Effects of Electronic Media on Democratic Attitudes
Diane Owen, Georgetown University

A paper delivered to the
Democracy and the Globalization of Politics and the Economy
International Conference
Haus auf der Alb, Bad Urach, Germany
October, 1999

German Federal Agency for Civic Education
in co-operation with the
State Agency for Civic Education, Stuttgart, Germany
and the
Center for Civic Education, Calabasas, CA USA

The past decade has witnessed fundamental changes in the American mass media environment. Contemporary media technologies and format innovations have created new ways of communicating and reaching audiences. New actors, such as talk show hosts and tabloid reporters, have entered the political communications environment, altering the rules by which journalists, leaders, and citizens negotiate the public sphere. The nature of the political media product has changed, becoming almost inextricably infused with entertainment content. In sum, the United States has entered a "new media" age.

Electronic media dominate in the "new media" era even more than in the recent past. Technologies, such as the Internet, have rendered print communication electronic, as traditional news organizations establish online counterparts to their newspapers and magazines. Further, the substance, form, and style of electronic communication has been altered radically. New-style electronic formats, such as Internet discussion groups and chat rooms, create new public spaces and provide unprecedented opportunities for political discourse. It is clear that the transformation of the American media system has important implications for democratic citizenship, especially as audiences' relationships to mass communication have been influenced significantly. However, perspectives on the prospects for democratic political systems in the "new media" era vary widely.

The first goal of this paper is to present an overview of the current political communication environment with a focus on establishing the context within which citizen attitudes and orientations are shaped. Alternative perspectives will be articulated. The second objective is to examine the how electronic media shape political attitudes. Finally, we will speculate about the effect of electronic media on the socialization of young citizens. In particular, we will examine young people's evaluations of the President and government in light of the Clinton/Lewinsky matter. The paper uses the United States as a case study in the relationship between electronic media and democratic attitudes. It is the author's hope that the American case study will provide a segue for a discussion of the modern media-citizenship connection in other nations.

The "New Media" World and Citizenship Orientations

Some observers have heralded coming of the "new media" age as the catalyst that has instigated a populist political movement where citizens have greater access to the political world than ever before (Abramson, Arterton, and Orren, 1988). The most optimistic articulation of this view posits that mass media serve to stimulate political interest and activism among the mass public. Ordinary citizens are able to establish meaningful and effective roles for themselves in the political arena that has been primarily the domain of elites. Talk radio, for example, can provide an unstructured outlet for public expression (Herbst, 1995).

There is some evidence that this kind of populism is not an impossibility in the current media environment. There is more political information disseminated today through a vast diversity of sources than at any time in history. Political news is available for general audiences through network evening newscasts, real time news broadcasts, including CNN and MSNBC, morning news/entertainment programs, like the Today show, and televised news magazines, such as Dateline and 20/20. The wide range of available formats also permits information to be targeted at specific audiences segments, including those who traditionally have been under-represented in the political world. Cable television, call-in radio forums, and Internet platforms, in particular, allow citizens to receive information that is relevant to them personally, and to make contact with others who have similar social and political orientations. As opposed to the "sound-bite" journalism that characterizes much mainstream political media, newer forums have more time and space for the presentation of contextual and historical material as well as extended discussions of issues, actors, and events.

One of the primary characteristics of the "new media" age is the interactivity that communications technologies facilitate among citizens, public officials, and media personnel. Rather than merely being the passive recipients of political information, it is now possible for citizens to make their political presence and opinions known, and to play a more visible role in political events. For example, televised news chat programs regularly feature citizen call-ins, news magazines present instantaneous online polls of citizens' opinions about political events and issues, and average people ask questions of candidates during televised debates. Political elites keep abreast of talk radio discussions as a gauge of public opinion. Further, record numbers of citizens are joining political organizations other than parties, especially those associated with particular issues. This involvement has been aided by media publicity and interactive communication forums which allow people to express their opinions, ask for and obtain information quickly, and receive instructions about how to take action (Schudson, 1998).

Computer networks have gained particular attention for their potential to translate democratic ideals into reality. Visionaries predict that as computers become more fully integrated in society, the public will be linked by horizontal networks that will facilitate conversations between citizens and elites. The closer proximity of the mass public to decision-makers will allow greater citizen input into the policy arena (Neuman, 1991). Further, journalists will be more likely to publicize citizen opinions beyond of the snapshot of polls. There is already evidence that the general public is becoming a greater resource for news stories, as reporters will go online to solicit ideas and reactions to events and issues.

More realistic assessments contend that the infrastructure for mass media to foster greater civic involvement is in place, but the communications environment has been allowed to develop haphazardly. Citizens and leaders need to carefully consider the opportunities offered by electronic media to foster democratic ideals, and take steps, including legislative efforts, to assure that these goals are met (Grossman, 1995). As it stands, the "new media" environment has failed to provide the public with quality political information, to accommodate meaningful discourse, or to encourage political engagement.

The imperative behind political communication in the current era is profit, and not a sense of public service which was at least in the back of reporters' minds in the pre-"new media" period (Schudson, 1978). As such, the content of political news and information has become increasingly entertainment-oriented. Traditional news sources, including the network newscasts, have adopted reporting strategies that sometimes resemble those of supermarket tabloids. The overall tenor of political news is negative, if not downright uncivil and vitriolic. Journalists operate under the credo that only bad news is worth reporting where politics is concerned. Citizens are rarely treated to stories about how political institutions are functional or how government officials are admirable public servants, although in reality this is a large part of the story. Instead, news media highlight political discord, malfeasance, and scandal (Bennett, 1996). Further, heavily reported scandals involving public officials today, in keeping with the dominant entertainment news frame, are more likely to involve personal issues than policy problems, as was the case during a prior era of "watchdog journalism" (Sabato, 1991).

The public is clearly dissatisfied with the current political media offerings. While many Americans consider themselves to be "news junkies" and express a strong need to keep informed, they don't trust many news sources. A majority of citizens believe that the news is unduly influenced by powerful business and political interests who play into the media's own desire to make profits. Further, they consider the news to be too sensational and scandal-ridden. The public feels that the press is intrusive, and goes too far in invading people's personal lives in the interest of getting a story. Audience members are concerned about the accuracy of reporting, especially as media organizations compete to be the first with a breaking story (Freedom Forum, 1997; Pew Research Center, 1998). In fact, journalist norms of sourcing and fact-checking largely have become a thing of the past, as the pace of news reporting has accelerated. The credibility of political news is challenged further as questionable sources emerge from the depths of cyberspace to drive the media agenda, as was the case with Matt Drudge during the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.

In addition, the tone and content of political discourse in the forums that promote citizen participation, such as call-in programs and Internet chat rooms, are hardly civil or constructive. Encouraged by hosts driven by audience ratings, political talk has become, in large part, an opportunity for venting rather than an effective discussion forum (Davis, 1997; Owen, 1995). Some scholars, including political theorist Benjamin Barber, go so far as to contend that the electronic "public square" breeds faction, disaffection, and discontent (Starobin, 1996).

It is often difficult in the "new media" age for citizens to sort through the profusion of political material and decide what is useful and what is not. Faced with "data glut," the public tunes out. Frequently, there is much news, but few stories, as multifarious press organizations dwell upon a single theme (Reeves, 1999). In addition, the traditional hierarchy of media organizations, where it was possible to establish the quality of information by the brand name associated with it, is eroding. Political scandals that break in the tabloid press go on to grace the front page of The New York Times.

The "new media" environment is still the bastion of society's more privileged members, and has done little to encourage participation among the traditionally unengaged. The newer communication formats, such as talk radio and the Internet, attract audiences from higher socio-economic and educational groups who tend to be politically active in other ways (Graber, 1997; Davis and Owen, 1998). Even as the Internet user base increases  1  and becomes more "ordinary" (Pew Research Center, 1999), it still is not available to millions of citizens without the resources and skills to take part. In some ways, the Internet has widened the political information and participation gap between societal 'have's' and 'have-not's'.

While some observers view the enhanced ability to target particular audiences for political media in the current environment to be an advantage, others consider the increased segmentation of the media market to be problematic. Audience segmentation creates discrete communities of special interests who may lose sight of the greater societal good. Discussion remains confined to separate media spheres of like-minded participants, lessening the ability for a multitude of voices to be heard (Thelen, 1996).

For the most part, political and media elites still control the agenda of media forums, and will only go so far to stimulate public discussion and feedback. Call-in radio and television programs frequently use citizen callers as props designed to spark commentary by hosts and guest elites. Political leaders and candidates regularly establish Web sites to publicize their activities and campaigns. These sites contain lots of information, but far fewer opportunities for citizen interaction. Campaign sites, in particular, routinely include mechanisms for recruiting volunteers online and providing updates to interested parties. Few campaign sites contain email or discussion forums, as candidates do not want to address controversial issues that online users might raise.

In sum, the "new media" environment offers novel opportunities for democratic politics. "New media" forums have the ability to spark citizen interest, increase awareness and knowledge of public affairs, and prompt political participation. There are signs that this is occurring, as a significant number of people seek out political information online and take part in discussions in electronic space. Still, the democratizing potential of the current mass media system is largely unrealized. Rather than encourage the public to become politically attentive and engaged, the media environment may actually deter involvement. The content and presentational style of much news turns the public off to politics, as the political world appears trivial, scandalous, and nasty.

It may be the case that media politics even may be a deterrent to actual political participation. Communications scholar Roderick Hart argues that watching governance has become a substitute for engaging in politics for many people. Electronic communications today leave citizens with the false impression that they are close to politicians, and that taking real steps to gain the attention of elites is unnecessary (Hart, 1994). Similarly, political scientist Robert Putnam contends that attending to media, political or otherwise, takes time away from engaging in other activities, especially community affairs (Putnam, 1995).

Electronic Media and Citizen Attitudes

Having examined the current political media context, we now turn to the question of the effects on democratic attitudes. Specifically, we will examine the relationship between electronic communication and citizen knowledge, support for government, and sense of political efficacy. While the jury is still out, preliminary evidence suggests that electronic media formats, especially those that involve citizen interaction, influence political attitudes in both positive and negative ways.

It has been widely observed that American citizens are traditionally poorly informed about political affairs. The apparent abundance of political information has not translated generally into greater civic knowledge. Nor has the increase in educational attainment over the past three decades corresponded to a commensurate gain in knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996). A variety of reasons have been offered as explanations for this phenomenon. People are too busy to monitor politics. They do not consider politics a priority, as they fail to see the connection to their daily lives. Government and Washington appear remote and are run by political insiders.

Media-related explanations also have been suggested. The news product may be unsuitable to fostering political learning. Even when people are exposed to political news, they process a minuscule amount of information and forget the little that registers within a very short period of time. Political information frequently is presented in a fragmented style which includes little substantive information or context. The negative character and entertainment focus of political news undercuts its significance. Further, sources of political information that present more detailed and substantive perspectives on politics frequently are pitched at more educated and elite audiences, and have an insider orientation.

There is, however, an indication that some citizens may be exhibiting increased levels of political interest and knowledge as a result of their use of newer communication formats. Regular talk radio listeners and callers as well as users of online media resources are significantly more politically informed than the general public (Davis and Owen, 1998). While it may be the case that talk radio and online media audience members are naturally more inclined to seek information, their use of these media enhances the depth and breadth of their knowledge. Talk radio and online media users are more likely to hold more sophisticated and detailed opinions on public policy issues than other citizens. Talk radio listeners, in particular, acknowledge that they gain information from their use of the medium. The talk radio audience also tends to hold more extreme and conservative political views than nonlisteners (Barker, 1998).

Mass communications, particularly electronic media, also have been linked to public evaluations of political institutions and leaders, especially government in Washington. Trust in government had been declining since the 1960s, with a minor reprieve in the early 1980s. Americans' political trust reached historical lows in the 1990s, although confidence in government has begun to climb (Moore, 1999). The high levels of public cynicism have generated concern, as lack of trust can undermine democratic values, weaken community ties, and erode social capital (Putnam, 1995).

While not the sole culprit, media have been blamed for exacerbating public distrust of government and politicians, and for diminishing faith in the democratic process. As we have discussed in the previous section, news media give an inordinate amount of attention to political scandal, infighting, and corruption to the exclusion of positive information or issue content. Communications scholars Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson provide empirical validation of these conjectures. They demonstrate that the press frames political news in terms of political strategies, conflict, and politicians' motives, which are rarely portrayed as legitimate. These standard news frames encourage citizens to question politicians' values and actions, and lead to increased political cynicism (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997).

It is reasonable to speculate that the audiences for particular forms of electronic media, especially television and radio call-in programs and online political discussion groups, might be more cynical about government than the general public. The content of these media forums is especially dense with negative messages about government and scathing personal attacks on public officials. President Clinton, in the wake of the bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, publically denounced talk radio for promoting a culture of intolerance. However, users of these media are no more likely to distrust government and political leaders than others in society (Davis and Owen, 1998).

The final political attitude we examine is political efficacy, which refers to an individual's belief that she or he can influence the political process and successfully reach political leaders. The concept of efficacy is frequently considered in terms of two distinct dimensions. Internal efficacy indicates people's perceptions that they personally have the skills necessary to navigate the political realm successfully. External efficacy deals with whether people believe that the government is responsive to attempts by ordinary citizens like themselves to affect government (Abramson, 1983). Efficacy is closely linked to political trust, as those who are most supportive of government are more likely to believe they can influence the political world. Citizens who have a strong sense of political efficacy also are more inclined to participate in public affairs and to take part in community service activities.

As is the case with trust in government, Americans' collective sense of political efficacy, both internal and external, has been on the decline since the Watergate era. Individuals do not believe that they can make a difference in politics. They perceive that politics is too complicated for them to understand. They do not feel that their vote counts. Further, the public senses that the government doesn't care what the people think, and that average citizens have no say in political affairs.

Considering whether citizens' sense of political efficacy is in any way influenced by the "new media" environment is an interesting proposition, especially in light of the populist potential of particular media formats. Several scenarios are possible. It may be the case that citizens who already are strongly efficacious will be attracted to interactive media and use them to enhance their political presence. Alternatively, these formats may appeal to people who do not feel that they can influence government or political leaders via conventional channels, such as voting, letter writing, or circulating petitions. They may turn to mass media forums out of a sense of frustration. They may perceive that the interactive forums will be receptive to political outsiders like themselves. It is also possible that the "new media" environment may have little to do with fostering or undermining citizens' sense of efficacy.

There is some support for the contention that interactive communication formats may heighten political efficacy. People who regularly go online and participate in political discussions have a more positive view of their ability to play a meaningful role in politics than the general public. However, participants in online political discussions may begin with a strong sense of efficacy, and their participation serves to reinforce this predisposition. Studies of the talk radio audience permit a more direct test of electronic media's ability to enhance efficacy. Research conducted in 1993 indicated that talk radio callers and listeners had a strong sense of civic duty and commitment, but lower levels of political efficacy than other citizens (Owen, 1996). By 1996, the talk radio audience's feelings of internal efficacy far exceeded those of nonlisteners. Talk radio devotees also evidenced an increase in their sense of external efficacy. Over time, regular talk radio listeners acquired a more favorable view of their own political power through their experience with the medium (Davis and Owen, 1998). Talk radio hosts do much to instill this perception in their listeners. Audience members' appreciation for the power of political talk is further reinforced by the fact that political leaders will appear as guests on talk radio programs and publically acknowledge their significance.

The Next Generations' Attitudes

We have explored the effects of the "new media" age on adult political attitudes. The final issue we will address is: What influence does electronic media have on young people's political orientations? In the current media environment, the proliferation of communication sources coupled with the conflation of political and entertainment content renders it more likely that children and adolescents will be exposed to political information, either deliberately or inadvertently. Further, the nature of this content paints an unflattering picture of government and political leaders. Is this media-defined negativity reflected in young people's attitudes?

An analysis of the effects of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair on young people's attitudes provides some insights into the media's role in socializing citizens to politics. Early studies of children's relationship to the political world indicated that their impressions about the President played a central role in constructing their images of government, and formed the basis of general support for the democratic polity. However, children are able to make distinctions between the presidential personality and the presidential role. This distinction became clear during Watergate, as children maintained respect for government, while registering their disappointment in President Nixon (Easton and Dennis, 1969).

Young people's attitudes toward the President and the political system are substantially more negative in the wake of the events surrounding the Clinton impeachment than they have been at any time during this century. In fact, children evaluated President Clinton far more harshly than did their parents, as only 43% of the youth sample of a Gallup poll held a favorable view compared to 55% of their parents. Further, young people strongly believed that President Clinton's conduct was wrong, and that the Senate should have voted to remove him from office. This perception again diverged from that of adults, as 47% of young people felt that Clinton should not remain as President as opposed to 36% of adults.  2 

Young people received most of their information about Watergate from personal sources-parents, teachers, and sometimes peers. In contrast, parents reported overwhelmingly that their children received most of their information about the Clinton/Lewinsky matter from television. The media set the agenda for interpersonal discussion, as children's exposure to press reports prompted them to raise the issue with parents and teachers.  3  The media's pervasive, sensational, tabloid-style coverage of the Clinton affair made it difficult to shelter children from the scandal. Some children were attentive to the news coverage because of its similarity to entertainment television programs and films. Children's interest in the event was amplified by personal nature of the scandal. Further, the Clinton impeachment was framed by the media as a matter of the President lying, an issue to which young people could relate (Owen and Dennis, 1999).

While young people had highly negative opinions of President Clinton, their evaluations of government were somewhat more generous. However, young people's views of government and politics today are markedly more negative than during Watergate. These findings are not encouraging, as support for political institutions and processes tends to dissipate with age. Young people have come to accept that scandalous behavior is the norm for political leaders. In addition, few children and adolescents dream of becoming President. Only 26% of young people polled by Gallup had presidential aspirations, which is far lower than the figure for prior generations.


In weighing the benefits and detriments of the effects of electronic media on democratic attitudes, it would appear that the bad transcends the good. There appears to be some gains in political knowledge and efficacy among segments of the public, particularly those who have regular experiences with the most populist and interactive forms of media. However, the audience profile for talk radio and online media users, especially, indicates that these are people from the higher economic and educational echelons who already are politically engaged in other ways. The "new media" environment does little to reach those whose political voice is muffled.

More troubling is the evidence that the current media environment appears to undermine citizens' faith in government officials and political institutions, as well as, in the democratic political process. This trend is suggested for both young people and adults. While it is important, indeed essential, for citizens to maintain a healthy skepticism about government to assure that officials do not abuse power, unbridled cynicism is detrimental to democracy. That this cynicism is couched in terms of the politics of scandal as presented by mass media is cause for concern.


1. Recent reports indicate that approximately one third of American homes have direct access to the Internet. Approximately forty percent of the public has access to the Internet at work, twenty percent at school, and fifteen percent someplace else. Two thirds of all households have access to the Internet in some location. Those who do not have access, who mostly hail from the lower social classes, report feeling left out and at a disadvantage (Withlin Worldwide, 1999). back 

2. The survey consisted of 1,022 adults and 305 young people aged 11 to 17, and was conducted by the Gallup organization on February 4-8, 1999. back 

3. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted a survey of parents' reaction to the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal on September 19-23. 1998. The sample consisted of 597 parents with children between the ages of 8 and 17. back 


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