Who accepts the news?: news coverage of presidential campaigns, voters' information processing ability, and media effects susceptibility
This dissertation examines the influence of news coverage of presidential campaigns on voters’ perception and decision-making about the campaigns and their presidential candidates. In addition, voters’ agenda setting and attribute priming susceptibilities to campaign coverage was scrutinized for their relationship with one of the most researched variables in political psychology—information processing ability. First, from the perspective of the large media effects model, this study looked at what campaign issues salient in news stories were also important to voters (agenda setting effect) and how the descriptions about presidential candidates in the news affected voters’ criteria for candidate choice (attribute priming effect). Second, this study hypothesized that despite their strong influence on voters’ perception and judgment, they will have different impacts on the voters with different processing abilities. A nonlinear model of media effectiveness in political communication was developed to test such a curvilinear relationship between media effects susceptibility and information processing ability. For these purposes, this study conducted comprehensive content analyses of network television newscasts and survey data analyses of the National Election Studies to compare news content and public opinion regarding the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections. This study found remarkably strong correlations between campaign issues in the news and voters’ national agendas, and between the news descriptions of the presidential candidates and voters’ criteria for candidate choice. Concerning the nonlinearity, this study found an inverted U-shaped relationship between media effects susceptibility and information processing ability, which suggests that voters with moderate processing ability are most susceptible to media effects. The results imply that news coverage of presidential campaigns have significant influence on voters’ perception about nationally important issues and their image and judgments about the presidential candidates. The finding of a nonlinear relationship between susceptibility and processing ability contributes to the settlement of a long controversy on the inconsistent linear relationship between the two variables. This nonlinearity suggests that processing ability is positively correlated with media exposure, but not necessarily with accepting media messages. Consequently, from both theoretical and methodological perspectives, this dissertation suggests a need for more rigorous research designs involving nonlinearity and nonadditivity to correctly understand complex media effects.