Television news viewing, governmental scope, and postmaterialist spending: assessing mediation by partisanship.

Author:Holbert, R. Lance

The relationship between a citizenry and its representative government is embodied within individuals' perceptions of the importance of public institutions to a well-functioning democracy. America's political leaders are constantly extolling the virtues of their party's vision for government, with Democrats believing in government programs aiding the public and Republicans seeking to reduce the need for governmental intervention in people's lives (Democratic National Committee, 2004; Republican National Committee, 2004). Although these distinctions are not absolute, it is clear that the two major American political parties and the candidates they sponsor seek to attract voters by communicating competing visions of the need for federal governmental involvement (Hinich & Pollard, 1981).

Citizens come into contact with competing visions of government through news, and public affairs outlets also provide journalistic assessments of the ability of public institutions to perform various duties (Paletz, 1998). Individual-level perceptions of the need for federal governmental involvement is of particular importance to mass communication scholarship with the rise in popularity of media outlets like FOX News, which espouses a small government model (Auletta, 2003). Indeed, many news organizations incorporate a skeptical tone toward federal governmental institutions (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1998). The watchdog role of news media is well established and is argued to serve as a valuable check against potential leviathans (McQuail, 1992). This study assesses whether citizens' use of traditional television news influences perceptions of whether the federal government should be taking part in social programs that are reflective of a postmaterialist value orientation.

Inglehart (1977, 1990) envisioned the materialist-postmaterialist value shift in Western publics as a change in priorities. He argued that as more people free themselves from day-to-day concerns over basic issues of physiological sustenance, there will come a rise in the perceived importance of issues that reflect increased "esteem, self-expression, and aesthetic satisfaction" (Inglehart, 1990, p. 68). Mass communication is theorized to play a significant role in the rise of a postmaterialist value orientation, along with economic development, education, and distinct cohort experiences (e.g., war). Inglehart argued that continued expansion of mass media is seen as providing a broader segment of society with the tools and information it needs to make judgments about an ever wider range of political issues. This study seeks to clarify the exact nature of television news viewing influence on individual-level postmaterialist values as reflected in citizens' support for federal governmental spending on a host of social issues that are reflective of these values.

In addition to analyzing the relationship between television news viewing and opinions concerning postmaterialist federal spending, this study also seeks to assess the role of a potential mediator, perceptions of the proper role of government in society. People's beliefs about what role government should play in their lives can be influenced by media, and these perceptions can most certainly influence whether someone would desire the government to become involved in postmaterialist programs (Muller, 1970). There is also little reason to believe that the relationships that exist between television news viewing, perceptions of the proper scope of government, and postmaterialist spending will be consistent across all types of citizens. With the well-documented negative depictions of government found on television news and the rise of partisan outlets like FOX News comes the possibility for distinct processes of TV news influence across Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. This study explores in greater detail the relationship between political partisanship and television news viewing and seeks to better understand the former as a potential moderator of the latter relative to perceptions of the proper scope of government and opinions concerning postmaterialist federal spending.

Literature Review

TV News Viewing and Postmaterialist Spending

A rise in postmaterialism is seen as ushering in an age of "quality-of-life politics" (Inglehart, 1997), where citizens begin to focus on a broader range of "noneconomic" issues. Postmaterialists give importance to more than just how to improve their own personal economic standing in life and gravitate toward issues that speak to the creation of greater equality among all citizens (e.g., human rights), aiding those who are less fortunate, and ecological concerns. Thus, a postmaterialist value orientation should be reflected in opinions concerning the need for federal spending on a range of noneconomic social issues such as AIDS research, the environment, and welfare. Inglehart (1977, 1990, 2003) and other researchers have shown through vast amounts of national survey data collected across many Western nations that there has been a steady rise in the concentration of pure postmaterialists in these countries, whereas the number of pure materialists has been in steady decline since the 1970s. Carmines and Layman (1997) found a similar pattern of results using 1972 to 1992 American National Election Study (ANES) data representative of the U.S. population. These researchers find the number of pure materialists in the United States dropped by more than half during this time period, whereas the number of pure postmaterialists more than doubled (see Layman & Carmines, 1997).

Inglehart (1977) has long argued that the rise of mass media, and the dispersing of public affairs information through news in particular, is a primary factor in the rise of postmaterialism in Western societies. Although this argument for potential media influence has been in the literature for a quarter century, there has been no formal empirical research devoted to properly assessing this direct effect. Instead, mass communication research has focused on the influence of core postmaterialist values on various types of media use (e.g., J. M. McLeod, Sotirovic, & Holbert, 1998). This study wishes to focus its attention on the influence of traditional television news viewing on a tangible by-product of postmaterialist values, opinions concerning federal spending on social issues that mirror this value orientation.

There is little question that television news covers issues reflective of postmaterialist values. Indeed, past research has devoted significant attention to analyzing the relationship between news and such postmaterialist issues as welfare (Sotirovic, 2000), AIDS (e.g., Cook, 1997), the environment (e.g., Atwater, Salwen, & Anderson, 1985), and racial relations (e.g., Watkins, 2001). The fact that television news raises these types of issues speaks to Inglehart's basic argument that public affairs media can play an important role in leading to the materialist-postmaterialist value shift. Indeed, past scholarship has studied the influence of media on values (e.g., Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach, & Grube, 1984), and extant research has analyzed the role of values as communicated by news media and their influence on political outcomes (e.g., Shah, Domke, & Wackman, 1996).

Although Inglehart's basic theoretical argument and the subsequent empirical research highlighted previously would suggest the potential for a direct positive influence of television news consumption in generating a stronger desire for postmaterialist federal spending, it is important to recognize that this relationship may not be consistent across all subpopulations. In particular, the individual-difference variable of party identification may serve as a moderator.

Many political scientists approach the study of politics from one of the earliest and now classic works from the Michigan School, The American Voter (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960). University of Michigan scholars promoted the importance of partisanship early in their research program, as is evidenced by the following quotation: "We are convinced that the relationships in our data reflect primarily the role of enduring partisan commitments in shaping attitudes toward political objects" (Campbell et al., 1960, p. 120). The Michigan School is grounded in a psychological approach to political attitudes and behavior (see Gelman & King, 1993, for a comparative discussion of the Michigan, Columbia, and Rochester Schools). As Chaffee and Hochheimer (1985) pointed out, the Campbell et al. conceptualization of party identification stems directly from Freud's concept of "identification," and the psychoanalyst's understanding of this concept as a deep, long-term, affective connection between an individual and his or her ideal. When a voter brings this type of psychological baggage to a mediated political communication experience like television news viewing, political party identification has the potential to influence when a media effect takes place or can alter the direction of the effect across different groups of individuals. This is the classic description of a potential moderator variable (Baron & Kenny, 1986).

Indeed, political party identification acting as a moderator should be all the more evident when dealing with an outcome variable that is potentially grounded in political party differences (e.g., opinions concerning the need for postmaterialist spending). The issues that best represent postmaterialism are viewed as priorities for Democrats. Thus, the influence of television news consumption on opinions concerning postmaterialist spending priorities may be especially strong for those individuals who define themselves as Democrats. When Democrats come into contact with television news that continues to provide coverage of postmaterialist issues, their resolve to make postmaterialist public policies governmental funding priorities should be all the more...

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