Harvard Researcher Finds that the News Media is Not Responsible for Civic Disengagement

Contact: Adrianne Kaufmann
Phone: 617-495-8290
Date: September 20, 2000

CAMBRIDGE, MASS -- Conventional wisdom suggests that coverage of public affairs by the news media contributes towards civic disengagement, including ignorance of public affairs, disenchantment with government, and political apathy, in America and elsewhere.
A new book by Pippa Norris critically questions the basis for these claims. In A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies, Norris, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, proves that the evidence for ‘media malaise’ has little support.
In fact, people who attend to news know more about politics than those who don't, they are more trusting of political institutions, and they are more likely to participate in politics including turning out to vote. She demonstrates this pattern in the United States and Europe and concludes that active, politically engaged people attend to the news more than others and that this process reinforces political involvement. This is the "virtuous" rather than "vicious" circle of her title.
Moreover her study challenges many of the assumptions concerning the structural decline of the news media. Commentators have often decried the "tabloidization" of the news media, where celebrity profiles, lurid crime stories and soft news have usurped serious discussion of policy issues. Norris analyzes the evidence and concludes that there has been a diversification of the news media in most societies, with the growth of serious news outlets, from C-SPAN and CNN to The Economist, as well as the expansion of popular formats, rather than a simple decline in news standards.
Today there are thousands of newspapers, in addition to public and commercial radio and television programs, offering coverage of political events and issues. Beyond these traditional media channels, activists are connecting in new ways via the Internet. In Western Europe, consumption of newspapers and television news is well up on thirty years ago. "There are many important problems facing democracies," Norris concludes "But the news media should not be blamed for multiple wider ills in the body politic."
On the basis of systematic evidence and opinion surveys from post-industrial societies, A Virtuous Circle takes on many of the conventional shibboleths about the news media and campaigns and provides a fresh analysis of these issues.
A Virtuous Circle is available in stores on October 1. If you would like to receive an advance copy, please contact Adrianne Kaufmann at 617-495-8290.

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