TELEVISION AND THE ELECTION (May, 1953)

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TELEVISION AND THE ELECTION

The new medium played an important part in the recent presidential campaign. How did it compare with radio, newspapers and magazines as a source of information?

by Angus Campbell, Gerald Gurin and Warren E. Miller

THE PRESIDENTIAL campaign of 1952 was the first in which television played a major part. How much did this new medium influence the election? No one really knows, because no specific studies were made to measure the impact of TV on the thinking of the electorate. But we do know something about how television compared with the other media of information in bringing the campaign to the public, and what groups in the population were most exposed to, or affected by, the television campaign.

As part of a two-year study of political behavior financed by the Carnegie Corporation, the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan last fall made an intensive analysis of the factors affecting the decision of citizens to vote. In the course of this we asked a sample of the U. S. population in November a few questions about the media (newspapers, radio, television and magazines) through which they had “paid attention to the campaign” and requested them to say which they considered had been most important to them. Our sample, 1,714 citizens of voting age, was selected in such a way that there is only one chance in 20 that its representation of the country at large is in error by more than four percentage points. Its representation of specific regions of the country or of classes of the population is subject to a somewhat larger margin of error.

The first noteworthy fact is that the public went out of its way to watch the campaign on television. Only about 40 per cent of the homes in the U. S. have television sets, but some 53 per cent of the population saw TV programs on the campaign—a reflection of “television visiting.” On the other hand, the campaign news and material in newspapers, magazines and on the radio did not reach all of their respective audiences: more than 80 per cent of the population take daily newspapers and have radios and more than 60 per cent regularly read magazines, but in each case the number following the campaign in these media was smaller than the total audience [see top table at the right].

There are several points of interest in the geographical picture given by this table. The relatively poor showing of radio in the Northeast indicates that television is supplanting radio in that region. In the South radio leads all other media because that predominantly rural region has relatively few TV sets and a smaller proportion of newspaper readership than other parts of the country.

WHEN PEOPLE were asked which medium had given them the most information about the campaign, the impact of television became even more striking [see middle table at right]. In the nation as a whole television, though available to only a minority of the people, led the other media in the number of persons who rated it most informative. Of those who actually watched the campaign on TV (nearly all of whom were exposed to other media), 59 per cent considered television their most important information source. In contrast, among those who followed the campaign in newspapers, which takes in 79 per cent of the population, only 28 per cent rated newspapers as the medium from which they got most of their information. Again there were marked regional differences: the Northeast relied most heavily on television, the South on radio, and the Midwest and West were almost identical in pattern, with television in the lead.

To what sections of the population did television appeal most? The situation is summarized in the table at the top of the next page, which breaks down the responses into population categories. To begin with, the ability to buy a set obviously is an important selective factor: the proportion of people who followed the campaign on television was much smaller in the lowest income group (under $3,000) than in the higher-income groups. (We know that ownership of sets rises with income.) In general the attraction, or availability, of television was highest in metropolitan areas and among the better paid groups—professional and business men, white-collar workers and skilled workers. The rural, low-income and unskilled groups relied mainly on radio. But it seems certain that among these people also television will supplant radio as TV sets, and broadcasting stations, become available to them. Where income and facilities allow, people of all groups tend to turn from radio to television.

When it comes to newspaper and magazine reading, the differences among the occupational and income groups are not so wide. But there are substantial differences according to education: the better educated people were, the more they read about the campaign. And by the same token, the less they valued television as the source of information. The income factor masks this, as well-educated people are more likely to have high incomes and therefore to own television sets. When we separated education from income status, however, we found that people with college degrees or some college education rated television markedly lower than did those with less schooling. This is shown in the table at the bottom of the next page.

Among people in the higher-income groups, who can afford television sets, the campaign on TV seems to have made a significantly greater impact on those with only a grammar or high school education than on college people. It got its highest rating from people with an income of $5,000 or more who never went to high school. A third of the college group considered TV the most important single source of information on the campaign, but reading played a pro- -portionately larger part in their information-getting than it did for those with less education. This simply bears out the truism that higher education tends to create active rather than passive habits of obtaining information.

Television as a campaign medium has made its main inroads into radio. On the whole the newspapers and magazines so far seem to have held their ground, for their importance was rated as high in the Northeast, where TV sets are most common, as in other regions. But as television expands its coverage and develops techniques for appealing to the various kinds of audiences, it will undoubtedly offer more and more competition for the attention of the voters.

AS TO HOW television affected the voting itself, we have no clear evidence. Those who rated television their most important source of information voted for Eisenhower in about the same proportion as those who relied mainly on radio or newspapers [see bottom table above]. Magazine readers were considerably more Republican. Stevenson did somewhat better among the television devotees than among those who preferred radio or newspapers, but these differences may not be very significant, as geographical and other factors also entered into the situation.

We cannot tell from our studies whether television had a distinctive im-pact on voters. It may be that television, radio and the newspapers were all equally partisan (or nonpartisan) in covering the campaign and thus had similar effects on their followers. On the other hand, it is also possible that television did have a more potent effect on the individuals who viewed the campaign, but that the degree of its influence is concealed by selective factors which were not controlled in our analysis. To measure the comparative effects of the various media it will be necessary to track down these other factors and make allowances for them.

In the 1956 election there will be an opportunity to analyze the effects specifically and precisely, and it is to be hoped that such studies will be undertaken. By then television probably will have expanded its coverage of the nation so greatly that the sociological pattern of its audience, and of the other media audiences, will be substantially different from what it was in the 1952 campaign. The direction of these changes will itself be revealing as to the nature of television’s impact.

Another word of caution should be added. The 1952 data apply only to the audiences for political broadcasting and reporting. It cannot be assumed that the same pattern of media preferences would be found in other areas of information or entertainment.

17 comments
  1. Dr OLAITAN, O. 'Lanre says: February 18, 20105:49 am

    This is likely to be with a lot of bias. How do we manage that?

  2. Anastasiia Russell says: July 6, 20105:17 pm

    I think this article is very interesting. It is very important to understand different sources that influence our daily choices. Media is one of them. Television for example plays a big role in humanity. As you can see in 1952 many people who followed elections were watching TV. I think TV and other media defiantly had its effect on the way people build their beliefs and choices. However, people should be careful about the information that is brought up for society because there are many unreliable sources.

  3. Jamie Farris says: September 22, 201010:13 am

    I found the lack of education determines how you will get your sources to be very interesting. It makes sense now that I think about it, though.

  4. Kim says: September 22, 201011:22 am

    I agree with the first comment about the bias part in the whole article. But, it also is based on a lot of actual numbers and facts. I only worry that the elites or upper class will always have an upper hand and not to mention a greater infulence on the elections and getting bills passed with greater ease and faster speed then us. Or is it that they have more money to be pro-active with campaigne’s. While, the lower-class doesn’t have much money to wave around, but we do have greater passions and with that we still have a chance to go out and make a change, with our own voices!!!

  5. Toronto says: September 22, 20102:05 pm

    Funny – elections here (both municiple and the expected Federal one that’s upcoming) have been attacking “elites”. One of the federal parties has named my whole city as “elites” for some reason. (We probable have the largest collection of homeless people, “outpatient” mentally disturbed, new-to-the country immigrants, and all sort of people that would NEVER be called elite in normal non-election retoric.)

    I doubt our “elites” control anything.

  6. Charlie says: September 22, 20102:52 pm

    Toronto: I think that the definition of the word “elite” has been completely muddled. I say it should only be used to describe super hackers as in the movie Hackers.

    I do think that much of what is on TV is influenced/controlled by the rich and powerful. I mean, how many segments did you see on cable news about media deregulation? It makes sense, it’s difficult for companies to report things that will adversely effect their business.

  7. Elise Cruz says: September 24, 20108:38 am

    The simple way of persuading is being affect through the media of today and with campaigns in material such as the news on television, newspapers, magazines and on the radio the audience is surrounded by constant persuasion. With audiences reaching different groups of people this works to both the candidates position and doesn’t work cause the idea of being pulled in a certain direction.

  8. Anna Jimenez says: October 10, 20108:17 pm

    This article was interesting, it showed us how it was in 1952 and how tv had influenced society at the time. Nowadays internet and other sources are what we see and it affects how we portray information becuase not everything that is bein said is a reliable source of communication. Even though it influences us we need to make our own choices instead of following what they want us to do or believe in. I think its hard now since we’ve been doing so for decades. But with a better insight and education we can make smarter choices.

  9. david arango says: February 23, 20119:19 am

    After reading this article, I wonder what other tactics will upcoming elections bring us?
    pop ups promoting a candidate?

    T.V. is a great source for information and a great way to educate a big audience.

  10. Phillina Towry says: June 28, 20112:06 pm

    I wonder if Obama will get a twitter account to reach the younger generation of voters.

  11. MOHAMAD TARABULSI says: June 30, 201111:34 am

    its amazing how lazy people become due to connivence. This trend has been sweeping the nation. People rather sit down and watch the tv for there source of info rather than read about it. It is a horrible way to find out things whether it be out a presidential election or what is happing globally due to the fact that not everything is about the story will be exposed…

  12. John says: June 30, 201111:36 am

    MOHAMAD TARABULSI » Not to mention the effect it had on your ability to spell.

  13. Katie Orcino says: June 30, 20112:38 pm

    Wow, this is article is quite interesting, and tends to ring true for the most part.In 2011, though, I think that Internet newspapers and blogs are actually much more influential that television news programs, despite the fact that television have reigned supreme as a source of major political information in the 1950s and 1960s. From what I’ve observed from reading many of the comments posted for politically-oriented videos on YouTube, many people appear to have lost their desire to get most of their political news by by TV and have stated that they prefer to turn to the Internet for such information because most of the major news stations in this country have obvious political bias (leaning either left or right) and are more interested in slanting political news to promote their own opinions than objectively reporting real political news. I think that a lot of people, including myself, have become aggravated with the increasing political polarization in this nation and simply wish that scheming politicians would be called out for their actions, regardless of what political party they representing. It’s intriguing than even in the 1950s and 1960s, when the political divisions in the US were much narrower than they are now, that people were still a bit skeptical of television and preferred to read newspapers which were still held to high journalism standards and constituted credible sources of information with facts and figures.Televisions’s influence probably won’t decrease much, though, because it can still be an objective source of information if you can ignore the political commentaries after every single video clip and interpret the original sources yourself.

  14. sean d says: June 30, 20115:39 pm

    i agree that tv is able to reach the most people but, other sources force people to really critically think about issues more then just a short story on tv’s bloated mass media. I try my best to not watch mass media like cnn, or fox news. Another source of media that might have been interesting to include would have been whether or not people in the study read books as well.

  15. Sheila Izvernari says: June 30, 20118:10 pm

    This article made me think if there would have been another avenue of media for viewing presidential elections. Having the internet in our modern times certainly helps the younger generation but I feel the older generation still relies on Newspapers and Television mostly, even today.

  16. Daniel Lane says: July 11, 201110:28 am

    I feel that the general public will watch things on television when they can. However with the development of the internet, there are more chances for people to follow the political processes. At this point you can do a background search on your presidential candidates in a matter of moments simply searching them online to find out who they are and what they stand for.

    The potential for more informed decisions is higher than ever, and I think in the coming years the internet will become the primary means for following an election and making those election decisions. Who knows what’s next!

  17. John says: July 11, 201110:55 am

    Daniel Lane » Yeah, the internet where people can learn not to vaccinate their kids, the world is going to end in October (or Dec 2012), President Obama is a foreign citizen, George Bush blew up the World Trade Center, Bill Cosby bought the rights to the Little Rascals, defaulting on the debt ceiling is no big deal, FEMA has concentration camps around the country, Congressmen retire with full pay after one term, don’t teach kids about evolution, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    It’s like stupid people looked at the Internet and said, “Where has this been all my life?”

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