The Effects of Media Interpretation for Citizen Evaluations of Politicians' Messages

Date01 January 2009
Published date01 January 2009
Subject MatterArticles
APR319953_For WEB.qxd American Politics Research
Volume 37 Number 1
January 2009 129-154
© 2009 Sage Publications
The Effects of Media
hosted at
Interpretation for Citizen
Evaluations of Politicians’
Brian J. Fogarty
University of Missouri at St. Louis
Jennifer Wolak
University of Colorado at Boulder
Although politicians prefer to communicate directly with the public, political
sound bites in the nightly news are shrinking and primetime presidential
press conferences are becoming increasingly uncommon. Instead, people pri-
marily receive the messages of politicians as interpreted by journalists. What
are the consequences of this interpretation for how citizens evaluate political
messages? This article compares how people evaluate mediated political
accounts and those delivered by politicians directly. Using a set of experi-
ments, this article considers whether the power of politicians to inform and
persuade people is limited or enhanced through the interpretation of journal-
ists. This article finds that although people respond similarly to message con-
tent, whether from the politicians or from the media, evaluations of the
message source and political processes are improved when politicians com-
municate directly with the public.
political communication; source cues; mass media; message
reception; persuasion; news coverage

The political news that people see is not a perfect reflection of the uni-
verse of current events. Constraints such as limited space, the need to
market news to consumers, and institutional patterns of media organizations
lead the media to transform information into a distinct news product (Cook,
1998; McManus, 2005; Patterson, 1993; Tuchman, 1978). What are the effects
of this media interpretation for how people evaluate political information?
Most studies of media effects for citizen understanding compare reactions
Authors’ Note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
Wolak, 136 Ketchum, 333 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0333; e-mail:

American Politics Research
to different amounts, kinds, or formats of news presentation—such as the
differences between television and newspaper coverage (Neuman, Just, &
Crigler, 1992; Norris & Sanders, 2003), horserace versus issue-based news
(Cappella & Jamieson, 1997; Valentino, Beckmann, & Buhr, 2001), or
higher or lower news consumption (Chaffee & Kanihan, 1997). Yet, to fully
understand the consequences of media interpretation, it is important to
know not just how people react to different media interpretations, but how
people evaluate media accounts versus unmediated direct accounts from
We investigate how people evaluate policy stories when presented in
these two different formats—from politicians directly and through medi-
ated news coverage. Using an experimental design, we compare and con-
trast evaluations of the accounts of the journalists versus the accounts of the
politicians. On one hand, the systematic differences in how politicians and
the media present information may lead people to evaluate issue arguments
in distinctive ways. On the other hand, citizens may ultimately evaluate the
substance of arguments on their merits, with little consideration of the
sources and presentation of the arguments.
Our explanations for how people evaluate these different messages are built
on prior research about the utility of source cues. Studies of citizen decision
making suggest that how people react to a political message depends on the
source of the information and evaluations of the speaker’s credibility and
trustworthiness (Lupia & McCubbins, 1998; Popkin, 1991). By this logic,
those who trust politicians will be more open to the direct messages of
members of Congress, whereas those impressed with the credibility of media
will be more likely to be influenced by news coverage. However, we argue that
the source of the message not only acts as a cue to inform individual reception
to a message, but also determines the structure and content of the message
itself. In this way, sources serve not simply as a heuristic in peripheral pro-
cessing, but can also influence how people interpret and evaluate political
accounts. Different sources construct their messages in different ways. The
partisan rhetoric of a politician discussing welfare reform will look quite dif-
ferent than the account offered by a journalist covering the same story—the
persuasive appeals of the politician are not subject to the same norms of bal-
anced coverage and expert sources that a journalist faces. The two sources
have different strategic motivations for crafting their versions of the story, and
the structure and content of their messages reflect this.
By contrasting citizen reactions to political news and the rhetoric of
politicians, we inform the mechanisms by which media accounts affect cit-
izen reactions to political information. The tendency of the press to focus

Fogarty, Wolak / Media Interpretation of Politicians’ Messages
on political conflict and strategy has been argued to promote negativity
about government (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). But less clear is whether
these effects are enduring to conflict of any type, or specific to the kinds of
tension typically seen in political press accounts. By holding the content of
policy arguments constant across these two information presentations, we
explore the consequences of these different accounts for citizen reception.
Our approach also informs the effects of media interpretation for recep-
tion of political messages. For politicians, the institutional norms of the
media mean that political viewpoints are often presented as the product of
journalistic interpretation. Perhaps media interpretation weakens the per-
suasiveness of the claims of politicians. Alternately, this kind of message
mediation may increase the likelihood that people will give consideration
to this information. Comparing these two ways of learning about politics
speaks to the consequences of media interpretation for how people receive
the messages of politicians. In recent years, politicians have increasingly
sought media venues that might be more favorable than the critical cover-
age common from the national press—from appearances on entertainment
programs to satellite interviews to personal Web sites (Graber, 2006, p. 226;
Wattenberg, 2004). With this study, we can compare how the public inter-
prets these direct communications compared to media accounts—informing
what politicians gain by going public. Are talk shows and interviews on
local news simply other outlets for politicians to communicate the same
messages to voters, or do these appearances give politicians the opportunity
to present positions in a way distinct from how a journalistic account would
be perceived? By considering differences in citizen reception to two of the
most common ways people can receive political messages, we investigate
how different ways of presenting the same information affect the way
people respond to political messages.
The Role of Source Cues
Traditionally, studies that consider the sources of political messages com-
pare how people interpret the same message when offered by different
speakers. When people are exposed to political messages, the perceived
credibility and trustworthiness of the message’s source affect how people
respond to the messages (Lupia & McCubbins, 1998; Popkin, 1991).
Appraisals of a message source can influence the effectiveness of heuristics,
media primes, and issue frames (Druckman, 2001; Kuklinski & Hurley,
1994; Miller & Krosnick, 2000; Mondak, 1993). In the social psychology

American Politics Research
tradition, sources have primarily a heuristic value. Individuals do not always
engage in deliberative, systematic evaluation of arguments based on their
relative strength. Instead, when individuals are unmotivated or unable to
consider the arguments at hand, they rely on less effortful evaluation mech-
anisms such as making judgments based on surface level characteristics—
most centrally, the nature of the source (Chaiken, 1980; Petty & Cacioppo,
1981, 1986). Knowledge of a speaker’s predispositions, expertise, and cred-
ibility provides information beyond the substance of the message.
Political science research on source cues follows in this social psychology
tradition. Given uninformed, nonideological citizens (Converse, 1964; Delli
Carpini & Keeter, 1996) and a dense, noisy information environment (Graber,
1994), informational shortcuts in the form of heuristics offer a way that citi-
zens might be able to make rational decisions in the face of low information
(Popkin, 1991; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991). Knowing the position of
an interest group on a ballot initiative can inform preferences (Lupia, 1994),
as does knowing the positions of trusted or favorably evaluated politicians
(Carmines & Kuklinski, 1990; Kuklinski & Hurley, 1994; Mondak, 1993).
People’s reception of issue frames and media primes also depends in part on
evaluations of the source (Druckman, 2001; Miller & Krosnick, 2000).
These studies highlight how different sources inform citizens’ reception
of messages. But in politics, different sources leave their imprint not only
on the perceptions of voters but also on the structure of the message itself.
The news media and politicians present information in systematically dif-
ferent ways, reflecting the institutional norms and incentives for each.
Although some have investigated...

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