IU Research and Creative Activity Magazine
Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Democracy

Volume XXVIII Number 1
Fall 2005

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Erik Bucy
Erik Bucy
Photo © Tyagan Miller

David Weaver
David Weaver
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Politics.com

by Jennifer Piurek

Erik Bucy wouldn’t be surprised to see a webcam in the Oval Office one day.

“It may never quite get to that, but that’s the direction we’re heading,” says the associate professor of telecommunications and adjunct associate professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington.

“Young people today expect a certain amount of two-way interactivity in their media, whether that’s voting for American Idol, looking up and voting for the Most Valuable Player, or checking scores in real time,” Bucy says. “As they become older and more politically aware, I think some of that two-way expectation would carry over to politics.”

What happens in that “two-way” is one of Bucy’s research passions. He studies the way people engage with politics as represented in new media—including networked communication technologies, talk radio, call-in talk shows, and electronic town hall forums. He also analyzes media credibility, synergy effects between on-air and online news, and visual bias and nonverbal communication in network news coverage, including the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential elections. In 2004, Bucy launched the Colloquium on Political Communication Research, a faculty and student research series that the group hopes will lead to a research center for the interdisciplinary study of political communication (see www.indiana.edu/~cpcr).

Traditional news sources must build credibility by becoming more accessible, Bucy argues, or public trust in such institutions will erode even more than it already has.

“I see the political environment becoming more interactive, not less, largely driven by the next generation’s expectations about access and involvement,” he says.

In other words, there’s no turning back. Take Web logs, or blogs, for instance. Although the percentage of Americans who post these online journals still idles in the single digits, such new forms of communication have already proven their staying power and relevance, particularly as a reality check for traditional news outlets.

“Blogs aren’t the news, and they’re not campaigning, but to some extent they represent citizen voices, and they do offer commentary on the news,” Bucy says.

Bloggers are known for their fact-checking and reporting of mistakes or inaccuracies, “preventing a lot of hypocrisy,” Bucy says. He cites the example of James Guckert (pseudonym Jeff Gannon), the faux reporter at a Bush press conference who characterized liberal media as “divorced from reality.”

“It turns out he was a hired actor [Guckert was linked to pornographic Web sites and a career as a male escort].

The bloggers found that out!” Bucy says.

New Media, New Meaning?

While old-style politicking may bombard people with so much negative advertising that no one wants to participate, blogs and other networked media forums make people feel more like they are part of the process, says Bucy. “What the new media do is allow citizens, but also producers of new media and lesser known candidates, to redefine news as something that’s proactive and engaging, that can involve the average person.”

Bucy points out that there is a just a one in 20 chance that most people will do anything more politically active than vote. “That’s where new media come in,” he says. “They provide the space for ongoing involvement. We have a fair amount of cynicism already, but without the outlet of new media, I think we’d have much more alienation and much less political legitimacy than we have now.”

Interactive media give people the feeling of influence and participation, even if their influence is only symbolic, Bucy says. Psychologically, when people engage with media, or with others through media, they may achieve a sense of mastery over their environment known as self-efficacy.

“Efficacy applies across different domains—in social life, business life, academic life, political life, and in media. What we’ve found is people with high levels of self-efficacy also feel more empowered to affect change socially or politically,” he says. “If media can contribute to this sense of efficacy, then indirectly, it might spur some people to be more active.”

The more often people use new media and the more common those media become, the higher the level of user satisfaction, Bucy says. “Ultimately, that could change the kind of civic life we have. Right now, we’re in kind of an incubating period, because the people still in charge of the system didn’t grow up with interactive media.”

Today, few politicians use their Web sites to actually interact with voters, but those who have embraced new media are communicating with voters directly in a personal, conversational way. Former California governor Jerry Brown is a case in point. Brown, who is currently running for state attorney general (he also ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1992), now has his own blog (www.jerrybrown.org).

“People are amazed that an old-school politician is hosting his own blog,” says Bucy, who campaigned for Brown in 1992. “You get a view into his world, and at his level, his perspective is so different—it’s an elite perspective. I think that’s a great trend. The problem is, can you get more politicians who are confident and certain enough of themselves to actually start a blog?”

Most traditional politicians put out tightly shaped, carefully released messages and don’t offer opinions that will be unpopular with their constituents. Bucy hopes more politicians will take Brown’s cue and start posting reflections on the Web about their day-to-day experiences: “They don’t have to issue position statements all the time, they could just talk about what their daily life is like—kind of like civics lessons for the masses, but made accessible through new media technology.”

As we move into a multimedia future, Bucy expects ever-growing demands for interactivity in politics.

Who knows? Maybe one day soon, they’ll get around to installing that Webcam over the president’s desk.

Voters in the Know

While Bucy looks to the future impact of new media on Americans’ political behavior, IU School of Journalism professors David Weaver and Dan Drew study how voters, past and present, have informed themselves. Since 1988, Weaver and Drew have conducted voter knowledge studies in each presidential election year (plus one survey during a nonpresidential election year). Their 2004 study polled 500 Indiana voters two weeks before the election, asking questions about how people got their news, how often they sought it out, and specific issue questions such as, “Which candidate, George Bush or John Kerry, is more likely to favor tax-free health savings accounts for Americans?” and “Which candidate, George Bush or John Kerry, is more likely to favor U.S. support of the Kyoto treaty that seeks to reduce gasses that are thought to contribute to global warming?”

For the first time since 1988, the study pointed to Internet use as a reliable indicator of knowledge about the issues.

“Over time, we had found that those who pay more attention to television news about politics were more able to answer the questions correctly,” says Weaver, the Roy W. Howard professor of journalism at IU Bloomington. “Newspapers are still important as a predictor of voter knowledge, but television became more important from 1988 to 2004. In 2004, though, for the first time, we found that if you use the Internet for news, you’re likely to know more about the issue positions of presidential candidates.”

The Internet trend was of particular interest to Drew, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the IU School of Journalism and a former television news reporter.

“It was an interesting year, because the age of the television network news audience is rising. The Internet is getting used much more, and there’s a decline in newspaper readership.”

Drew says young people today show less interest in political news and newspapers than previous generations.

“In the past, young people have not been as interested in traditional public affairs news as older folks because they don’t pay property taxes, they don’t have children in schools. There are some indications now that [as young people get older] that’s not turning around like it did in the past.”

Getting people of any age interested in public affairs and politics is a challenge for both traditional and new media. “There are so many more channels on TV, so much more on the Internet—it’s easier to ignore politics,” Weaver says. “But if you don’t know much about the issues being debated, and some politician, some minister, some person interprets these things for you, you’re much more vulnerable to being manipulated because you don’t have your own store of knowledge to draw on, to question what you’re being told.”

In their previous voter-knowledge studies, identification with a particular political party was sometimes correlated with greater issue knowledge. Not so in the 2004 study. “In 2004, identification with the Republican Party had zero correlation with knowing about the issues,” says Weaver. “Which suggests to me that a lot of people did not vote for George Bush on the basis of issue positions.”

To Weaver, a trend in which people choose candidates based on general impressions rather than issue positions is disturbing. He recalls seeing a TV interview with a voter in Ohio who described his encounter with Bush as follows: “He’s a man’s man. I shook his hand, looked into his eyes, and he’s a man’s man.”

“People can be manipulated by images: ‘Let’s not vote for John Kerry because he was out sailing, or because he owns a yacht,’ or ‘Let’s vote for George Bush because he sounds a certain way,’” Weaver says.

One of the flaws in media coverage, Weaver says, is an inability or unwillingness to connect the dots. For example, he says, “I would like to see just one report about the Americans who’ve been killed in Iraq linked to who somebody voted for, a story in which a reporter would ask a grieving parent, ‘Who did you vote for in November?’”

So how do news media choose what to cover and when to cover it? What comes first, media coverage or viewer interest? When it comes to agenda-setting in political coverage, there are numerous influences, Weaver says, including “intermedia” such as the wire service articles sent out by the Associated Press or Scripps Howard News Service, cues from other news sources (e.g., the New York Times), and information from public relations firms.

“A lot of the news we see on the front pages of newspapers is subsidized information provided by government or corporate public relations people,” says Weaver. “It’s more economical to use printed or video news releases than to send your own reporters out to cover these things. The tradeoff is, you end up covering the topics these folks want you to cover.”

Among the general public, interest in politics is suffering from a kind of malaise. Weaver traces the trend to multiple causes, including mistrust of media, a feeling of powerlessness in getting one’s voice heard, and increased outlets for entertainment media. Getting people re-engaged in public affairs will take close-to-home issues such as unemployment, cutbacks in funds for education and social services, and attempts to change social security, Weaver says. “Those are what we call more ‘obtrusive issues’—they’re experienced directly by everyday people.” It’s more difficult for lawmakers to manipulate obtrusive issues than “unobtrusive issues” such as foreign policy, for which people have fewer sources of information, he says.

Although Weaver is discouraged by today’s level of media manipulation and accompanying lack of voter awareness, he remains surprisingly optimistic about the future of democracy as experienced through the media.

“Everybody tries to control the [news] agenda. Some people are very successful at it, but it’s never quite under the control of any group. And even if a certain group is able to get their topic emphasized, they can’t control the way it will be covered once other groups chime in with their views,” Weaver says. In a society where there’s freedom of expression, multiple voices, multiple sources, issues can rise rapidly on the agenda, whether the government/corporate/PR folks want them to or not, whether politicians want them to or not.

“That’s why it’s important to have an independent news media in any democratic system,” he continues. “Journalists ought to be able to raise issues politicians don’t want raised.”

Jennifer Piurek is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.