Opening Minds

Can the media persuade audiences to embrace a fresh outlook?

Viewers of The Colbert Report do not all see the same show. Liberals see host Stephen Colbert as a liberal acting the part of intolerant blowhard. Conservatives, in contrast, identify with many of the attitudes Colbert affects and relish the ridicule he heaps on liberal nostrums and liberal guests. Both groups think The Colbert Report is funny. Both groups think Colbert is on their side.

So conclude Heather LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, and Michael Beam of Ohio State University, who showed video clips of Colbert to three hundred college students for their study “The Irony of Satire,” published in the April 2009 International Journal of Press/Politics. As the authors note, the findings mirror those of a study done thirty-five years ago of viewer responses to All in the Family, the most popular TV sitcom of the 1970s. In that study, Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach found that liberals considered Archie Bunker, the politically conservative protagonist, the racist and sexist goat of the show, his bluster blatantly ridiculous, whereas conservatives saw Archie as the hero of the show, giving voice to a shared morality.

We take issue with the authors’ statement that the power of political satire to influence opinion is more modest than one might imagine because “audience perceptions play a much stronger role than previously thought.” Previously thought by whom? The notion of “selective perception”—people seeing what they want to see—has been a hallowed touchstone in the literature of social psychology for decades.

Still, the Ohio State study does shine a light on an interesting dilemma facing media professionals: If selective perception is so powerful, how do they persuade audiences to open their minds to change, embrace a fresh outlook? Well, it isn’t easy, especially when dealing with issues that elicit strong feelings in audiences. One tactic, often employed in both advertising and politics, is to recruit a celebrity spokesperson. According to the standard view of celebrity advocacy, celebrities quickly draw attention to particular issues and coax the public to sign on. If you have a neglected cause with great news potential, just get a Bono or an Angelina Jolie to trumpet your message and it will quickly become part of the mainstream news flow.

Or maybe not. A study by A. Trevor Thrall and seven graduate students from the University of Michigan—Dearborn finds that although celebrities participate in advocacy more than ever before, their influence on getting their issues covered in the news remains minimal. According to the study “Star Power: Celebrity Advocacy and the Evolution of the Public Sphere,” published in the October 2008 International Journal of Press/Politics, the more famous a celebrity, the more active he or she will be in advocacy; and while high-profile celebrities are more likely to get their issues in the news than less famous celebrities, the overall effectiveness of celebrity advocacy is still marginal. According to the authors, celebrity advocacy has moved increasingly from trying to convince media gatekeepers to place their causes on news programs for general audiences to targeting already-interested parties online, especially on social networking sites, to urge them to commit more time and money to their favorite causes. In short, even celebrity advocacy is discovering the efficiency of narrowcasting.

The authors focused their study on print-media sources but they might have found more star-power impact on general audiences by looking at local radio, local TV, or even Twitter, where Ashton Kutcher recently advocated for malaria prevention. The authors also warn that our fragmented media space leads to increasingly partisan attitudes, supporting the common complaint that in the new media environment, people listen only to those they agree with. But that conclusion strikes us as premature—the new media environment also creates meeting points of diverse opinions; blog posts often link to and comment on sources they strongly disagree with, exposing readers to broader contexts, and Google searches yield ideologically diverse sites whether you want them or not. The more rapidly and remarkably things change in our media environment, the more carefully we have to examine whether, or how, or in what direction, or in which various directions, those often stubborn creatures—human beings—are changing, too, if at all.

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.