When Sarah Palin made a big deal of wanting to speak directly to the American people during the 2008 campaign, she echoed a common preference among politicians. Most political leaders would generally like to get out their messages without a media that often adds its own twist to the story. And more and more, they actually are trying to do so: Some are putting up their own videos on YouTube.com; others are now sending out their own Twitter feeds.
Though it's unclear how much of this self-generated content actually reaches voters, it poses an interesting question: How might our politics be different if, say, we got our political information directly from politicians instead of the media?
According to a new study, one consequence might be that citizens would feel better about the political process. They'd be less cynical; they'd think politics was more representative. At least, that's what Brian J. Fogarty, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Jennifer Wolak, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder found. Their study is published in the January issue of American Politics Research.
To assess how people might respond to political information when they read it as news as opposed to when they get it directly from politicians, they had one group read a news article and one group read dueling editorials from prominent political leaders on one of three issues — affirmative action, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and stem cell research. In each test, the article and the editorials contained the same information and perspectives.
The two groups were then asked to respond. "Do you feel that the views presented in the article reflect the opinion of ordinary Americans?" Of those who got the news directly from politicians, roughly 45 percent said yes, the views were representative of ordinary Americans. Of those who read the news articles, meanwhile, only 16 percent found the views representative. (The results were generally consistent across the three issues). That adds up to a pretty sizeable difference, given that both groups were presented with the same information.
The two groups were also asked whether or not they thought the policy debate was balanced or whether it was biased, either in favor of the liberal or conservative perspective. Of those getting their info directly from the politicians on ANWR and affirmative action, 64 percent and 63 percent, respectively, said that the policy debate was balanced. But only 39 percent and 44 percent, respectively, said the debate was balanced after reading the news articles. On stem cells, the results was closer - 46 percent found balance after reading the editorials, compared to 39 percent after seeing the politicians' briefs.
Why would the participants react so differently to the same information?
"It's hard to know exactly what's going on inside citizens," Wolak said. "But there's speculation why people react more negatively to media accounts. It could be a reaction to the way media does things, how the conflict is framed, emphasizing politics as a game."
But both scholars were quick to say that just because respondents found the politicians more representative and less biased, this is far from an argument for getting rid of political reporting.
"In a world where there's no media and only direct communication, that's a totalitarian state," said Fogarty. "There's nobody to filter the information. ... People might view media as biased, they might hate it, but they need it."
But while a sometimes adversarial and confrontational media can turn many people off, perhaps the only thing worse would be to have no media at all.
"It's a very typical view of American citizens," explains Wolak. "People hate a number of things about government, but at the same time people love the American system and wouldn't change the Constitution. People have a lot of mixed feelings about politics."
Fogarty and Wolak were also interested in what people learned from the different sources. Does reaching out directly to citizens help politicians to get their message across better? As it turned out, respondents found politicians only slightly more convincing when they presented their arguments directly. And they reported learning about the same from both news articles and politicians on stem cells and affirmative action, but a little more from politicians on ANWR (perhaps because it was a topic they generally knew less about to start with).
And finally, the big question: Did they change their opinion at all? About half of the people reported at least some change in their perspective after reading more about stem cells and the environment. Those who had read the politicians' editorials were slightly more likely to report a change (49 percent to 42 percent on stem cells, and 57 percent to 53 percent on ANWR). But nobody changed their opinion on affirmative action after reading the news report, and only 3 percent changed their opinion after hearing the politicians. (Likely this was because it was an issue people felt they already knew a good deal about.)
"I was surprised to find that politicians aren't more influential on their own," said Wolak. "Politicians who are clamoring to get media attention by appearing on YouTube or Jay Leno — they're not communicating differently than they would be through the media. We find when they go out on their own they are not more persuasive or more informative."
Still, Fogarty thinks that politicians who wish to improve their favorability ratings could be a bit more entrepreneurial in their communications strategies.
"If I were a politician and I read this study, I'd try to do a lot more on the Internet and take a way more interactive approach," said Fogarty. "It seems as though people do respond to that in a better way. The problem is getting people tuned into the information, and that's a critical problem for all politicians."
And that, of course, is where the press comes in — as the way for politicians to get their message out, since most people get their political news, after all, from the media, which they tend to distrust and think is biased. But then again, we wouldn't want to have it any other way, would we?
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