Understanding the relationship between political participation and media has become a central challenge to communication scholars. While an important body of research describes how traditional newspaper content and television news programs portray politics in ways that invite political cynicism and distrust (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; lyengar, 1991; Patterson, 1994), little attempt has been made to lay out what specific features of traditional entertainment television (particularly comedies and dramas) affect civic engagement. Putnam (1995b) famously blames the time spent viewing entertainment television as the problem but other researchers have refuted Putnam's claim (Hooghe, 2002; Moy, Scheufele, & Holbert, 1999; Shah, 1998; Uslaner, 1998) while leaving unanswered the question of whether there is something specific within the content of entertainment television that hurts civic engagement. To date there have been very few empirical investigations of how political participation is depicted in entertainment media (see, however: Chilton & Chilton, 1993; Cooper & Schwerdt, 2001; Lichter, Lichter, & Rothman, 1994). The study is partially based on a suspicion that the standard methods of entertainment television content analysis--based on random samples of prime-time television--return too little content relevant to the key questions of engagement research. The present study proposes a different, pragmatic form of data collection and aims to take an initial, small step towards understanding entertainment media content related to civic engagement. Ultimately, a broader project is required, but it is important to start here by laying out a theoretical and methodological approach, coupled with an initial demonstration of what can be done.
The literature review explores past research on political participation and the media with a focus on highlighting what content analytic research underlies the opinion-oriented research on entertainment television and civic engagement. The methods section then lays out a proposal meant to address this gap. Finally, the results present initial findings related to entertainment television's depiction of local public meetings, a central tool of American public engagement (Chess & Purcell, 1999; Fiorino, 1990; McComas, 2001). The focus is on entertainment television's depiction of public meetings, but substantial additional content analysis is needed before arguments can be made with regard to the potential impact of civic media content. At present, the focus is on laying out what could be described as a pragmatic approach to content collection, as well as a theory-derived coding schema, that could be used to look at how entertainment television portrays a broad range of activities that have been included in research on political participation (e.g., voting, volunteering, campaigning, donating money, etc.)
Entertainment Television and Participation
Building on research on political engagement by political scientists (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995), communication researchers have explored the relationship between news media use and civic engagement. Using primarily cross-sectional survey data, researchers demonstrated that news media use is often associated with a range of individual-level outcomes beneficial to democratic participation including several aspects of trust, efficacy, and knowledge (McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Scheufele, 2000b, 2002; Scheufele & Shah, 2000; Scheufele, Shanahan, & Kim, 2002). Delli Carpini (2004) provided an excellent review of this literature while recent research also turned to the influence of day-time and late-night talk shows (Baum, 2005; Baym, 2005; Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2006). The debate that emerged between Putnam (1995a, 1995b, 2000) and Norris (1996, 2000) emphasized the importance of separating out attention and use of the news media from entertainment television use. …