Media disintermediation and priming in politics.

Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

 However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

– TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.24.20 AM

Priming and political messaging

In other words, it’s not enough for an ad simply to be clever or have good visuals. It also has to connect with the audience at a time when voters are primed to pay attention to the message.

The use of “primed” in this article caught my attention. It ties into an earlier post about “agenda setting” in political communication. I wrote there about the media’s role in agenda setting for Trump. Priming is closely linked to agenda setting, though the exact relationship is not always clearly defined.  As a useful examination of political messaging and an interesting intellectual exercise, I’ve applied the two concepts using the “Quotes” ad example cited in the article.

Agenda setting is the starting point. It crucial to understand here that the media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.  This provides a context for public discussion of an issue, setting the stage for audience understanding, both at conscious and subconscious level.  For a political message such as the one described in article to produce results, there has to be an effective agenda setting process in place. In this case, one that conveys the idea that Trump is “anti-women”.

Priming is the ongoing effect of exposure to agenda setting. It influences the behaviour of individuals over a period of time making them receptive to the political message. That explains the reason why the ad was more effective two weeks after its release, rather than immediately. The audience was not primed for the message when initially exposed to the ad. However, the coverage of a subsequent event started an agenda setting process that over time primed them to be more receptive towards it.

When the ad was first released and initially tested, Trump’s attitudes toward women, although controversial, were not a prime topic of political conversation. But then, on March 30, in a town hall interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Trump said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have illegal abortions.

As news rapidly spread about the remark, Trump’s campaign tried to walk it back, issuing a statement saying that Trump believed that doctors who perform abortions should be punished, but not the women who undergo the procedures. The conflicting statements only heightened coverage of the issue.