Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Use and Public Confidence in Democratic Institutions

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Use and Public Confidence in Democratic Institutions

Article excerpt

The erosion of confidence in democratic institutions is a serious issue in public opinion (e.g., Craig, 1993; Lipset & Schneider, 1987). One factor identified as driving confidence levels down is the "antipolitics bias" of the media (Patterson, 1993, p. 19), a tone that has manifested itself, to varying degrees, across a number of media ranging from newspapers and television news to the "non-traditional" television and radio talk shows (Pfau et al., 1997; Hollander, 1995; McLeod et al., 1996; Newhagen, 1994). The inference that media negativity undermines public confidence is based on content analyses, on surveys of media use alone, or on combinations of content analyses and surveys of media use which examine the influence of particular media on public confidence. In line with previous research (Becker & Whitney, 1980; Miller & Reese, 1982), this study explores the relative influence of various communication media on public confidence levels, but it goes further by expanding the breadth of cross-medium comparisons.

Confidence in Democratic Institutions

Despite mild fluctuations since the early to mid-1960s, the general trend of public confidence in democratic institutions has been a pessimistic one (Craig, 1993; Lipset & Schneider, 1987). Whether it is termed "distrust," "political cynicism" (Erber & Lau, 1990), or "negativism" (Citrin, 1974), the fact remains that confidence levels have been eroding. Documenting this phenomenon across a number of institutions, Lipset and Schneider (1987) suggest that the pervasiveness of low confidence levels reflects serious discontent with respect to these institutions. More importantly, low confidence levels may have serious repercussions. Robinson (1975) asserts that, "In the long run, democratic systems do not -- cannot -- survive monetary or social crisis with institutions that lack the public's trust and respect (p. 97)."

Researchers have offered a number of rival explanations for low confidence levels. One explanation is that dissatisfaction with those who occupy institutions leads to increased cynicism (Citrin, 1974). Such dissatisfaction may stem from institutional shortcomings in character and/or competence (Citrin & Green, 1986). A second explanation concerns dissatisfaction with policy (e.g., Miller, 1974), for instance, citizens' unhappiness about the economy (Miller & Borrelli, 1991; Patterson & Caldeira, 1990; Weatherford, 1987). Both of these explanations presuppose intrinsic shortcomings in performance, based on the premise that public confidence levels are a response to "real events" (Braun, 1994; Craig, 1993; Lipset & Schneider, 1987, p. 375).

Individual and social level explanations are offered as well (Craig, 1993). For instance, rising education levels are assumed to lead to greater general awareness which in turn leads to a greater awareness of government deficiencies (Converse, 1972). An individual's social location and group memberships may impact levels of trust as the socially and economically disadvantaged achieve less than others and thus have limited faith in other people or government (Aberbach & Walker, 1970). In the same vein, Lane (1959) believes that interpersonal trust drives trust in government officials. The recent decline in "social capital" coincides with the psychological disengagement of Americans from politics and government (Putnam, 1995a). Citing a 1995 Times Mirror nationwide study, Morin and Balz (1996) conclude that "the collapse of trust in human nature has fueled the erosion of trust in government and virtually every other institution" (p. A6).

Yet another explanation for this decline in confidence is the negativity found in the news media. Jamieson argues that media coverage undermines confidence by focusing on "attack and counterattack, including dismissal of the status quo" (in Walsh, 1996, p. 285). The contention that mass media have served to undermine the political process (Patterson, 1993) has led to the scrutiny of newspapers and television, as well as their effects on political knowledge (e. …

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