Predictions of Public Opinion from the Mass Media: Computer Content Analysis and Mathematical Modeling

Predictions of Public Opinion from the Mass Media: Computer Content Analysis and Mathematical Modeling

Predictions of Public Opinion from the Mass Media: Computer Content Analysis and Mathematical Modeling

Predictions of Public Opinion from the Mass Media: Computer Content Analysis and Mathematical Modeling


"Those of us on the lookout for insights into social behavior must be impressed when a book strikes us as being powerful enough to shake firmly held beliefs in a single reading. Even as we explore the vagueness of social science, we unveil bias that prejudices how we think, what we teach. One bias in the social sciences derives from the influence of cognitive dissonance' invoking thoughts of message reinforcement, not opinion change, and suggesting minimal effects of the press. Author David Fan goes far in dissuading those of us who have fallen under the minimalist spell. His clear examination of the power of the American press on public opinion provides compelling evidence for the profound impact the press has on our thinking. Fan, a cellular biologist, parades an impressive array of data to support his contention that opinion can be measured by the application of his mathematical model to the content of national news reports. His findings confirm a clear connection between the content of national news and,the results of national opinion polls." Public Relations Review


This book concerns the power of information on society. The central thesis is that public opinion can be swayed in a predictable fashion by messages acting on the populace. When the bulk of the relevant messages are in the press, then the press becomes the principal determinant of society's attitudes and beliefs. Although previous work has suggested that the press is able to set the agenda for public discussions, this book is unusual in demonstrating that the press is also able to mold opinion within agenda items.

The importance of the press on opinion has long been recognized. This is seen in the concept of governmental press censorship, which was invented long ago. However, the assignment of the preeminent role of the press in opinion formation in a free democracy is in apparent conflict with a sizable body of literature describing the "minimal effects of the media." With this shield, journalists and editors could work without feeling that every one of their daily choices was affecting opinion.

However, the conflict between press importance and its minimal effect is more apparent than real. As summarized in Chapter 7, the impact of a piece of news is most appropriately assessed quantitatively. In other words, messages in the mass media should be given numerical strengths. Although any one news story, or restricted group of media messages, can have effects ranging from very small through very large, opinions can frequently be computed from the cumulative effect of all news stories, most of which can indeed have relatively minimal effects individually. Therefore, in general, the concept of the "cumulative effects of information"-- comprising mainly mass media information for many issues--is more useful than the law of minimal effects.

This idea of the cumulative impact of information still permits working members of the press to proceed without constantly worrying about the effects of their every word. Individual news items are themselves still likely to have small impact. However, over the long term, all the effects accumulate and the totality of press messages is capable of being the major influence on opinion. Thus society should realize that individual messages can indeed have minimal effects, but with long-term trends being of great importance.

As just noted, this book does not propose that the press is always the dominant force in opinion formation. Rather, the hypothesis is that it is the totality of relevant information which will shape opinion. Therefore, the press will only be the primary influence if other messages are of minor importance.

Obviously, the importance of the press is related to its credibility. This trust has no direct relationship to whether the public ranks the press as credible in opinion polls. It is only essential that the public as a whole uses no alternate sources of . . .

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