Public meetings in entertainment television programming: using procedural justice to analyze fictional civic participation.

Author:Besley, John C.
 
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Understanding the relationship between political participation and media has become a central challenge to communication scholars. While an important body of research describes how traditional newspaper content and television news programs portray politics in ways that invite political cynicism and distrust (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; lyengar, 1991; Patterson, 1994), little attempt has been made to lay out what specific features of traditional entertainment television (particularly comedies and dramas) affect civic engagement. Putnam (1995b) famously blames the time spent viewing entertainment television as the problem but other researchers have refuted Putnam's claim (Hooghe, 2002; Moy, Scheufele, & Holbert, 1999; Shah, 1998; Uslaner, 1998) while leaving unanswered the question of whether there is something specific within the content of entertainment television that hurts civic engagement. To date there have been very few empirical investigations of how political participation is depicted in entertainment media (see, however: Chilton & Chilton, 1993; Cooper & Schwerdt, 2001; Lichter, Lichter, & Rothman, 1994). The study is partially based on a suspicion that the standard methods of entertainment television content analysis--based on random samples of prime-time television--return too little content relevant to the key questions of engagement research. The present study proposes a different, pragmatic form of data collection and aims to take an initial, small step towards understanding entertainment media content related to civic engagement. Ultimately, a broader project is required, but it is important to start here by laying out a theoretical and methodological approach, coupled with an initial demonstration of what can be done.

The literature review explores past research on political participation and the media with a focus on highlighting what content analytic research underlies the opinion-oriented research on entertainment television and civic engagement. The methods section then lays out a proposal meant to address this gap. Finally, the results present initial findings related to entertainment television's depiction of local public meetings, a central tool of American public engagement (Chess & Purcell, 1999; Fiorino, 1990; McComas, 2001). The focus is on entertainment television's depiction of public meetings, but substantial additional content analysis is needed before arguments can be made with regard to the potential impact of civic media content. At present, the focus is on laying out what could be described as a pragmatic approach to content collection, as well as a theory-derived coding schema, that could be used to look at how entertainment television portrays a broad range of activities that have been included in research on political participation (e.g., voting, volunteering, campaigning, donating money, etc.)

Literature Review

Entertainment Television and Participation

Building on research on political engagement by political scientists (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995), communication researchers have explored the relationship between news media use and civic engagement. Using primarily cross-sectional survey data, researchers demonstrated that news media use is often associated with a range of individual-level outcomes beneficial to democratic participation including several aspects of trust, efficacy, and knowledge (McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Scheufele, 2000b, 2002; Scheufele & Shah, 2000; Scheufele, Shanahan, & Kim, 2002). Delli Carpini (2004) provided an excellent review of this literature while recent research also turned to the influence of day-time and late-night talk shows (Baum, 2005; Baym, 2005; Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2006). The debate that emerged between Putnam (1995a, 1995b, 2000) and Norris (1996, 2000) emphasized the importance of separating out attention and use of the news media from entertainment television use. Whereas most research articles focused on news media use, a small number considered the impact of entertainment television.

Within the existing research, Shah conducted the most elaborate analyses. Two of Shah's studies use DDB Needham Life Survey data to show negative relationships between political engagement and science fiction viewing (e.g., X-Files) (Shah, 1998), and a smaller positive relationship with social drama viewing (e.g., ER and NYPD Blue) (Shah, 1998; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001). Sitcom viewing has also been shown to have a negative relationship with participation (Shah et al., 2001). Other research demonstrated that the positive relationship between news viewing and engagement is indirect (with mediation through political conversation), whereas the negative relationship with entertainment television is direct (Scheufele, 2000b). Separate research found that attention to entertainment television (as well as Internet use for entertainment purposes) may drive down levels of efficacy and knowledge (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2002). Sotirovic and McLeod (2001) showed that newspaper news exposure has an indirect relationship with participation that is mediated through Inglehart's "post-materialist" values, while entertainment television use has a negative relationship with non-voting participation that is mediated through "materialist" values. Another study also looked at values as a moderator of non-news television exposure in predicting values (Besley, 2006). Surveys in two Missouri communities showed mostly negative impacts of entertainment television viewing on associational membership (Fleming, Thorson, & Zhang, 2006).

While the news-oriented survey research can draw on a large body of existing news-oriented content analyses, no similar content analysis literature exists for entertainment television and participation. Sotirovic and McLeod (2001), for example, argue that "the most popular sitcoms present an undifferentiated picture of reality in over representing under-employed singles, whose problems are mostly about personal relationships" (p. 279). The article cites as reference for this statement a 2000 article by Sotirovic about welfare reform frames that includes no content analysis of entertainment television. It does however contain an injunction that "close analyses of particular programs and shows are needed before reaching strong conclusions about their influence ..." The article then goes on to state some features of several popular shows based on "general knowledge" (Sotirovic, 2000, p. 288).

The only analysis of entertainment media content found in the literature is a rarely cited research demonstrating that entertainment television has historically depicted politicians as corrupt and self-serving, though still better than businessmen (Lichter et al., 1994). A small body of research was also found that showed that children's books depict government authority figures in a largely negative light (Chilton & Chilton, 1993; Cooper & Schwerdt, 2001).

Theoretical Foundation of the Coding Schema

Discussions of how the news depicts civic life primarily focus on the degree to which the news media describe political debates as a horserace or game, rather than as a substantive discussion of ideas (Benoit, Stein, & Hansen, 2005; Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Entman, 2004). Such strategic framing is said to inhibit civic participation because it can foster cynicism and distrust (Kerbel, Apee, & Ross, 2000; Rhee, 1997; Valentino, Beckmann, & Buhr, 2001). It is also common to talk about the degree to which news events are placed in context rather than as isolated, episodic events (e.g., lyengar, 1991).The intention was to create a coding schema for this project around such work, but initial viewing of the fictional meetings included in the analysis suggested little content that might be said to be strategic in nature.

Instead, the present content analysis draws on a recent suggestion that social-psychological research on justice as fairness may provide traction for analyzing media content about civic debates (Besley & McComas, 2005; Besley, McComas, & Trumbo, 2007). The procedural justice model emerged as a criticism to instrumental models of satisfaction that suggest that individuals only care about whether a decision results in a benefit to themselves (Thibaut & Walker, 1975). Procedural theories do not suggest that personal benefits are unimportant; they rather argue that individuals can experience a negative outcome and remain satisfied with an authority figure when they perceive that the authority figure treated them in a procedurally fair way. The initial work by Thibaut and Walker (1975), for example, experimented with different forms of court procedures and showed the key role that people place on having a voice in their own defense. Procedural effects have been demonstrated in academic, legal, and workplace settings, but efforts to demonstrate its relevance to attitudes towards government authorities is of most relevance here (Gangl, 2003; Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2001; Tyler, Casper, & Fisher, 1989; Tyler, Rasinski, & McGraw, 1985). Outcomes associated with fair process include satisfaction with a decision, decision acceptance, perceived legitimacy of decision-makers, and willingness to participate in future decision-making processes, all important topics for political communication researchers.

For this study, a coding schema was developed based on a relational model of procedural justice that argues individuals within a group will say a process (whether political or otherwise) is fair when they perceive authority figures as trustworthy, unbiased, and respectful of individual dignity (Tyler, Boeckmann, Smith, & Huo, 1997; Tyler & Lind, 1992). These attributes are grouped into a variable called "relational justice," though other justice research has called a similar construct interpersonal justice. The model further incorporates earlier work (e.g., Folger, 1977; Folger, Rosenfield, Grove, & Corkan, 1979) on...

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