There’s no question that over the past fifty years or so, television news has played an integral role in shaping Americans perceptions about issues of national importance. In the early 1980’s Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder embarked on a series of landmark experiments that sought to determine exactly what kind of impact TV news had on shaping American public opinion. Their work is documented in News That Matters, which serves as an excellent guide to those of us interested in understanding which mechanisms the fourth estate employs (intentionally or not) to shape political opinion in the United States.
Iyengar and Kinder’s work takes a closer look at two principle phenomena they believe serve as mechanisms of influence used by television news. The first is “agenda-setting”, a hypothesis the authors describe as, “those problems that receive prominent attention on the national news become the problems the viewing public regards as the nation’s most important.” The research presented in News that Matters concludes that agenda-setting among TV news organizations does, in fact, make a difference in determining public opinion. Moreover, stories that TV news stations decide to broadcast as their “lead” stories tend to be more influential, as they are seen as being more important issues to viewers.
Closely tied to the agenda-setting role of the media is the ability of the news media to also “prime” viewers on certain issues. According to the authors, priming presumes that news consumers do not take into account everything they know when forming political opinions. Instead, viewers only, “consider what comes to mind…those bits of pieces of political memory that are accessible.”
Priming may help to explain, for example, why President Bush’s approval ratings are so low. While there are a whole host of issues that affect our national security, it is the war in Iraq that TV stations devote the most attention to. (Case in point: a simple Google News search for “Bush” and “Iraq” returns over 1,000 results.) As a result, it is easy to see how Americans judge the president based on his performance on this issue.