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There's more meat here than even author Pippa Norris has herself digested; the book is half social science analysis and half a statistical almanac. But this is to quibble. A Virtuous Circle is praiseworthy both for its sumptuous comparative statistics on the news media across European and North American democracies, and for its unflappable sanity and even ruddy hopefulness about the state of the media (but not necessarily the state of the world) today.
For Norris, media critics have failed to make their case that contemporary news practices harm the body politic. The evidence of "media malaise," that media and political communication today reduce civic activism, diminish trust in government, and retard knowledge of and interest in public affairs, has little empirical support. In fact, people who attend to news know more about politics than those who don't. They are as trusting of political institutions as those less attentive to news.
This is not exactly three cheers for the press, but it directly counters the views of many others -- including Norris's own distinguished colleague at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson (it makes you wonder what their faculty meetings are like).
In l993, Patterson published a widely noted book, Out of Order, that claimed that the U.S. news media had grown more negative and more cynical in political coverage over the past two or three decades, that this had matched a growing popular distrust of politicians and government and a general disengagement from civic life, and that -- although Patterson also knows that "correlation is not causation" -- cynicism in the news "has contributed to" cynicism in the electorate. Other scholars, journalists, and media reformers have endorsed a "the news-media-make-us-less-civic" hypothesis. A European version of this argument focuses more on the increasingly media-oriented electoral campaigns than on the news as such. In the European variant, American-style political packaging, media consultants, and emphasis on image over substance have produced a European "crisis of civic communication."
Well, Norris asks, in her "I call 'em as I see 'em" tone, what do the data tell us? As a comparative political scientist, a British transplant to the United States and a student of British as well as U.S. media and politics, she also suspects the American situation might look different when compared to other nations. If there is "media malaise," is it an American disease or a world epidemic?
Here's what she finds. In Europe since l970, the percentage of citizens of democracies who read a newspaper every day has grown by 67 percent. The percentage of people who watch television news daily has increased almost 50 percent. Even after taking education into account, European citizens who attend to news know more about politics as well as everyday social and health matters than those who do not. People attentive to news are no more, but no less, trusting and confident in government than the inattentive. People attentive to news are more likely to participate in politics through voting and other forms of participation. Looking specifically at news coverage of the European Union, Norris found a "Euroskeptic tone" in the newspapers and an even more negative tone in European TV news and she found this associated with public skepticism toward the euro and other features of the EU. But she resists drawing the conclusion that this is a case of the press influencing the public. Instead, she argues, the press takes its cues from party elites, interest groups, and the political culture at large; journalists are "players in a broader political culture" rather than outsiders independent of it.
In America, the media domain is very different, with lack of newspaper competition in most markets, the absence of the kind of strong tabloid readership that many European countries maintain, falling rather than rising newspaper sales, and the absence of a strong public-service broadcast sector. Does a "media malaise" hypothesis work better here? No. As in Europe, people who attend to the news are significantly more likely to participate in political campaigns by voting, contributing money, or discussing politics. It may be that watching hour after hour of entertainment television is a factor in disengaging Americans from political and civic life, but watching TV news is not. Norris does not find any relationship between increasing negativism in the news since the l980s and popular trust in governing institutions, which has risen, fallen, and risen again in this same period. She finds a decline in political interest, political trust, and voter turnout in the 1960s-early 1970s, but not a steady decline from the l960s to the present. Not only is correlation not causation -- we don't even have a good correlation.
The evidence for media-driven malaise just ain't there. The best evidence, in fact, goes in the other direction: that active, politically engaged people attend to the news more than others and that attending to the news reinforces them in their political involvement. This is the "virtuous" rather than "vicious" circle of her title. And in most respects she is utterly convincing.
This is a significant book. It is, to be sure, an academic's book. Although Norris writes clear and straightforward prose, she also gets caught up in the intricacies of academic argument and a range of data so vast that the general reader will have a tough time of it. But her conclusion is challenging: "A citizenry that is better informed and more highly educated, with higher cognitive skills and more sources of information, may well become increasingly critical of governing institutions, with declining affective loyalties towards traditional representative bodies such as parties and parliaments. But increasing criticism from citizens does not necessarily reduce civic engagement; indeed, it can have the contrary effect." In other words, the tenor of the times is more critical than it used to be, with uncertain consequences. Norris wants us to consider the possibility that critical citizens, committed to democratic values but unhappy with the performance of governmental institutions, are not cynical but wary. And vigilance can be a democratic virtue.
This is not to suggest, Norris cautions, that all's well in contemporary democracies. But blaming the news media for what ails us in political corruption, undernourished social services, and violent conflicts in some countries is to find a scapegoat, not a powerful source of our ills.
Michael Schudson is professor of communications and sociology at the University of California. His latest book is A Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.
By Richard Morin Sunday, September 17, 2000; Page B05
The Myth of Media Malaise
For decades, it's been hugely fashionable in academe to finger the cynical and superficial news media as the cause of rising levels of civic disengagement.
Well, democracy may or may not be in eclipse, and people certainly don't trust politicians or vote nearly as often as they did a few decades ago. But don't blame the media, argues political scientist Pippa Norris in her new book "A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies."
Norris, a professor at Harvard, examined five decades of polling data from several major surveys conducted in the United States, as well as surveys conducted in Europe. Wherever she looked, Norris found that people who read newspapers or watch TV network news more frequently are generally more trusting, less cynical and more knowledgeable about politics and government--even after she controlled for their education, income, gender, age and other variables that shape political attitudes.
Rather than driving down political involvement and ratcheting up mistrust, Norris says that attention to the news "acts as a virtuous circle: The most politically knowledgeable, trusting and participatory are most likely to tune to public affairs coverage. And those most attentive to coverage of public affairs become more engaged in civic life."
Then who's responsible for creating the tattered image of the malaise-making news media? Blame it, at least in part, on the media themselves, which Norris says have become increasingly preoccupied with "self-flagellation."
The resulting false picture, she cautions, does real harm--but not to civic life. Rather, it erodes public confidence in the news media. Plus, it's so predictable. "American journalism seems increasingly transfixed by American journalism, looking at itself obs
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