Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Episodic Frames, HIV/AIDS, and African American Public Opinion

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Episodic Frames, HIV/AIDS, and African American Public Opinion

Article excerpt

How are African American political attitudes influenced by the mass media? Cathy Cohen's theory of marginalization suggests that media narratives about African Americans influence their public opinion about HIV/AIDS, behaviors associated with it, and populations associated with it. However, this has gone untested. Using an innovative experimental design involving four hundred African American participants, I find that episodic framing of HIV/AIDS not only activates negative attitudes toward behaviors associated with the disease and toward black men who engage in them; it also stimulates positive attitudes toward political mobilization and regressive policy solutions.

Keywords: gender; race; identity; public opinion; political psychology; ethnicity

Based on survey responses, African Americans tend to be more liberal than whites in their public policy preferences. In general, they express more support for using the government to ameliorate the effects of poverty and more support for government protection of civil rights. They also tend to be more liberal than whites in their support for civil liberties even in the post-9/11 era (D. W. Davis and Silver 2004; Dawson 1994; Kinder and Sanders 1996; Kinder and Winter 2001). However, significant portions of African Americans evince conservative views. During the 2008 presidential election, African Americans turned out in significant numbers nationwide to elect Barack Obama president. However, 70 percent of African American voters in California voted to ban gay marriage (CNN 2008). Similarly, a recent survey conducted by Pew indicates that over 70 percent of college-educated African Americans believe that the values held by the black middle class and the black poor are becoming more different (Cohn 2007).

Concern over HIV/AIDS in black communities may connect these two factoids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 50 percent of new estimated HIV/AIDS cases are African American. African American women are 24 times more likely to be diagnosed as being HIV/AIDS positive than their white female counterparts. More black women contract HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse with men than through any other vector of infection (National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention 2004). So even though there are more black men with HIV/AIDS than black women, the risks of black women's contracting the disease are particularly high.

Writing about the politics of HIV/AIDS in black communities, Cathy Cohen (1999) argues that through secondary marginalization, elite African Americans marginalized subpopulations of black men and women with HIV/AIDS. In so doing, they engendered conservative responses toward the disease, and people/activities associated with it, in black people as a whole. Although Cohen's work deals specifically with black communities and black politics, she uses this terrain to deal with larger themes of democracy and of power. How is power distributed within subjugated groups rather than simply between them? How do elites within these groups determine not only how and what the groups organize over, but the very definition of "group interest?" And how do these dynamics make it exceedingly difficult for people within subgroups to go against the agenda established by elites?

One of the ways that agenda setting occurs is through media framing-through telling stories in ways that engender particular political responses. People exposed to frames that connect systemic issues to individual behavior (episodic frames) tend to blame individuals for their own condition (Iyengar 1990, 1991). On the other hand, people exposed to frames that illustrate issues using general evidence (thematic frames) lead citizens to blame structural conditions.

Cohen (1999) argues that episodic frames influence African Americans attitudes about HIV/AIDS, about people associated with it, and about policy options designed to deal with it. However, her proposition remains untested. …

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