The latest issue of Public Opinion Quarterly includes a fascinating study of how the media influences attitudes about the American court system. All well and good, but the fascinating part comes not from the relationship between news and attitudes about the courts, but the methodological approach taken by the authors in discriminating between sensationalist and sober media.
Stay with me. It's worth the ride.
The authors write: "Our theoretical claim is where an individual receives information about the courts will shape the way they think about the courts."
Yup, can't argue with that. The fragmenting of the news media has led to a number of potential differences between folks who, for example, get their news from Glenn Beck versus those who get their news from The Economist. According to the authors, sensationalist media deconstruct court rulings in such a fashion as to result in less "diffuse" and "specific" support (these are terms described elswhere in the paper).
Sober media, according to the authors, "focus on the legalistic nature of court processes" and will reinforce views "above the political fray."
This is important and I couldn't agree more, other than to be bitter about not thinking of it first. Where it all begins to unravel comes from -- as is often the case -- in the methodological details.
In measuring "differential media exposure," as they call it, they distinguish between sensationalist media (political talk radio and cable news) and sober media (newspapers and network news). They measure exposure to each and use a simple formula, shown below:
Differential Media Exposure =
(talk radio + cable news) - (newspaper + network news)
While I buy that the majority of talk radio tends to fit here, I'm not certain cable news is so easily collapsed into a sensationalist category. And there's little evidence provided by the authors, or in any content analyses I'm aware of, to immediately support such a conclusion. It feels right in my atheoretical gut, but so does a good dark beer.
But what they've done here is broken some interesting new ground, a fancy way of saying the rest of us can now use this formula to justify our own analyses. And one study will build upon another, but what we don't really know -- other than in our own respective atheoretical guts -- is whether this sober to sensational media dichotomy is sound and sober, or a wee bit tipsy.
Tomorrow, a bit more about the results.
Christopher D. Johnston and Brandon L. Bartels (2010), "Sensationalism and Sobriety: Differential Media Exposure and Attitudes Toward American Courts, Public Opinion Quarterly, 74, 260-285.