Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Learned Helplessness and the News

People sometimes get a sense of powerlessness, of learned helplessness, from consuming the news. The issues seem so big. The actors seem so distant. And the journalistic routine of providing competing sides on an issue, or even competing solutions, can make things even worse.

If I were measuring learned helplessness or a sense of powerlessness or self efficacy right now, I'd tie it to the economic issues of the day. Dow drops. Dow climbs. Banks fail. Government acts, kinda. And it all seems so beyond the control of everyday people. TV is a factor. The "rendering of the story," according to one study, helps create learned helplessness in the viewers.

The good news? There's an election. Maybe ya heard about it.

If the news media can provide "mobilizing information" then people, theoretically, should learn more and as a consequence, act on that information. So a crisis timed with a presidential election is not necessarily a bad thing. We should see more participation, more political learning.

Okay, so that's the theory, but some of this is based on previous research. One study found that citizen apathy about topics in the news "results from a profound sense of powerlessness." Give "mobilizing information," they argue, and this provides a sense of self efficacy. People learn. People act. They feel more a part of the democratic process. A spiral of sorts is created, a good one, as they get a taste for being informed and involved.

But there is something in the nature of television news that helps promote learned helplessness, and yet there is something about really good candidates who can bridge this aspect of the medium by connecting, ironically through television, to tell people they really do matter. Whether this campaign, tied as it is to a financial crisis, results in more political knowledge is something many scholars will be asking. I can't wait to hear the answer.

No comments: