Issue Familiarity and Framing Effects of Online Campaign Coverage: Event Perception, Issue Attitudes, and the 2004 Presidential Election in Taiwan

Article excerpt

This study tests how two distinguishable frames identified from Mainland Chinese online coverage of Taiwan's 2004 presidential election campaign influenced U.S. and Chinese audiences' event perception and attitudes toward Mainland-Taiwan relations. Employing a 2x2x3 between-subjects experiment, this study highlights the moderating effect of issue familiarity. Findings show a significant impact of framing intensity on the event perception of those who may not be familiar with the topic, in addition to a significant influence exerted by frame type on event perception. The roles of familiarity and other factors involved in framing effects on issue attitudes are also discussed from a comparative perspective.

News frames of political topics can influence audiences' perceptions of those issues and events and subsequently affect political attitudes and behaviors.1 Individuals' prior knowledge and attitudes, however, as well as the personal relevance of a news story, can moderate the impact of news frames.2 Assuming audiences' familiarity with political events and issues can also affect the ways in which they process news stories, this study examines the moderating influence of issue familiarity on the cognitive and attitudinal effects of news frames of Taiwan's 2004 presidential election campaign on both U.S. and Chinese audiences.

Issue familiarity may be particularly important in deterrriining framing effects for stories concerning other countries. If political events in other countries are likely to have a major impact on individuals, then people are more likely to have relatively well developed social knowledge and attitudes about those events. People can also draw on a broader range of sources of information and are less dependent upon media sources or specific news stories.3 Where information is limited or events are not perceived as being of particular relevance, audiences' perceptions of events may be more dependent upon specific news frames.

Familiarity could moderate the effects of news frames in the news coverage of the 2004 Taiwanese presidential election campaign. This election campaign was a topic of major importance to Mainland Chinese audiences and received extensive coverage in online news sites. It could potentially have had a major impact on the sensitive issue of reunification between Mainland China4 and Taiwan. Mainland Chinese audiences may therefore be familiar with news coverage and information concerning Taiwan. In contrast, U.S. audiences are less likely to view the story as personally relevant and less likely to be familiar with Taiwan and related political issues in general. Their perceptions of the election and their attitudes toward Mainland China-Taiwan relations may therefore be more likely to be influenced by news framing of campaign coverage. By comparing U.S. and Chinese audiences' responses to news frames embedded in online news stories about the 2004 Taiwanese presidential election campaign, this experimental study links "frames in news" and "frames in thought"5 to evaluate the moderating influence of issue familiarity on the cognitive and attitudinal effects of news frames in an international context.

Literature Review

Framing and Familiarity. By emphasizing specific elements and aspects, news frames can imply the underlying consequences and causes of political or social issues,6 while influencing audiences' understanding of news events.7 If audiences' perceptions of events are consistent with news frames, these perceptions can help determine what information is readily available in making relevant political decisions and in shaping political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.8

News frame processing, however, does not operate in a vacuum. According to Price and Tewksbury,9 the message can direct, but not control, the ideas and feelings activated when people process news stories. Knowledge activation depends upon prior opinions and attitudes and the audience's "established knowledge store. …