Good news for the protesters of Occupy Wall Street: media coverage of their protest, however scant, is far more likely to shape public opinion than hours of interviews with politicians on CNN or Fox News.
A new study out of Michigan State University shows that greater media coverage of Washington politicians does not translate into greater influence on the public. Americans are much more likely to respond to stories of political grassroots efforts led by average citizens, even though such stories are few compared to those chronicling congressional debates and speeches.
The study, published in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, analyzed media coverage of the gun control debate in 2000 and health care reform in 2009, measuring how the different types of coverage affected public opinion polls. The research showed that seeing 10 minutes of President Bill Clinton arguing for gun control could sway public opinion by .3 percentage points. However, seeing a 10-minute story about the Million Mom March for gun control could sway public opinion by a whopping 1.2 percentage points. Even coverage of high-profile shootings did not influence the public’s perception of the issue so strongly.
The study’s author, political scientist Corwin Smidt, says the findings are significant because they show that politicians may not be as successful in “bullying” citizens through the media into supporting their agendas as previously thought.
The possible reasons for this phenomenon are numerous. In the study, Smidt points out that media coverage often frames political debates as simply “politics as usual,” likely causing viewers to dismiss the issues as unimportant. Twenty-four-hour cable news programs and Internet sites loop political stories ad nauseam, leading to public desensitization. Many citizens also distrust government officials, which would further limit their influence through the media.
Seeing fellow citizens organize and demand political action, however, signals that a particular issue deserves public attention and can lead to the kind of political participation that results in significant legislative change. That would explain why President Obama has recently been urging average Americans to rally in support for his policies.
As to why the media chooses to frame an issue in a certain way or report on certain events, Smidt could not say. The study only analyzed the public’s reaction to such coverage. However, the findings clearly show that not all news stories have the same effect on public opinion. How the media covers politics may be far more influential than the reports themselves, and not necessarily in the ways most people would assume. On TV, a peaceful protester trumps a ranting president.