What evidence is there that communications influence democratic engagement? Is their influence positive or negative? This chapter reviews empirical research on the impact of the mass media on citizens’ engagement in public life. Media use is positively correlated with many core elements of democratic engagement, such as citizens’ political interest, knowledge, and participation. However, there is evidence that media use can also foster cynicism and disengagement. The magnitude of most effects demonstrated through empirical research in this area is small.
An engaged citizen adheres to democratic norms and values, has empirically-grounded attitudes and beliefs about politics, holds stable and informed opinions on public issues, and seeks to influence public life. Politically relevant media is a complex concept and one must distinguish, for example, between types of media such as telephones, magazines and the internet.
The media influence the norms, values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and actions that constitute democratic engagement. This impact begins early in a person’s life and is mitigated by factors including the type and amount of media attended to. Other findings include the following:
- Several norms and values are positively associated with democratic engagement. Political efficacy, the sense that oneâ€™s participation can make a difference, is a central one.
- Greater political efficacy appears to be positively associated with greater use of public affairs media, although the causal direction of this relationship is unclear.
- The ‘media malaise’ thesis posits that exposure to media leads to increased cynicism and decreased trust in politics. Research has provided mixed support for this thesis.
- Research suggests that media use affects both children’s and adult’s political and social attitudes and beliefs, although the evidence is thin.
- Opinion formation is driven primarily through reflexive, emotional responses to information. However, the media remain important because they are a primary source of information, and can influence what emotions are tapped into.
- There appears to be a positive and consistent correlation between public affairs media use and participation. The causal relationship is unclear but is assumed to be bidirectional.
In order to understand how the relationship between media and democratic engagement can be improved, we need to know more about the democratic potential of different media. A promising way to explore this potential is to use ‘natural experiments’ such as efforts by non-profit organisations to harness and enhance the democratic potential of the media. Overall, four important questions arise from existing research on the media’s impact on democratic engagement:
- If the media are so important, why do the effects seem so small? The magnitude of most effects demonstrated through empirical research remain small, equivocal, inconsistent, or heavily context dependent.
- What constitutes politically relevant media? Most research focuses on the news and public affairs genres, but it may be fruitful to think less in terms of specific media or genres and more in terms of the transfer of information.
- Is media use good or bad for democratic engagement? Public affairs media use is positively correlated with most forms of democratic engagement, yet there is evidence that negative coverage of politics erodes trust.
- How can we distinguish between ‘what is’ and ‘what is possible’? In order to know what is possible, we need to know more about the complex ways in which the media affect norms, values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and actions.