In my last blog post, I introduced agenda setting as a fundamental media effect: The media sets the public and the political agenda by bringing issues to the attention of the audience and of policy makers. Agenda setting has a little brother, priming, sometimes called second order agenda setting. Priming effects of communication are important for decision making, for example which candidate to vote for in an upcoming election.
The concept of priming is based on the assumption that people don't carefully weigh all possible aspects of a situation or problem when making decisions. Rather, people employ mental shortcuts when making up their minds. One of the heuristics they apply is to rely on information that is most accessible in their memory. The memory network stores ideas and concepts that we have come across at some point in time, for instance when reading the newspaper this morning. Every memory is stored as a node, and every node is related to another node by semantic paths. Nodes that are strongly connected to each other form a mental schema, an interpretative framework or a belief system. When an external stimulus, for instance a news headline, activates a node in this network, the entire schema gets activated and will serve as shortcut for making a decision.
Media coverage of political issues has an impact on which concepts are activated for evaluation by selecting and emphasizing certain aspects – and ignoring others. Some studies attribute the actual priming effect mainly to frequency: The more prominent the issue is in the media, the greater is its accessibility in a person's memory. This issue will then be more important for making a decision than other issues that might also be relevant. For example: Country X holds presidential elections next week and politicians are still campaigning. The country faces economic problems because of the financial crisis, but corruption and medical care are also important problems for the people. Now a member of the incumbent government is found out to have given a contract to his wife's company, and the media is all over this story. When people make up their minds about whom to vote for, they will think about the economy, health care, and corruption. Since the media has mainly reported on the government corruption scandal, corruption is likely to figure more strongly in their voting decision. The issue will weigh more because it is more salient in people's heads.
This has implications for our work on, for example, accountability. Voting is the ultimate manifestation of holding your government accountable. The media can influence the decision for whom to vote by influencing what you hold the government accountable for. Will it be the abysmal situation in the country's hospitals where even the most basic drugs are lacking? Or will it be the government member's corrupt behavior? That the media will decide. The media is a force to be reckoned with.
Development practitioners can use the priming effect to advance their own development goals. A massive communication campaign illustrating, for instance, the state of national health care over and over again may be taken up by the media, and will certainly be noted by the citizens. Such campaigns may shift the weight of an issue and thereby the role it plays when citizens decide their vote. If, for instance, health care has not been perceived as a big problem by the public so far, a communication campaign can put it on the public agenda (agenda setting) and make it a salient issue by repeatedly reporting about it (priming). The amount of communication and coverage of health care will then influence the importance of health care in the voters' decisions.
Picture credit: Flickr user cstmweb