Which comes first, TV news or public views?

News that Matters: Television and American Opinion, by Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 187 pp. $19.95. ``News that Matters'' is the latest book in what has become a chain of research. Like its predecessors, this book illuminates the barely perceptible effects of television.

The question driving much of this research is: Does television reflect reality or does reality reflect television? Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder frame this question tightly: They research only the political effects of television news, leaving aside such other well-researched phenomena as television violence and political advertising. But although the authors limit their scope, they search deep. They ask, in fact, is TV a primordial power?

Iyengar and Kinder investigate television news with a superb research plan and techniques (yes, this is a scholarly book - appendixes full of beta coefficients and the like). Taking both a broad and microscopic view, they examine secular opinion data of national scope (a typical political scientific approach) in conjunction with 14 experiments of their own design that exposed more than 1,000 subjects to altered and unaltered video presentations of news broadcasts (a typical social psychological approach).

The objective of this research is clear: to determine, unequivocally, whether TV news affects Americans' political opinions. One would expect such clear, sound research objectives and techniques to produce a clear, sound answer. They do not. The fault lies neither with the researchers nor with their experimental design; rather, the problem stems from the cause-and-effect role of television itself, which is so exasperatingly intractable.

The authors are able to demonstrate, somewhat conclusively, that what has become known as the ``agenda-setting hypothesis'' is true. Agenda-setting states, basically, that viewers parrot television. If, over a period of time, television dedicates most of its news coverage to a particular subject, for example, international terrorism, then when the public is asked - days later and outside the context of television viewing - what is the major problem facing the country, they will reply: international terrorism. In short, viewers assign importance to what they see in proportion to the amount of time they see it.

Similarly, the authors find the ``priming hypothesis'' to be equally robust. If a television news story focuses on the federal budget and deficit spending, then, immediately afterward, a story focusing on the president is aired, viewers (if asked) will judge the president's performance on the criterion of budget control. Thus, as if being entertained by a warm-up act, the audience links the two stories.

Of course, the authors examine many nuances of the above effects, but by way of conclusion they find an underlying theme: ``Americans' views of their society and nation are powerfully shaped by the stories that appear on the evening news ... our evidence implies an American public with a limited memory for last month's news and a recurrent vulnerability to today's.... People do not take into account all that they know ... instead, they consider what comes to mind, those bits and pieces of political memory that are accessible.... When television news focuses on a problem, the public's priorities are altered, and altered again as television news moves on to something new.''

But does the information presented the authors really matter? After taking sure-footed steps to demonstrate the plausibility of primacy and agenda-setting, they are left, as are we, nonplused about how much of an effect television news truly has. Can television news, if furtively controlled, change anyone's mind? Or, to put it in the authors' terms, do primacy and agenda-setting effects make TV a primordial power? Probably not.

The authors write, ``We do not mean to suggest that television's power to set the public agenda and to prime citizens' political choices is unlimited. In fact, our studies suggest clear limits to television's power.''

Although the authors' conclusions are rightfully limited by the scope of their research, we as readers can expand them. Whether television news matters may be a three-sided question.

First, does it have a palpable, significant effect? The authors show clearly that viewers are influenced by what they see, but they make no demonstration that television can change people's opinion. In fact, they imply that this is exactly where television's effect is limited.

Second, does television's ubiquity compensate for the limits of its effect? If, indeed, 50 million Americans typically watch an evening broadcast, then perhaps the accumulation of limited effects does resound throughout the nation. Third, and most important, can recognizing the power of agenda-setting and priming help us as viewers to become more actively critical of television news? Here I think we can say yes. With a sharp eye and competent memory we can separate the story from the side effect. This hopeful result takes on extra importance in these times, a period of soon-to-be-intense campaign and electoral coverage.

This book offers a clear contribution to the chain of studies on the effects of the news media. Well written and precise, it will become a standard reference in the research literature.

Ralph Braccio is an associate with ICF Inc., a Washington-based public-policy consulting firm.

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