The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Testing the Media’s Impact on Politics

Tue, August 30, 2011

Austin Hart, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government, has been awarded a grant from Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS), a research organization funded by the National Science Foundation.

Hart’s experiments will determine, with an unprecedented degree of validity, the extent to which the media determines an individuals’ level of support for the president. Conventional wisdom holds that the media has the power to alter an individual’s assessment of the president by setting the agenda for national political debate. Once the agenda is set, standard theory argues, individuals base their evaluations of the president’s performance on the issues highlighted by the media. In this way, the media “primes” the public to evaluate the president in a certain way.

However, until this study, research methodology has been unable to rule out an alternative, but equally plausible hypothesis, that voters evaluate presidents based on how they want them to perform on any given issue. Rather than their evaluations being subject to the whims of which issues the media chooses to highlight and suppress, voters may simply interpret any new information in a way that maintains consistency with their prior beliefs and partisan preferences. In this way, voters “project” their beliefs and preferences onto whatever agenda the media puts to them.

Hart’s dissertation, supervised by Kurt Weyland, advances a campaign-centered theory of economic voting and explores the political impact of economic campaign messages in the 2000 and 2006 Mexican presidential elections and the 1992 and 2000 United States presidential elections. His TESS grant is part of a joint project with Joel Middleton, a visiting professor at New York University.

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