Thanksgiving break has came and went and in that small bit of downtime I was able to read a classic in political communication, “The People’s Choice” by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. This book, revolving around the now seminal Erie County study, is a cornerstone in the field of mass communication and in our understanding of how voters behave during presidential elections. Students of mass communication will come across the terms “two-step flow” and “selective exposure” in any theory course and it is from this book that you can learn the definitions from the primary source. Lazarsfeld and co. started out wanting to see how voters make up their minds, as the title indicates, but from this they came across findings that have defined the field of communication ever since.
The two-step flow is simple, but changed the paradigm on how academics looked at the media. The two-step flow involves opinion leaders, which are individuals who consume a large amount of news and information and then pass it along to their friends, family, co-workers, and others in their social circles. Lazarsfeld et al. found many examples of Erie County voters who didn’t really listen to political radio or read the campaign-specific stories in the newspapers magazines, but they would listen to their co-worker or neighbor or family member who had strong opinions about the campaign. That is essentially the two-step flow, now I will move on to selective exposure, which I had to write a report on this week. So, also, that is why I’m writing this blog post, I collected a lot of great quotes from my reading of The People’s Choice, and I couldn’t put them all in my report but I can put them on my blog where I can do whatever I want.
The Erie County study in “The People’s Choice” revolved around Erie County, Ohio voters in the 1940 presidential election between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. In 1940, voters consumed information and campaign communication (or propaganda as the authors called it) through radio, newspapers, and magazines through mass media channels, but also from interpersonal communication as I’ve mentioned with the two-step flow. For the purposes of this brief blog, I really wanted to lay out their quotes that lay the foundation for selective exposure research. Perhaps this blog will serve as a guide for other researchers who may not have a library with a copy of this old, dusty book. First, Lazarsfeld et al. mention “selective attention” but they do offer several tidbits that lead to a thorough definition of selective exposure.
Selective attention: “The more interested people are in the election…the more they expose themselves to campaign propaganda” (p. 42).
“Whatever the publicity that is put out, it is the selective attention of the citizen which determines what is responded to” (p.76).
A beginning definition: “As interest increases and the voter begins to be aware of what it is all about, his predispositions come into play. Out of the wide array of available propaganda, he begins to select. He is more likely to tune in some programs than others” (p.76).
Selective exposure in the 1940 election: “People selected political material in accord with their own taste and bias” (p.80).
“Voters somehow contrive to select out of the passing stream of stimuli those by which they are more inclined to be persuaded. So it is that the more they read and listen, the more convinced they become of the rightness of their own position” (p.82).
“The more strongly partisan the person, the more likely he is to insulate himself from contrary points of view” (p.89).
The highly exposed and highly interested: “Political materials distributed through the various media of communication reached the same group of voters” (p. 121). “The ones the campaign managers most wanted to reach – read and listened least” (p.95). Undecided voters were likely to get their information from second-hand sources, and did not actually read or listen to much political campaign propaganda. Decided partisans who were interested in the election were the ones paying close attention to campaign propaganda. However, these “constant partisans” still “managed to see and hear more of their own side’s propaganda than the opposition’s” (p.89). “In short, the most partisan people protect themselves from the disturbing experience presented by opposition arguments by paying little attention to them” (p.89).
So there you have it, the most basic definitions of selective exposure from the primary source. I should also note that The People’s Choice is a relatively short book, and you could read it in a day or two. I read the 3rd edition, which has some nice forewords reflecting on the impact this study had on mass communication and our overall understanding of presidential elections. My next book should be after the semester is over, and I am planning on reading Jon Meacham’s new biography about George H.W. Bush along with Joseph Klapper’s “The Effects of Mass Communication” over Christmas break.