamphlet allowed for political and personal expression; the newspaper accelerated the spread of current affairs; and radio, film, and television transcended literacy levels (and, because of the rich personal cues appearing in these channels, have created a heightened awareness of the personal attributes of politicians). The influence of electronic technologies such as the Internet (including the World Wide Web, e-mail, and instant messaging) has increased the speed with which information is disseminated across and through publics.
A more precise history of the political communication as a scholarly subfield has its roots in (1) propaganda analyses during World War II, (2) early voting studies in the 1940s to 1960s, and (3) rhetorical analyses of political—often presidential—texts.
To begin, several seminal thinkers were commissioned by the U.S. government to study wartime communications. These projects ranged from the political scientists Paul Lazarsfeld (Columbia University) and Harold Lasswell (University of Chicago) working for the Rockefeller Foundation Communication Seminar to outline an agenda for understanding the nature of propaganda and its effects to Lazarsfeld’s work with the sociologist Robert Merton (also at Columbia) in measuring the influence of specific radio, film, and print propaganda (efforts that led to the creation of the focused interview, a precursor to today’s focus group methodology). This work serves as an early example of many commitments of the subfield of political communication, including methodological plurality (these scholars employed quantitative techniques to assess the effects of messages followed by qualitative approaches to understand the nuances of message properties and the unfolding process of influence), an applied focus (they employed scholarly approaches to attend to critical issues in the 1940s), and normative concerns (they addressed questions connected to the sustenance of a democratic state).
Next, early voting studies also contributed to the development of the subfield. One of the most notable studies in the field is the 1940 Erie County study, a project guided by Lazarsfeld. In this endeavor, researchers conducted 600 personal interviews each month for 6 months prior to the 1940 presidential election (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). Lazarsfeld’s hypothesis was that the media (viz., print newspapers) would have a powerful effect in influencing citizen attitudes and behaviors in that election. His findings revealed, however, that only 54 of the 600 participants interviewed shifted their support from one candidate to another during the course of the campaign. These data suggested that an overwhelming percentage of those studied had chosen their favored candidate prior to the campaign (or its news coverage).
This classic study led to two key findings for the understanding of political communication: the start of a minimal effects model, whereby Lazarsfeld and others argued that the press did not have a powerful influence on the electorate, and the two-step flow-of-communication model, in which Lazarsfeld’s team believed that politically aware opinion leaders pass along public affairs information to others via interpersonal conversations. This two-step-flow approach highlighted the complementary roles that media and interpersonal communication play in influencing political attitudes and behaviors. While subsequent studies—and the emergence of television in the 1950s as a force in American life—locate a stronger-effects model in mass communications research, the Erie County offers an important baseline of the influence of personal predispositions, interpersonal communication, and press coverage during a presidential campaign.
Subsequent voting studies have shifted from an emphasis on interpersonal conversations to the influence of psychological variables. In The American Voter (1960), for instance, a group of political scholars from the University of Michigan employed survey data to argue that political partisanship had become the key cue in predicting political choices. Their study is critical for two reasons: (1) Their use of the National Election Studies survey data established the standard for hundreds of subsequent projects examining voter decision making and (2) their identification of partisanship as the critical predictor of electoral behavior continues to be a central finding in political science research. Studies following The American Voter have also looked for psychological (and social-psychological) predictors of decision making, focusing on cues such as gut rationality (attending to some cues in the information environment; see Popkin, 1991) and the power of personal reactions to political leaders (Hart, 1997). These voting studies have been a primary path for political communication research.
Additionally, rhetorical analyses on political leaders (largely presidents) also serve as a precursor to contemporary political communication scholarship. Rhetoricians have engaged in criticism and theory building, attending to the messages, motives, and styles of political speech. In doing so, scholars have focused on (1) speakers (assessing the development, delivery, and exigencies of political speech) as well as (2) audiences (noting the audiences honored or hailed by specific speeches as well as those denied and negated through political silence) in rhetorical situations.
Why is Communication an Important Part of Politics, Particularly U.S. Politics?
Political communication plays an important role in ensuring the legitimacy and future of American democracy. The following propositions explain how and why this is the case.
Political communication preserves democratic governance. A first cause for political communication is structural: A dialogue between the government, the media, and the citizenry can preserve a democratic regime. Political theorists contend that a democratic system is only possible when an informed, engaged, and participatory citizenry protects itself from the inevitable greed and power of political elites. They contend that the legitimacy of a system can be gauged by levels of political participation and that the stability of a system can be assessed by participation over time. Political messages, then, help individuals navigate their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
Many political scholars note that the role of communication in preserving democratic life is particularly important because democracies are fragile. As Mindich (2005) articulates in his analysis of why young people need to be engaged in political life, democracies are always just a short decline from potential despotism. A system with a free press and access to robust political conversations and norms of debate can protect itself in the political present and into the future.
Political communication connects leaders with the public. This second point refers to political leaders, candidates for public office, and elected officials. Hart’s (1987, 2000) research has shown that political candidates and elected presidents have addressed the public with increasing frequency over the years and that campaign addresses are more direct and detailed than presidential speeches or briefings. The very act of a campaign, Hart argues, forces candidates to consider the needs of the public and to speak to those needs in forthcoming ways.
Studies show that public communications can benefit political elites, as well. In her longitudinal analysis, Ragsdale (1984) found that changes in public approval rankings and national events increase the likelihood that presidents will deliver an address (whereas worsening economic conditions such as inflation and unemployment or expanding military situations decrease the likelihood that a president will speak in public). Intriguingly, she also found that a president’s popularity increases significantly with the delivery of a prominent speech. In a similar type of project, Kernell (1997) has studied the process of going public—the pattern of presidents talking directly to the American people to gain power (in the form of public opinion) over other branches of government. Kernell notes that this process can allow popular presidents “to soar” (p. 260), but it can also lead to an unstable marketplace, “whose currency is public opinion” if a president encounters a drop in favorability with the electorate.
Political communication shapes political agendas. This third point deals most directly with the media and the scholarship that investigates the ability of the press to put ideas into people’s heads and thereby set agendas for publics.
To begin, one of the most widely studied theories in contemporary mass communication is the agenda-setting theory. This line of research was inspired by Cohen’s (1963) observation that the mass media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think but the media are stunningly successful in telling their audience what to think about. During the 1968 presidential election, McCombs and Shaw (1972) examined the transfer of issue salience from news media to the public by comparing the most prominent issues appearing in news coverage and what the public regarded as the most important problems in their minds. The study revealed that the issues that are salient in the news become the issues that are salient among the public. Since the initial study in 1968, the agenda-setting theory has been studied hundreds of times across the globe.
One of the theories borne out of the continuous investigations of the agenda-setting function of the media is the attribute (or second level) agenda-setting theory. While the original agenda-setting theory focused on the transfer of issue salience from the media to the public, the attribute agenda-setting studies the transfer of attribute salience from the media to the public. For instance, Golan and Wanta (2001) revealed that voters’ evaluations of candidates were significantly associated with attributes salient in three newspapers in New Hampshire during the 2000 presidential primaries. The study of attribute agenda setting adds a new dimension to the traditional agenda-setting theory, introducing the media’s power to influence not just what to think about but also how to think about it.
Similar to the agenda-setting theory, framing and priming are two other well-researched constructs in mass communication. The theoretical approach of framing examines the presentation, selection, emphasis, and exclusion processes inherent in organizing news stories. To frame a story, writes Entman (1993), is to “select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (p. 52). News frames provide cues as to how to think about dramatized problems; how to diagnose their causes; how to evaluate their generators, victims, and effects; how to cast (or avoid casting) blame; and if and how these problems should be resolved. Indeed, studies have identified how frames influence how individuals think, process topical information, discuss issues with others, and move to public action.
The notion of media priming also has connections to the agenda-setting studies. Priming refers to the ability of the media to “isolate particular issues, events, or themes in the news as criteria for evaluating politicians” (Ansolabehere, Behr, & Iyengar, 1993, p. 148). Iyengar (1991) states that news stories have a priming effect on the public by guiding viewers into evaluating political leaders by the criteria discussed in news stories. In their experimental examination, Iyengar and Kinder (1987) found that “through priming (drawing attention to some aspects of political life at the expense of others) television news help to set the terms by which political judgments are reached and political choices made” (p. 114).
Another prominent effect of the news media is the spiral-of-silence theory. Conceived by Noelle-Neumann (1993), this approach is best understood in light of the dynamics of public opinion, pressures to conform to majority viewpoints, and fears of isolation. The theory asserts that people are unwilling to express unpopular opinions (particularly on issues that have a strong moral component) because doing so might lead to social rejection and isolation. The process of not sharing unpopular (or minority) opinions can become cyclical; if people do not see their preferred position in the media or supported by others, they will be less likely to speak out (and, accordingly, their positions become even less likely to appear in the news or in future conversations). Because people evaluate the prevailing public opinion based on the portrayals of public opinion communicated through mass media, the media induce certain opinions to be silenced.
While these aforementioned studies discuss how the media shape public opinion, some researchers also study how publics make sense of mediated messages in light of their own prior predispositions. The constructionist perspective, for instance, asserts that the media and other political elites can set agendas but cannot determine the meaning of politics. In their impressive study of media coverage, candidate speech, and citizen sentiment in the 1992 campaign, Just and colleagues (1996) found that citizens used personal knowledge and experience to actively interpret media messages and candidate images and that as people became more engaged with the election, they drew more on their own experiences—both direct and indirect—to evaluate campaign information. Similarly, Delli-Carpini and Williams (1994) have noted how television viewers converse back to television programming and are somewhat self-reflective with regard to how television persuades them. This constructionist approach addresses how people bring some of themselves to their understandings of mediated texts.
Studies show that different types of media can have different effects. Newspaper reading has the strongest association with political interest, knowledge, and many acts of political participation (including voting, attending political meetings, displaying a campaign button, sign or sticker, working for a political candidate or political party, or donating money to a campaign). Television news also contributes to political knowledge and participation, although it is not as strong a predictor of the many acts of participation as print news. Television news has been praised for being entertaining, for breaking through the attention barrier and capturing viewers’ attention, for getting people interested in political topics, and for motivating and educating individuals with lower levels of knowledge and sophistication. At the same time, however, television news has been critiqued for unnecessarily heightening the dramatic aspects of politics and restricting coverage to topics that yield easy and compelling visual images.
Research on talk radio suggests that regular listeners have more political knowledge than nonlisteners, although this relationship is not statistically significant when one controls for the reality that most talk radio listeners are highly educated and often consume other forms of media, as well. Studies on the audience of talk radio reveals that listeners are mostly male; that a majority of this audience distrusts the mainstream media; that programs have been created largely for a conservative or Republican perspective; and that programs are more successful in encouraging audiences to oppose a candidate, policy, or idea than support one.
Research on the effects of entertainment media yields mixed findings. On the one hand, viewers of traditional entertainment programming on television are less likely to be politically informed or to participate. On the other, studies on infotainment programming (such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or the Colbert Report) reveal that regular viewers of these programs report higher levels of political information than traditional cable news audiences. An early explanation for this trend suggests that audiences must know something about public life to enjoy and understand these shows; it remains to be seen if the infotainment informs them directly or motivates them to know more in order to enjoy and comprehend the content of these programs.
Political communication can activate citizens. This fourth point addresses how political communication between citizens can protect their individual and collective interests (and even improve their well-being). Classic voting theories suggest that political participation contributes to the personal development of citizens. It has been argued that paying attention to politics and engaging in civic and political acts encourages people to pay attention not only to their own interests but also to those of a community and the country as a whole—a process that is believed to broaden perspectives.
Campaign messages, too, have been credited with being beneficial for the public. In his analysis of candidate, media, and citizen campaign discourses from 1948 to 1996, Hart (2000) contends that campaign communication is good for citizens, as it can teach (citizens learn during campaigns), preach (democracy is reperformed during campaigns), sensitize (campaigns increase public support for political elites and a democratic system), and activate (citizens experience higher levels of political efficacy during campaigns). Popkin (1991) advances a similar case, arguing that louder campaigns (with more vibrant and visible political communications) help engage more citizens in the process.
Key studies in this area have examined how political texts (candidate statements and advertisements, news coverage, Web pages, statements from other citizens) and experiences (voting, volunteering, political discussions, serving on a jury, etc.) influence individuals’ attitudes and behaviors. Variables of interest here include political engagement (often regarded as the activities intended directly or indirectly to affect the selection of elected representatives and/or the development, implementation, or enforcement of public policy through government—such as voting, working for a political party, or contacting an elected official), civic engagement (refers to addressing public concerns directly through methods that are outside of elections and government—such as volunteering or working with a community group or neighborhood association), internal political efficacy (the sense that one’s participation can actually make a difference), external political efficacy (the sense that a political system would be responsive to this participation), civic duty (a sense of responsibility and obligation to a system), political interest (attentiveness to government and public affairs), tolerance (acceptance of difference and diversity), and political trust (faith in a system and its leaders).
Additionally, Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone has generated considerable attention in academic and nonacademic settings. The central premise behind his approach is that relationships (social networks) have value (social capital) for people. Specifically, Putnam has traced how strong social networks increase reciprocity (the likelihood that people will look out for each other), information sharing (the opportunities to hear about ideas, jobs, and political happenings), and cooperation (the chance to organize in order to effect change beyond what an individual could do alone). All three of these resources help individuals lead richer and more meaningful lives.
Putnam’s research has located specific examples of the value of networks. These intriguing patterns include how (1) joining and participating in just one social group can reduce a person’s chances of dying over the next year in half; (2) crime can be as effectively curbed in a community when neighbors know each others’ first names as by adding additional police to the streets; (3) educational reforms can benefit more directly from parental involvement than by hiring more teachers; and (4) each 10 minutes of additional commuting time per day reduces all forms of social capital by 10% (meaning 10% less church going, 10% fewer club meetings, 10% fewer evenings with friends, etc.; see Putnam’s Better Together  advocacy group, a by-product of his Bowling Alone  text). Putnam summarizes these patterns by noting that civic engagement is like a “health club for the 21st century” that is free, that improves both individual and community health, and that perpetuates the growth of social ties. Researchers have also explored how deliberation educates and empowers citizens. Gastil (2008) contends that “people deliberate when they carefully examine a problem and a range of solutions through an open, inclusive exchange that incorporates and respects diverse points of view” (p. xi). He maintains that deliberation is an important means of fostering coordination in a democracy and helps citizens to really understand the reasons behind points of view different from their own (a process that is almost impossible without deliberation).
Gastil holds that deliberation has these components: It begins when people have a solid information base to understand an issue; it functions when individuals identify and prioritize key issues to be addressed; and it progresses as individuals locate solutions and address the pros, cons, and trade-offs of these solutions. Research shows that when deliberation is well organized, participants report satisfaction with the process and have greater support for and investment in the outcome. In contrast, when the deliberative experience is not well organized, or when a deliberative group is not given clear directives, this process can suppress deep difference, discourage frank statements, and exaggerate consensus.
How Are Political Images and Messages Constructed?
Political leaders, the media, and citizens all construct messages in unique ways. Their strategies and goals reflect their unique needs in the democratic conversation.
Political leaders create messages to improve their public image. Scholars have studied these processes in a set of ways. To begin, political marketing—or the application of marketing principles and procedures in political campaigns by various individuals and organizations—has become a major force in elections and policy making (Newman, 1999). Like product marketing, a key goal in political marketing is to have a market orientation, anticipate audience needs, and work to create innovative products and services. Unlike product marketing, however, the goal is not to make a profit; rather, political marketers work to improve the quality of life and create the most benefits at the lowest cost for citizens. A key way of making this happen is by helping candidates acquire political capital through compelling public images and powerful messages.
Research on candidate images has located a set of personality traits that are vital in marketing, including trustworthiness, authoritativeness, competence, sociability, composure, experience, leadership ability, intelligence, and honesty. Scholars have attended to the relative influence of issue stances and personality characteristics on candidate image. While scholars once held a distinction between these two forces, data now show that citizens employ both types of information while evaluating candidates. Moreover, studies show that citizens attend to a candidate’s appearance, his or her resemblance (or lack thereof) to an audience, and general expectations of what candidates should be like in reacting to candidate images.
Research is commonly a part of a campaign strategy. Campaign researchers often gauge reactions to candidates via focus groups and surveys (or public opinion polls). Focus groups are a method in which a group of individuals who share a specific characteristic (being of a common age, background, education level, social class, political party, or biological sex) are brought together for a group interview. A moderator typically guides a set of 6 to 12 people in a conversation in which the participants are asked to respond to a situation, a candidate communication, or concerns about a candidate’s opponent. Moderators listen for patterns in group discussion, moments when group members question or build on each others’ statements and times when the group surprises itself. Focus groups are a valuable way for campaigns to tap into socially created and shared opinions, and they offer in-depth information from a small set of individuals on questions of interest.
Surveys (or public opinion polls) are another commonly used method to gather broader reactions from the public. Campaigns can poll the public to search for levels of support and patterns of favorability for candidates, issues, messages, and specific campaign communications. While focus groups offer in-depth information for a small number of participants, surveys offer less detailed observations on a much larger group of people.
Scholars have located some best practices for candidate communications. Returning to Hart’s (2000) analyses, he found a variety of patterns in leaders’ speech, including how winning candidates speak as centrists and employ common terms and phrases (they are not rhetorically distinctive, nor do they call unnecessary attention to themselves); incumbent candidates are more optimistic and collective in their speeches, whereas challenger candidates are more negative and ideological; and Republicans speak in straightforward ways (arguing directly from cause to effect), whereas Democrats speak in a more complex way (employing more nouns per verb, discussing the nuances of a situation in making their arguments).
Studies on female candidates have shown that they must campaign amidst powerful gender stereotypes. While the number of female candidates and the prominence of office for which they seek have increased, research shows that they are often viewed as less competent and unable to handle the tough negotiations associated with politics. Moreover, they are expected to be less assertive and aggressive than men, and they must use more specific and precise statements than men. To avoid a negative backlash from voters, female candidates typically critique their opponents on issues and avoid making direct charges on their opponents’ characters (see Powell & Cowart, 2002).
Studies have also examined the message properties of a variety of genres of campaign discourse (Hart, 2000). Campaign speeches tend to be more direct and optimistic than addresses delivered by elected officials. Campaign ads traffic in images and say things that candidates, themselves, cannot say. Debate performances add prudence to campaign discourse, reduce bombast, and bring focus to the political conversation. Candidate-sponsored Web pages tend to avoid partisan cues, are positive in nature (with candidates placing more negative charges in other forms of discourse), increasingly feature verbal and video content, and can help candidates generate positive news coverage. As Web sites are regularly visited by journalists, a well-organized and detailed Web site can translate into favorable coverage for a candidate.
Media outlets create messages to tell and sell stories. Although they are central to preserving a democratic state, many scholars note that the media are not truly in the democracy business. Rather, they are afor-profit business, and their need to create an audience to sell advertising influences how news stories are presented.
Researchers have studied how the need to create an audience influences news as a genre of political communication. In so doing, many potential biases in the news have been discussed, including a straight news perspective (that news outlets are not biased and that they offer direct reportage of the facts), a leftist bias perspective (that most reporters identify as Democrats or Independents and therefore deliver the news through a liberal slant), a rightist bias perspective (that media ownership leans conservative to Republican and their business model requires news stories that are friendly to corporate interests and the status quo), an organizational bias perspective (that reporters learn reporting strategies from journalism schools and tend to follow the leads of prominent reporters in covering stories), and a narrative biasperspective (that the news is a story and must feature certain properties to command an audience). While many agree that a variety of biases can be detected in any story, scholars often gravitate toward the narrative perspective as it helps interpret the news as political texts.
Bennett’s (1988) research has been particularly notable on this score. To tell and sell stories, he contends that news stories feature the following narrative properties: personalization—such that the “news gives preference to the individual actors and human interest angles in events while downplaying institutional and political considerations that establish the social contexts of those events” (p. 26);dramatization— such that “reporters and editors search for events with dramatic properties and then emphasize those properties in their reporting,” so that the content of the news “has more to do with” dramatism than “any natural preeminence they may have in the political scheme of things” (p. 35); fragmentation— such that events “exist in self-contained dramatic capsules, isolated from each other in time and space” so that the news resembles a “jigsaw puzzle that is out of focus and missing many pieces” (p. 44); and normalization—such that “the news overlays situations as quickly as possible with familiar images (both moral and empirical) of a normal world … images that drive bothersome details out of mind” (p. 51).
Since the 1980s, there has been a proliferation of cable news programs on television. To compete in the cluttered media marketplace, several have sought out (and others have simply been perceived by the public as having) a partisan slant. Scholars are beginning to study how these cable news and entertainment shows feature unique programming that may lead to unique effects. Recent work on partisan selective exposure traces how individuals seek out media that matches their partisanship (congenial programming) and that the process of seeking out this media can lead to higher levels of political polarization, differentiated patterns of agenda setting, and distinct issue priorities connected to news-seeking habits.
Citizens create messages to influence the agenda. A key action that citizens have employed to make their voices heard in a democratic system is the vote. Outside of voting, however, individuals have other opportunities for influence, including writing pamphlets, engaging in assembly and protest, writing letters to the editors of newspapers, calling into radio programs, and donating money to political causes to express political views.
Developments in interactive technology increase the options available to citizens. On the Internet, they can increasingly respond to news articles through interactive Web features, join social-networking groups surrounding civic or political interests, or create a blog (or post to blogs) to share political perspectives.
What Are the Forms and Types of Messages We Should Expect to See in the 21st Century?
Researchers have some expectations as to the future of candidate, media, and citizen communications.
Candidate-centered campaigning. A decline in the power of the political parties in the candidate selection process and the emergence of television and the Internet as disseminators of information have led to an increasing personalization of politics. This process has been widely documented in the United States, and comparative scholars report an increased emphasis on candidate-centered politics across the globe.
An emphasis on the candidate has given rise to new lines of inquiry and theorizing. Two important variables for political communication scholars to attend to in the future include the likability and authenticity of political communicators. Likability is not a new variable for political life. Political theorists have long been suspicious of attempts to gain power through likability (as it can lead to unstable public opinion if a candidate becomes unlikable; see Kernell, 1997; Machiavelli, 2004). Communication scholars, marketers, and advertisers take a different approach to likability, however. Their studies show that likable people (often measured as those who are regarded as attractive, who inspire a sense of identification or commonality with others, and who compliment their audiences) have an increased ability to persuade others.
Authenticity is a second notion that becomes important in an overcommunicated, personalized message environment. In an era of reality television and heightened political cynicism, the news media and citizens have ample opportunities to question the motives of their political leaders. While such questioning surely predates the current candidate-centered era, a proliferation of cable news programs, of personalized and dramatized news narratives, and of a celebrity-driven culture fixates attention on the causes underlying elite political behavior. Early definitions of authenticity focus on a candidate’s transparency and consistency. Research will surely continue to sharpen this burgeoning concept.
Proliferation of internet applications. Technological advancements have shifted the content and tone of many political discussions. Notably, political Web sites and blogs, social-networking sites, and YouTube (and other political films) have altered the traditional political conversation. For instance, the Drudge Report—a news aggregation Web site run by Matt Drudge—became famous for being the first news outlet to run the story that President Bill Clinton had had an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Drudge’s doing so broke the scandal, a story that other outlets such as Newsweek magazine refused to cover. Future studies will undoubtedly study the content of these political Web sites, trace the content, the information flow, and the intermedia agenda setting of these political sites.
Social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook present a new means of organizing online, of developing political capital, and of capturing the attention of the news media and the candidates. Studies will examine who joins these sites, the best practices of persuasion on them, and the effects these networks have on political attitudes and behaviors.
You Tube is a video-sharing Web site. It was created in the winter of 2005 to allow individuals to upload, view, and share video clips. The presence, familiarity, and open access of this site—paired with the ubiquity of handheld digital recording equipment—has created an instinct for citizens to become movie makers and a place for such films to be stored. In the realm of politics, the site holds clips from candidate statements to political groups, candidate interviews with the press, and citizen-created clips about the candidates. Political commentators believe that YouTube played a significant role in the 2006 defeat of Senator George Allen (R-VA) due to a video clip of him making allegedly racist remarks that was continuously replayed by YouTube viewers during the campaign. In the 2008 presidential campaign, citizen-created videos have brought considerable attention to the Obama presidential campaign. As with the other Internet applications, future studies will track the content, dissemination, and effects of these videos.
Citizen reactions to an overcommunicated era. Marketing estimates suggest that citizens encountered 200 commercial-brand impressions on an average day in the 1950s. By the late 1990s, such estimates skyrocketed to 5,000 a day. This overcommunicated environment has created new patterns of information seeking and influence for the citizenry.
Concerning information seeking, citizens (particularly conservatives and Republicans) are reporting an unprecedented lack of trust in the media. This frustration has led to a proliferation of programs with a conservative perspective (on talk radio, on the Fox news cable network, and on the Internet). Scholars have begun to study the aforementioned pattern of partisan self-exposure; the effects of conservatives seeking conservative media and liberals seeking liberal media will be important questions for the future.
Similarly, a lack of media trust, increased political cynicism, weaker partisan commitments, and advancements in information technologies (allowing citizens to self-select their programming and to record television shows and bypass political advertisements) have all challenged the impact of mass advertising campaigns. Scholars have found, interestingly, that in many instances, grassroots campaigning—including door-to-door political canvassing—is a cost-effective means of persuasion and of getting out the vote. Studies will continue to refine what is known about the best practices of face-to-face canvassing as well as grassroots organizing strategies on the Web, broadly, and on social-networking sites, specifically.
Efforts to recruit new stakeholder groups. Another set of questions for future research include demographic shifts in the electorate, including increases in the Latino population, normative and strategic interest in young voters (ages 18–29). and efforts to persuade uncommitted voters (who are less loyal to traditional party allegiances and are often seduced by candidate-centered strategies). Studies will examine the successes and unique challenges of minority and female candidates, efforts to communicate with voters in English and Spanish, and attempts to employ social-networking sites and cell phone text messaging to connect with younger voters. The key question for researchers, here, is how candidates can attempt to recruit and mobilize new voters while honoring the commitments of current stakeholders (to their candidacies or their political parties).
For Additional Inquiry
Research on these new paths of research will likely appear in the journal Political Communication (formerly Political Communication Review), which publishes quarterly peer-reviewed articles in the field. Research on and best practices for political strategists and consultants appear in the Journal of Political Marketing and are presented to meetings of the American Association of Political Consultants. Additionally, political communication is an organized division in major scholarly associations, including the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the American Political Science Association.
Students interested in political communication can seek out the following courses on their campuses: political communication, campaign communication, mass media and politics, political (and presidential) rhetoric, sociology (and history or political economy) of the media, political persuasion, and public opinion.
Finally, key texts reviewing the history, development, and core theoretical and methodological commitments of political communication include Chaffee’s (1975) Political Communication: Issues and Strategies for Research; Nimmo and Sanders’s (1981) Handbook of Political Communication; Sanders, Kaid, and Nimmo’s (1985) Political Communication Yearbook: 1984; and Kaid’s (2004) Handbook of Political Communication.