CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558
COMMENT: Steven Chaffee, Communication Department (415) 723-4611;
TV-reliant voters more interested, knowledgeable of candidates' personal characteristics
STANFORD --Television coverage of political campaigns is better for voters and democracy than many of its critics contend, says Stanford communication Professor Steven Chaffee, who has been studying since the late 1960s how voters use media for political information.
Chaffee, the Janet M. Peck Professor in International Communication, said he gradually has come to the conclusion that "TV is not a wholly bad thing for democracy."
"Even though there are many critics who say that too many voters don't know enough because they rely too much on TV for their news," he said, "the fact is, voters get a lot of information from television, and much of it they really couldn't get any other way."
Chaffee and two colleagues recently isolated the effect of reliance on television for campaign information relative to other media in a year-long study of California voters during the 1992 presidential campaign. They found that the more voters were interested in the personal characteristics of George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the more they relied on television for campaign information rather than on other media. Tests showed that these voters knew more about candidates as individuals than did other voters who relied more heavily on newspapers and other campaign media. Reliance on television also predicted understanding party differences on major political issues, but not as strongly as it did the level of personal knowledge about candidates.
The study's co-authors are former Stanford graduate students Valerie Sue, now an assistant professor at California State University-Hayward, and Geetu Melwani, now an assistant professor at Ohio State. The researchers first randomly sampled registered voters in four California counties (Humboldt, Santa Clara, Orange and San Diego) in February and March 1992 before the primary. Graduate students at local universities interviewed the same voters four times, with the last interview conducted after ballots were cast in the November general election.
The voters who relied heavily on television were more likely to vote on the basis of personal qualities than were voters who were less reliant on it. They were more likely to know, for example, which presidential candidate had Mexican American grandchildren, which one was the shortest, which one had been a Rhodes scholar, which one had been a star first baseman in college and which one had been director of the CIA. They were also more aware than the average voter of party positions on issues, such as abortion or taxes, Chaffee said, but it was in their knowledge of and interest in personal attributes of candidates that they stood out most.
While these voters had a higher interest in personal information, Chaffee said that "we looked hard but could find no evidence linking television reliance to lessened concern with issues or political parties. Our results, taken as a whole, cannot support a blanket condemnation either of television or of voters who rely on it to learn more about the candidates as individuals.
"Television is the best way for most voters to observe candidates' personal qualities, many of which such as intelligence and speaking ability are quite relevant to potential performance in office," said Chaffee, who formerly was a newspaper reporter.
"Seeing a candidate in action, in extemporaneous situations and under trying conditions," he said, "adds to other kinds of information for which other media may be better suited. . . . An Ivy League product, for example, may fail to live up to the label 'intelligent' or may quell apprehensions about 'elitism' by his expressions and manner while answering questions or debating on camera."
Some critics of television in academia, government and the media have blamed it for the declining strength of political parties. television coverage has been part of presidential politics since 1952 and some say it has weakened the overall health of the democratic system by failing to provide citizens with adequate political substance to make rational choices.
"Other studies indicate that newspapers and magazines are better at explaining complex issues or party platforms," Chaffee said, "but television-reliant voters aren't fools."
Television tends to emphasize the most prominent individual candidates more than political parties, he said, "but recent studies show that television has come to rival the newspaper as a source of understanding of a wide range of information, including issue differences that divide the leading candidates."
In other studies, Chaffee has shown that television plays a valuable "bridging role" by introducing adolescents and immigrants to the American political system more effectively than print media.
It is misleading to think of voters as getting their political knowldge wholly from television or newspapers, he said. In reality, most Americans watch television and most people collect information from multiple sources. The people who watch the campaign most on television, for example, are those who are the most intensely interested in politics, and they also read a lot about politics.
Many voters, Chaffee said, appear to be interested in both personal and issue-related campaign information. Even highly partisan voters about 30 percent of the electorate are interested in assessing the personal characteristics of candidates, Chaffee said, especially in primary elections.
"A very devoted Democrat or Republican likes to look very closely at his party's candidates in tough situations to see which one can win," he said.
He noted the absence of alternatives to television for those who want to evaluate a candidate's personal honesty or leadership skills.
"Newspaper columnists assess a candidate's character, but voters know that George Will is biased toward conservative candidates and Molly Ivins, toward liberals," he said. "Television lets you judge for yourself."
Chaffee does not think voters who evaluate a candidate's public image on television should be considered stupid.
"It may not be entirely wise for us to believe we can judge candidates accurately from what we see on TV," he said, "but choosing a candidate to vote for is, in effect, hiring that person to do a job. It seems unlikely that in any other context one would hire someone without first evaluating the applicant's intelligence, honesty and other personal qualities. Short of a personal interview, watching a candidate perform in a televised debate, press conference or talk show is a great improvement over simply reading a personal resume."
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