The Rivalry of Nonverbal Cues on the Perception of Politicians by Television Viewers

By Haumer, Florian; Donsbach, Wolfgang | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Rivalry of Nonverbal Cues on the Perception of Politicians by Television Viewers


Haumer, Florian, Donsbach, Wolfgang, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


The growing popularity of television has changed the way electoral campaigns and candidates are fundamentally portrayed. Personalization, negativism, deauthentification, and more interpretative coverage are all consequences that emerged with the rise of television (Reinemann & Wilke, 2007). "In the era of television politics, there is a growing trend of style over substance, personality over issues, and emotion over information," (Coleman & Banning, 2006, p. 313). In the United States, the average length of verbal quotations of political candidates in the press, and the sound bites of their statements in classical television news has decreased significantly since the 1960s (Adatto, 1990; Patterson, 1993). Similar results exist for Germany (Wilke & Reinemann, 2000). This is an issue in many respects.

First of all, it is important for a democracy that "... a substantial part of political media content is based on political figures because this is the only way the voters can get to know what they really have to say" (Patterson, 1995, p. 330). Furthermore, deauthentification is also seen as an important reason for negative attitudes towards politicians (Donsbach & Jandura, 2003). In that respect, modern political television might have led to negative outcomes like voter decline because of its focus on interpretive coverage. On the other hand, modern television formats also provide new opportunities for authentic political communication. Especially Live TV settings like political talk shows, a common format all over the world since the 1970s, seem to be useful platforms for politicians to directly address voters. During the 1992 election campaign, presidential candidates Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Ross Perot appeared more than 90 times in shows like CBS-Morning, Good Morning America, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Arsenio Hall Show and Larry King Live! (Diamond, McKay, & Silverman, 1993). That was the birth of the so-called "talk show campaign" (Cavanaugh, 1995, p. 158) because the candidates not only saved money when addressing the voters via free media, but also managed to bypass the evaluative tenor of the national press corps (Bucy & Newhagen, 1999). Some even say that Bill Clinton turned his stalled campaign around with his legendary appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show when he played his saxophone to a cheering audience (Newman, 1994). In the 2000 election, major party presidential candidates again addressed their voters on the Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell, and Regis Philbin shows. Nielsen ratings indicate that political TV talk show audiences tuned in to candidate appearances in large numbers. For instance, 8.7 million households watched AI Gore's September 11,2000 appearance on the season premier of The Oprah Winfrey Show, well above the program's average of 7.5 million households during the prior (1998-1999) season, and up 27% from Oprah's 1999-2000 premier episode. George W. Bush's appearance on the program 8 days later earned even higher ratings (Baum, 2005). Similar figures can be observed for political talk shows in Germany, where up to 6 million households watch one of the two major shows every week. (Zubayr & Gerhard, 2007). In election campaigns, the performance of a candidate in one of these shows might be critical regarding voting decisions (Kepplinger, Brosius, & Dahlem, 1994). Hence, it is of particular interest for political communication practitioners to understand the mechanism of person perception via television.

Person Perception via Television

Television focuses on the visual aspects of political communication (Maurer & Kepplinger, 2003). Political talk shows often use close-ups of the speaker, or nonverbal reaction shots of the TV host, or focus on the studio audience, or others, to illustrate emotions or interpretations. Editors or producers decide what is being shown (Kepplinger, 1980). Sometimes, it seems to be more important how politicians appear, what they wear, or how they behave nonverbally more than what they talk about.

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