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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Perceptions of Persuasion and Media Bias


There are a myriad of communication theories regarding persuasion, but this paper will attempt to explicate how persuasive efforts are perceived by the receiver (or target) of those efforts. The study of communication has focused on questions of persuasion since the days of the sophists, and so it seems fitting that the field of communication theory turn its focus from “how do we persuade” to “how are we persuaded.” This is a nuanced, yet significant distinction. The former implies a projection of persuasion as a means to an end. The latter implies a more comprehensive, theoretical understanding of persuasion as the end, in and of itself.

Much has been done in communication theory with respect to the means of persuasion. Much less has been done with respect to perceptions of persuasion; that is, how the potentially persuaded receiver perceives the means employed by the persuader. With political and media persuasion, the receiver is keenly aware that the projector seeks to persuade relative to personal political biases. Therefore, examining the perception of the means of attempted political and media persuasion provides perhaps the best path for explaining how an “aware” receiver perceives biases.

This paper will evaluate persuasion in three contexts (all of which are from the receiver’s perspective): 1) perceptions of persuasive efforts 2) perceptions of political persuasion 3) perceptions of media bias.

Dependent Variable:

Let’s start by defining the dependent variable of this thought experiment: perception of persuasion. In many respects, everything a communications practitioner does can be related to the act of persuasion. That’s not to say all acts of communicating are debates or arguments. Rather, a person is, within the act of communication, seeking to share understanding. To communicate effectively is to communicate in such a way that those with whom you converse come to understand precisely what you intended them to understand.

While the models of persuasion have certainly changed over time (from Sophists in ancient Greece, to lectures of the Catholic Church and old England, to the Federalist papers of revolutionary America, to the propaganda of the World Wars, to Twitter today), the theory behind these models has remained both relevant and significant. According to Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence: Science and practice, persuasion can be loosely defined as the process of guiding receivers toward understanding and adoption of an idea, attitude, or action.

While Cialdini primarily focuses on the means of effective persuasion (and in so doing, touches on perception of persuasion), this paper seeks to illuminate the effects of political bias on political persuasion and the perception thereof. To do that, however, we must now look at our independent variables.

Independent Variables:

There are several models of persuasion perception and, more specifically, political and media persuasion perception that we will look at here as a means for identifying when (and in what ways) the biases of the projector impact the effectiveness of the means of persuasion. First, we will look at a general model of persuasion acceptance. Second, we will identify the variables which are unique to political persuasion. Third, we will look at how variables of political perception affect perceptions of media bias. In the end, we should be able to answer the simple questions: how are we persuaded, and how do we perceive those persuasive attempts?

Persuasion Knowledge Model:

In their piece, The Persuasion Knowledge Model: How People Cope with Persuasion Attempts, Marian Friestad and Peter Wright break away from traditional persuasion theory and seek to explain how a receiver’s awareness of the fact that persuasion tactics are being employed can affect one’s own receptiveness to persuasion.

“In theories and studies of persuasion, people's personal knowledge about persuasion agents' goals and tactics, and about how to skillfully cope with these, has been ignored. We present a model of how people develop and use persuasion knowledge to cope with persuasion attempts” (Friestad & Wright p. 1).

The logic behind this approach is that one’s susceptibility to persuasion may well be dependent on one’s familiarity with persuasion methods, the topic being discussed or the agent (projector). Below (Figure 1) is the “Persuasion Knowledge Model” proposed by Friestad and Wright:

In this model, Friestad and Wright use the terms “agent” and “target” instead of the “projector” and “receiver” labels I have employed thus far. But their terminology is interchangeable with mine. Targets /receivers are “those people for whom a persuasion attempt is intended (e.g., consumers, voters)” (Friestad & Wright p. 2.). An agent/projector is “whomever a target identifies as being responsible for designing and constructing a persuasion attempt (e.g., the company responsible for an advertising campaign; an individual salesperson)” (Friestad & Wright p. 2).

The "persuasion attempt" in the model represents "a target's perception of an agent's strategic behavior in presenting information designed to influence someone's beliefs, attitudes, decisions or actions" (Friestad & Wright p. 2). “Persuasion coping behavior” refers to "what targets try to do in response to a persuasion attempt” (Friestad & Wright p. 3). "From a consumer's perspective, the directly observable part of an agent's behavior is defined.. as a 'persuasion episode'" (Friestad & Wright p. 2).

It is the “coping behaviors” which speak to the questions raised in this paper. Friestad & Wright focus on how three knowledge structures interact to shape and determine the outcomes of persuasion attempts: "persuasion knowledge" (a target’s beliefs about the means of persuasion being used by the agent), "agent knowledge" (which consists of beliefs about the traits, competencies and goals of the agent), and "topic knowledge" (the target's beliefs about the topic of the message) (Friestad & Wright p. 3).

Friestad & Wright propose "that persuasion knowledge is a set of interrelated beliefs about (a) the psychological events that are instrumental to persuasion, (b) the causes and effects of those events, (c) the importance of the events, (d) the extent to which people can control their psychological responses, (e) the temporal course of the persuasion process, and (f) the effectiveness and appropriateness of particular persuasion tactics" (p. 6).

These six variables, combined with agent knowledge and topic knowledge, serve as a foundation for identifying the factors which affect general persuasion perception. Now, let’s address perception of persuasion as it pertains to politics.

Shared Relationships and Values:

Thomas E. Nelson and Jennifer Garst, in their piece Values-Based Political Messages and Persuasion: Relationships among Speaker, Recipient, and Evoked Values, seek to find out whether values-based rhetoric would enhance the persuasive power of a political speech by establishing a common identity between the speaker and like-minded audience members.

Nelson and Garst note, “It is well documented that individuals support policies and candidates who they perceive as promoting their favorite values. Furthermore if a communicator can effectively frame an issue as especially relevant to a particular value, he or she might sway the attitudes of those who place high personal priority on that value. Values, therefore, are powerful and reliable weapons in the persuader's arsenal” (p. 490).

In their research, Nelson and Garst had 301 participants, classified according to their party identifications and primary value orientations, read a political speech which varied by argument quality, speaker party and values evoked. Their results indicated that the participants paid close attention to the message for affirmations of shared values from the speaker. When the speaker was of a different party than the reader, message rejection increased. The message was especially rejected by the receivers when a projector from a rival political party espoused unexpected values.

Nelson and Garst concluded, “The persuasive power of values-based political messages may depend on recipients having (1) shared values with the speaker (a type of personal identity match); (2) shared political party identifications with the speaker (a type of social identity match); and/or (3) expectations about values traditionally associated with different political parties (an expectancy violation/confirmation)” (p. 489).

In other words, simply touting the values of the receivers is not, unto itself, a sufficient means for increasing the persuasiveness of one’s message. The values of the projector must be consistent with perceptions of the projector’s party. Certainly, this distinction can get murky given the fact that parties (let alone ideological views) are not consistent across all interpretations. Figure 2 below, from Nelson and Garst (p. 491), summarizes relationships which are inherent in values-based political speech:

Nelson and Garst say of this chart, “The type of values-based language used conveys whether the speaker's values match those of the recipient (a type of personal identity match). The party identification of the speaker conveys whether the speaker's party matches that of the recipient (a type of social identity match). Finally, the combination of the speaker's values-based language and the speaker's party either confirms or violates common expectations about value-party combinations (a type of expectancy confirmation/violation)” (p. 492).

Interestingly, Nelson and Garst also found that when a receiver’s values were espoused in a message, the receiver applied more scrutiny. This deeper processing made receivers more favorable to strong arguments, but resistant to weak ones. Conversely, the receiver/projector party match had no substantial effect on receiver scrutiny. Furthermore, in the absence of scrutiny, a party match between receiver and projector did not serve as a positive cue. Participants who shared the same values as the speaker were not automatically more favorable to his message and in fact expressed more negative thoughts when a speaker with common values used weak arguments to make his case. (Nelson and Garst p. 502-505).

To summarize, Nelson and Garst studied three main variables of political persuasion: value, message and party. All three of these affect the degree to which the receiver is persuaded. However, receivers expect the values espoused in a message to correspond with their perceptions of the projector’s party. When shared values are present, receivers pay closer attention to the quality of messaging. Therefore, a receiver/projector link by party alone, or values alone is not sufficient for persuasion to take place – though linked party and values do increase the likelihood of a positive reception from the receiver.

Nelson and Garst conclude, “The power of political messages derives not only from the values evoked and the party membership claimed by the speaker, but also to some extent on whether these two aspects fit the audience's expectations” (p. 510).

Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions:

In Larry M. Bartels’ piece, Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions, he examines “the impact of long-term partisan loyalties on perceptions of specific political figures and events” (p. 117). Bartels contends that one’s party identification is central to one’s perceptions of (and reactions to) political figures and events. More interestingly, Bartels contends that one’s political affiliation affects how one perceives the relative “objectivity” of an event.

Bartels runs a battery of tests on various groups of respondents and shows, repeatedly, that one’s party affiliation corresponds with one’s perceptions of events and figures – even when the question being asked has an objective answer (such as: has unemployment gotten better or worse?).

Bartels concludes, “In some cases, partisan bias produces actual divergence in the views of Republicans and Democrats over time; more often, it significantly inhibits what would otherwise be a strong tendency toward convergence in political views in response to shared political experience… Partisan bias in political perceptions plays a crucial role in perpetuating and reinforcing sharp differences in opinion between Democrats and Republicans” (p. 138).

Bartels contention is distinct from Nelson and Garst’s in that Nelson and Garst are interested in seeing how a receiver’s values and party affiliation affect their perception of a projector’s persuasive efforts. This is a subjective matter. Bartels contends that one’s values and party affiliation shape one’s view of the objective world. While “one’s view of the objective world” is in and of itself subjective, the independent variables Bartels uses in his tests are objective.

While the findings of Nelson and Garst confirm that values and party affiliation affect one’s perceptions of political messaging, they found that a projector/receiver party or value link did not necessarily result in positive reception. This is consistent with Bartels’ findings. Bartels simply sought (and succeeded in doing so) to confirm that one’s political bias shapes one’s worldview.

Dynamic Factors of Self-Identification:

In his piece, Dynamic Indicators of Self-Perceived Conservatism, Allen S. Miller takes a close look at self-labeling behavior. This is an important theoretical base to cover with respect to political persuasion perception, because Nelson and Garst as well as Bartels have shown that party identification affects perception and, therefore, the relative degree to which a receiver is likely to be persuaded.

Miller seeks to determine which standard measures of conservatism and liberalism best predict how individuals view themselves, and whether these measures are universally applicable. He finds that people don’t all use the same guidelines for determining their sociopolitical orientation. Further, most of the variables typically used by researchers as indicators of conservatism and liberalism are not used by respondents themselves when determining if they are conservative or liberal. Moreover, being liberal or conservative means different things to different generations. (Miller p. 181).

One might be inclined to respond to Miller, how can that be? There must be some common trait(s) by which all conservatives call themselves conservatives and all liberals call themselves liberal. Miller’s findings don’t really refute this assertion but, rather, contend that people have a series of values and priorities which they come to associate, through their life experiences, with a political ideology.

While one’s political ideology may well change over time, what Miller finds is that people tend to self-identify with a political ideology as youth and then their perceptions of their professed ideology become relative to their experiences with it. Youth form their understanding of what it means to be liberal or conservative based on the modern-day stances of conservatives and liberals on major issues.

For instance, a teenager today might associate “conservatism” with traditional values, national defense and federalism and “liberalism” with social liberties, social engineering and environmentalism. But these are not necessarily constant tenants of these political ideologies over time. Republican “conservative” President George W. Bush spent more federal dollars than any president before him. Conversely, republican President Teddy Roosevelt was perhaps this nation’s most noted conservationist. So, it’s not hard to see how someone from the days of Teddy Roosevelt might define conservatism differently than someone today.

In this sense, “self-labeling” tends to be a passive action. People have value systems and they identify with the party or political ideology which espouses those values. This is confirmed in the findings of Bartels and of Nelson and Garst. And because political issues, responses to those issues and key political players facing a population are ever-changing, self-labeling adjusts accordingly. One example of this would be to look at the alteration of the meaning “liberal.” A “classic liberal” is more akin to today’s conservative or libertarian. Conversely, the social conservative of today most closely resembles the democrats of the early-to-mid 1900s.

This is not to say that political labels are useless. On the contrary, self-labeling is simply, as Miller puts it, “dynamic.”

Perceptions of Media Bias:

We’ve shown that the relative success of general persuasive efforts depends on one’s familiarity with persuasion methods, the topic being discussed or the agent (projector). We looked at how value systems and party/ideological identification affect one’s perception of persuasive efforts and the world at large. We’ve also noted that a projector/receiver political party link is less significant than links founded on values, but that a projector who shares values with a receiver comes under greater scrutiny from that receiver. And, finally, we’ve noted that political self-labeling is dynamic, and it changes over time relative to the evolution of issues, parties, key players, etc. Now we will look to see how these variables play into perceptions of media bias and media influence.

In his piece, Slanted Objectivity? Perceived Media Bias, Cable News Exposure, and Political Attitudes, Jonathan S. Morris explores the consequences of a politically divided television news audience. He argues that the recent proliferation of varied/niched news sources has influenced the manner in which a large number of Americans digest their political information. He asserts that television news audiences are divided along political lines and that these divisions can contribute toward further political polarization among the U.S. mass public, making the content of political television news coverage less and less homogenized.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Morris’ concern is supported by the findings of Bartels, who showed that objective facts and events are perceived differently by people of different political perspectives. Because the media have become so set on packaging news (through agenda setting, framing and priming) in ways which will be well-received by their typical viewers, it’s no longer just the perception of events that is polarized but the actual reporting of news as well. Which, as Morris contends, only exponentially furthers the political divide.

Morris believes that people turn to these polarizing media because they see bias in other media which report the news in a way which is not conducive with their preexisting belief systems. “Most significantly, individuals who see bias in political news reporting believe that the direction of the bias is counter to their own political beliefs. Research indicates that strong partisans are more likely to see counterattitudinal media bias than independents or weak partisans” (Morris p. 709).

“Democrats are likely to see a Republican bias in mainstream media, and Republicans are likely to see a Democratic bias. Additionally, Democrats and Republicans are both significantly less likely to perceive a media bias that is in favor of their own partisanship” (Morris p. 715). The phenomenon noted here by Morris is more commonly known as the “hostile media effect.”

The response of the public to the hostile media effect is to seek out media which they perceive to be “more fair.” Morris explains that those media people perceive to be “more fair’ are most often those media which reinforce those people’s preexisting beliefs. This concept is frequently referred to as “uses and gratifications” theory.

Morris adds, “Decades of intense rhetoric regarding bias in the media have taken their toll on the mass public” (p. 724). Indeed, a September 2009 Pew poll found that only 26 percent of Americans say that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased, and 60 percent say news organizations are politically biased.

Morris concludes, “As viewers pursue news sources that are more tailored to their own political beliefs, the probability of exposure to divergent points of view decreases. Thus, Americans are getting different versions of the same issues and events, which may hinder the chances of political moderation and compromise among the mass public. This phenomenon exposes a possible irony of the fragmented media era: as the number of available news sources increases, the likelihood that the public is exposed to counterattitudinal perspectives might actually decrease” (p. 726).

Ideological Cues in the Media:

One key factor in the hostile media effect is the idea that there are certain media which are widely perceived (by those for whom the news reported does not resonate) to have a biased political leaning. For instance, liberals widely condemn Fox News as being politically biased in favor of the Right and conservatives widely criticize CNN for being politically biased in favor of the Left. In his piece, The Messenger Overwhelming the Message: Ideological Cues and Perceptions of Bias in Television News, Joel Turner argues (and defends with research) that attaching the CNN or Fox News labels to news stories sends an ideological cue to the viewer regarding the content of the story – thus predispositioning people to either accept or deny the information being provided by the outlet as credible relative to their own bias and the perceived bias of the news outlet.

“The critical assumption motivating the current research is that this perception of ideological bias can be highly consequential irrespective of whether ideological bias exists in reality. For the viewer who perceives CNN and FNC as advancing liberal and conservative views, respectively, those networks’ labels function as powerful ideological cues. Therefore, simple attribution of news content to CNN or FNC can activate a cognitive heuristic, shaping how given stories are perceived. Importantly, provided that viewers assume ideological bias to be present, this heuristic process can be activated irrespective of whether the actual content of the news is ideologically biased. In short, perception may trump reality.” (Turner p. 443).

Turner’s findings here are in keeping with Nelson and Garst’s – that a projector/receiver value systems link leads to higher persuasion and trust. And the findings of both studies are consistent with the persuasion knowledge model – which identifies the persuasion attempt (a target's perception of an agent's strategic behavior in presenting information designed to influence someone's beliefs, attitudes, decisions or actions) as a key factor in successful persuasion (Friestad & Wright p. 2).

Media Bias Realism:

While both Turner and Morris assert pragmatic explanations of media bias perception, both take a skeptical stance toward those who perceive actual bias in the media. More specifically, both flatly claim that there is no liberal bias in the media.
“Despite the findings of a few recent studies, the vast majority of previous scholarly research provides reason to believe that the actual content of television news broadcasts is not ideologically biased… Systematic academic research struggles to find more than a hint of ideological bias in the news, yet the perception that such bias exists is widespread among the mass public” (Turner p. 442-443).

“A great deal of empirical research into the actual content of coverage finds little evidence to support this perception in past television news or in recent news. Recent work that uses content analyses, which evaluate coverage on comparable ‘baseline’ issues and events, finds little evidence of bias in mainstream news” (Morris p. 708).
Both of these assertions are either wholly inaccurate or just plain outdated. An October 2009 Gallup poll found that American conservatives continue to outnumber moderates in the year 2009 and have outnumbered liberals for as long as Gallup has been polling the issue. Currently, 40 percent of Americans describe their political views as conservative, 36 percent as moderate, and 20 percent as liberal.

Despite the decidedly Right-lean of the American populace, a survey conducted from the end of 2007 to early 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press confirms that, compared to the views of the public, conservatives are under-represented in national journalism while liberals are over-represented. Only six percent of journalists consider themselves conservative or very conservative. This compares with (in 2008) 36 percent of the overall population who described themselves as conservative. Thirty two percent of journalists said they were either liberal or very liberal when (in 2008) only 19 percent of the population identified itself as liberal.

A UCLA-led study objectively quantified bias in a range of media outlets and ranked them accordingly. The findings concluded that, not only do many mainstream media lean left in their coverage, but 18 of the 20 major media outlets UCLA scored, leaned left (Sullivan 2004).

In May 2004, Pew found signs that those who staff newsrooms, at least at the national level, tend to describe themselves as more liberal than in the past and, as a result, frequently find themselves at odds with popular opinion.

As for Fox News, which both Harris and Turner attempted to paint as the epitome of a biased news medium (with a biased audience to boot), an October 2009 Pew study showed that Fox News has the most evenly divided viewership of any news network based on political ideology, with 39 percent identifying as Republican, 33 percent as Democrat and 22 percent as independents. Every other news network in the country attracts more than twice as many democrats as republicans.

And as for the lack of liberal bias via content analysis touted by both Harris and Turner, an October 2008 Pew study found that 40 percent of the Obama stories Fox News did during the election were negative, as were 40 percent of McCain stories done by Fox News. Conversely, 25 percent of Fox News’ stories about obama were positive, and just 22 percent of its McCain stories were positive. MSNBC stood out for having less negative coverage of Obama than any other network, with just 14 percent of its Obama stories being negative. For McCain, 73 percent of MSNBC’s coverage was negative, giving then candidate Obama a five to one advantage over Senator McCain. CNN also showed a very marked liberal lean, with 39 percent of its stories about Obama being negative, compared with the 61 percent of its stories about McCain which were negative (Pew 2008).

Of course, none of this is really surprising when one considers the fact that, to become a journalist, one typically has to acquire a degree in journalism. To acquire a degree in journalism, one has to attend a university left in the charge of a professorial body, 72 percent of which, according to a 2005 George Mason study, is liberal (Kurtz 2005).

Turner says it well when he notes, “The critical assumption motivating the current research is that this perception of ideological bias can be highly consequential irrespective of whether ideological bias exists in reality” (p. 443). However, to deny that there is actual media bias (or to misleadingly only cite Right-leaning outlets for bias) is to do a disservice to the subject matter. To hear theorists like Morris and Turner talk about the subject of media bias, one might assume that there is no media bias – only a self-gratifying populace. To ignore media bias realism yet continue to propose theories about perceptions of media bias is like blaming a malpractice victim for incurred injuries.

Conclusions about Perceptions of Persuasion, Political Persuasion and Media Bias:

We have evaluated the perception of persuasion in three contexts: 1) perception of persuasive efforts 2) perception of political persuasion 3) perception of media bias.

For the first of these contexts, we referenced Friestad & Wright and concluded that the relative success of persuasive efforts depends on the receiver’s familiarity with a) persuasion methods, b) the topic being discussed and c) the agent (projector). These three knowledge structures interact to shape and determine the outcomes of persuasion attempts: "persuasion knowledge" (a target’s beliefs about the means of persuasion being used by the agent), "agent knowledge" (which consists of beliefs about the traits, competencies and goals of the agent), and "topic knowledge" (the target's beliefs about the topic of the message).

For the second context, we looked at how a receiver’s value systems and party/ideological identification affect his perception of persuasive efforts and the world at large (Bartles). We also noted that a projector/receiver political party link is less significant than links founded on values, but a projector who shares values with a receiver comes under greater scrutiny from that receiver (Nelson and Garst). We also observed that political self-labeling is dynamic, and it changes over time relative to the evolution of issues, parties, key players, etc. (Miller).

For the third context of persuasion perception, we evaluated Morris’ contention that the combination of the hostile media effect (the idea that people see “bias” in the reporting which is not conducive to their world view), uses and gratifications theory (that people choose the media outlets which reinforce their preexisting beliefs) and the proliferation of niched media is exponentially widening the ideological gap of America’s political divide. We then noted that receivers are either more or less likely to see information as persuasive relative to the outlet reporting it and their perceptions of that outlet (Turner). We concluded by noting that there is a state of media bias realism whereby, quantitatively, the media lean Left.

Where does all of this leave us? For one, we have dispelled the notion that those on the receiving end of persuasive efforts are uncomplicated. The above-mentioned independent variables all affect the dependent variable we noted earlier (perception of persuasion) to varying degrees.

However, if we were to identify one independent variable which appears to trump all others, it would have to be the receiver’s value system(s). Whether it be perception of persuasion in general, perception of political persuasion, or perception of media bias – a person’s receptiveness to messaging is almost always primarily filtered through their own value system(s).

Ironically enough, this conclusion leads us right back to the limited effects model of media influence – where the media only have limited influence relative to an individual’s preexisting psychological receptiveness to their messaging.


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