Relationships of Media Use and Political Disaffection to Political Efficacy and Voting Behavior

Article excerpt

The role of the mass media in contemporary political campaigns has generated much debate. Concern exists, in particular, over current campaign tactics and media election coverage as they relate to voter negativism and apathy that some fear threaten the viability of critical democratic processes (e.g., Ansolabehere, Behr, & Iyengar, 1993; Ansolabehere & Iyengar, 1995; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Clinger, 1987; Crotty & Jacobson, 1980: Entman, 1989; Gans, 1986; Martz, 1988; Ward, 1995). Scholars and political observers commonly blame the media, and television news in particular, for its sound-bite driven campaign coverage that frustrates voters seeking substantive content. In the same way, negative political advertising is vilified for relying on personal attack and half-truths, allegedly resulting in widespread voter disaffection and apathy.

These accusations tend to be overly general and ignore the complexity of citizen participation in the electoral process. The relationships among media use, political disaffection, and political behavior are based on complex relationships among variables not yet well understood by social scientists. For example, some researchers have suggested that a reliance on mediated campaign information contributes to low political knowledge, voter disgust, and a lack of political participation (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Crotty & Jacobson, 1980; Entman, 1989; Gans, 1986). Other scholars, however, have found selective television use to be positively associated with public affairs knowledge and efficacy, and to enhance political participation (McLeod, Glynn, & McDonald, 1983; McLeod & McDonald, 1985). In addition, while critics frequently discuss political disaffection as a general trait, a previous study (Austin & Pinkleton, 1995) has demonstrated that differing aspects of disaffection have a variety of effects on political efficacy, voting intentions, and behavior.

One reason for the inconsistency in research findings is lack of precision regarding the treatment and testing of key variables in the political decision-making process. Global media use measures that treat voters as passive information consumers, for example, tend to mask the role of active individual media use in political decision making (McLeod & McDonald, 1985). In addition, political disaffection appears to be a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, aspects of which can enhance or dampen voter participation in the electoral process. Finally, much political communication research treats media use as an independent variable predicting political knowledge, dispositions and participation. O'Keefe and Reid-Nash (1987) have suggested scholars need to give more attention to communication variables as independent, intervening and dependent variables.

According to competence-based perspectives on socialization, the socialization process is an interactive process by which individuals strive to develop the ability to function as competent members of society. Thus, citizens are likely to participate in the political process to the extent that they feel their participation can make a difference. This perspective on socialization holds that people interact with the environment rather than react passively to messages. Understanding citizens' motivational processes, therefore, takes on great importance if scholars are to develop an understanding of how individuals use the mass media to develop political competence and the confidence that their efforts can affect the system (i.e., political efficacy). Greater understanding and specificity regarding political disaffection and media use are required. This study attempts to clarify the relationships among specific aspects of political disaffection, media use, and efficacy to better understand their impact on political behavior.

Dimensions of Political Disaffection

Scholars appear to acknowledge, implicitly if not explicitly, different dimensions of disaffection toward politics among the electorate. …

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