Media Effects on Political Disengagement Revisited: A Multiple-Media Approach

By Lee, Tien-Tsung | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Media Effects on Political Disengagement Revisited: A Multiple-Media Approach


Lee, Tien-Tsung, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Numerous studies have been conducted on whether media consumption reduces political participation. To reflect the proliferation and influence of new and nontraditional sources of political information in recent years, the present research measures the effects of an extensive list of information sources that rarely are found in existing literature, including Larry King Live, Fox News, and The O'Reilly Factor. Findings reveal that media in general do not contribute to political disengagement as suggested by some research. A few news sources may in fact reduce political cynicism and promote political trust.

Whether the media contribute to the public's political disengagement has attracted the attention of many researchers and journalists. Generally there are two categories of opinion on this issue. Some observers have argued that mass media, including news coverage of political candidates and negative advertising, discourage citizens' political participation.1 Others have found no negative relationship between media use and political involvement.2

Most studies of this nature have investigated the effects of one or several media. Revisiting the question of an alienating effect with more media options is needed because the landscape of news sources has changed significantly in the past two decades. In other words, sources of political information have increased and diversified in recent years. For example, the influence of newspapers has decreased, Fox News has emerged as a major component of cable news, and the importance of the Internet has increased.3 Through a telephone survey of more than 260 registered voters in a West Coast state, the present study investigated the relationship between political alienation and the use as well as the importance of thirteen sources of news information.

Political Disengagement

In general, Americans seem much more politically alienated than citizens in other developed countries. Fewer citizens vote and other forms of political engagement such as volunteering in election campaigns have decreased.4 Political scientists have identified four dimensions of political disengagement: (1) cynicism or distrust (individuals' negative perception of the honesty and capabilities of politicians and political institutions); (2) powerlessness or the lack of efficacy (an individual feels he or she cannot influence the political process); (3) meaninglessness (political parties do not offer meaningful choices among candidates and issues; and the outcomes are therefore unpredictable); and (4) apathy or indifference (individuals simply are not interested in politics regardless of their level of political efficacy).5

Aspects and terms of political alienation examined by communication scholars include apathy, distrust, lack of confidence, cynicism, skepticism, disaffection, disengagement, negativism, and malaise. The objects of such attitudes include individual politicians, political parties, political campaigns, various levels and branches of the government, the political process or politics in general, voting intention, and the institution of democracy.6

Definitions of key terms in the present research are adopted from these previous studies that have thoroughly covered the origins and differences of various dimensions of alienation. Operationalizations are found below. Efficacy refers to a belief that one's participation can make a difference in politics, which some political scientists call external efficacy. In contrast, internal efficacy means being confident that politics is not too difficult or complex for one to understand. The present study focuses on the former. Alienation is defined as having no desire to be engaged in politics, as in not voting or staying informed. Cynicism is defined as distrusting the government or individual politicians to have the common people's best interests in mind-as opposed to those of politically connected groups or individuals, or the politicians' own interests. …

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