#PiliPinas2016: The good, the bad, and the reality

Fake survey

This year’s election has brought out the best and the worst in many of us as we publicly engaged one another on social media, and yet we need to be mindful that what see online is rarely accurate and complete.

I have done some research on social media use, but from just observing my own social media accounts and reading posts of my own circle of friends in the last several weeks, I saw some patterns that support and question what we know about social media so far.

Let me start with what’s good.

I think the level of engagement we have witnessed this election is unparalleled, and part of that is because social media provided a public platform for people to voice out their thoughts and opinions without passing through the gates of traditional media.

Far from fears of social media functioning as echo-chambers—or when individuals get exposed only to information consistent with their views—I saw how friends supporting different candidates engaged with one another.

Supporters aggressively sought out and confronted opinion inconsistent with theirs. Such mediated confrontation, I think, further heightened public interest in this election.

Increased interest translated into mobilization, with supporters using social media to organize their ranks. I had friends who posted on Facebook calls for campaign donations and arrangements to distribute campaign materials.

I don’t remember seeing this level of participation, at least on social media, in the previous elections.

But we also witnessed widespread problematic social media behavior.

Many supporters abandoned civility as they expressed support for a candidate who, ironically, they claimed to represent discipline.

There was a lot of name-calling, with people not just arguing but even maligning others who disagreed with them. Supporters turned into cyber-bullies, viciously threatening supporters of other candidates.

I also have very close friends who engaged in misinformation, one of them posting bogus survey results, and I was appalled how such fabricated information went viral in a matter of hours, that a survey company had to issue a statement to deny it.

Many also became very hostile with traditional media organizations, threatening reporters not just online but also when they see them in person.

Studies have long established what researchers called the hostile media effect.

Simply, it refers to the phenomenon of individuals with a strong opinion on a particular issue perceiving the media to be biased against their opinion, even if confronted by a neutral story.

An important factor explaining this effect is the perceived reach of the source.

It seems that part of the aggressiveness of many supporters in criticizing and demonizing traditional and social media sources they perceive to be biased against their own views is the fear and recognition that these sources have wide reach.

But what’s interesting is how some supporters did not just question the media they perceived as biased, but they also put up alternative social media pages, blogs, and websites that spread fabricated information and were, ironically, explicitly biased.

However, while we now live in an increasingly digitized world, we have to realize that most of what we see on social media—even what we get from opinion surveys—remains incomplete. We have witnessed this in the recent national elections in the United Kingdom and Singapore.

In the UK, the majority win of the Conservatives surprised polling companies which had predicted a much different result.

In Singapore, supporters of opposition parties dominated social media, but election results saw the administration party increasing its majority last year.

But are we really ourselves on social media?

While it is surprising to see some social media users spew out threats and nasty messages without hiding behind anonymity—vicious comments also come from users using their real names—many of them quickly step back when counter-attacked.

It’s great to see social media being maximized as a platform for free exchange of ideas during this election, but much of what we have witnessed also highlights the need for social media literacy.

This election is not only about deciding what our country will become, but it should also be about reflecting on what we have become as a people.

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Framing, second-level agenda setting, and what am I thinking?!?

The debate on whether or not framing and second-level agenda setting are the same remains unresolved. I should not have been surprised therefore when it became one of the questions I was asked in my doctoral comprehensive exam.

The following version comes from my first exam—one of the four questions I had to answer for my mass communication theory test. I was asked this question: Are framing and second-level agenda setting different from each other? I argued they are different, but one of my committee members thought differently, too.

What do you think?

Now, if I got anything wrong, please consider I was writing this from memory (away from my books and notes), within a four-hour deadline (I was to answer three more questions), and without immediate access to donuts, chocolates, or pad thai that could have inspired me to do much better.

Snowmageddon 2.0

***

The agenda-setting theory refers to how public’s exposure to news about an issue increases the salience of that issue to that public. It began after McCombs & Shaw (1972) found in a survey of still undecided voters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina how media agenda was related to public agenda, supporting the agenda-setting theory instead of the selective exposure hypothesis. In particular, they found that general media agenda had a much stronger correlation with public agenda compared with the agenda by each news medium, or even to the agenda by the political party that members of the public support.

Three important concepts need to be defined: media agenda, public agenda and “public.” First, McCombs and Shaw (1972) measured media agenda in Chapel Hill during an election using content analysis of the news published or aired by several news media. Though they also compared the agenda of each of the news media, no news article is considered to have an agenda. Thus, agenda refers to an accumulation of articles that refer to an issue. The repetition and consistent prominence attached to an issue elevate it higher into the media agenda. Thus, media agenda is cumulative. Second, public agenda referred to the public’s perceived salience of issues. Salience among media users was measured in a survey. McCombs and Shaw (1972) asked respondents to rank what they thought were the most important issues. Finally, focusing on public agenda instead of studying the agenda of audiences or media users carries the assumption of what constitutes a public. Scholars have differentiated the public from the audience, in such a way that members of the public are thought to be responsible citizens exercising their social roles (e.g. Papacharissi, 2009; Ettema et. al, 1994). This is appropriate for the original agenda-setting study as McCombs and Shaw (1972) surveyed voters. In summary, the agenda-setting theory argues that while the media cannot dictate what people think, they are particularly good at shaping what people think about (Valenzuela & McCombs, 2011). Subsequent studies that tested agenda-setting, however, found no explanation from the theory for how people thought about the issues presented to them.

When people believe an issue is important, they also have ideas why these issues are important. They also have evaluations of actors associated with these issues. Thus, McCombs later coined second-level agenda setting as an explanation to these evaluations. While first-level agenda setting is about importance of issues, second-level agenda setting is about evaluation and interpretation. However, many scholars correctly pointed out that second-level agenda setting sounded very much like framing.

Framing also talks about the concept of salience. Entman (1993) described framing as “to make aspects of a perceived reality more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). But framing effects are different from agenda-setting effects (Tewksbury & Scheufele, 2009). Framing is “what unifies information into a package that can influence audiences” (Tewkbury & Scheufele, 2009, p. 19). It is about interpretation. This focus on how a text is interpreted is similar to second-level agenda setting.

Framing, however, is different from agenda-setting. From the point of view of message construction, agenda-setting is cumulative. A news article does not provide an agenda, but placed within the context of previous and future similar stories across different media, it might elevate an issue into the media agenda. In contrast, individual messages contain frames. For instance, journalists cannot choose not to frame their news articles (Stromback & Luego, 2010). Thus, a media agenda, derived from a cumulation of messages each containing frames, can include multiple and even conflicting frames.

In terms of message processing, agenda-setting is an accessibility effect (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Exposure to the media increases the accessibility of an issue in one’s mind. A way to operationalize agenda-setting effect is to ask individuals to list what they believe are the most important issues, which are conceptually the issues that are most accessible, or what they are thinking about. In contrast, framing effect is an applicability effect (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Exposure is not enough for framing effects. Attention to the media is important. Attention to frames in messages provide individuals with information that they can connect to those stored in their memory networks—persons, objects, ideas they had prior experience with and have value judgments of. Connecting new information with the old brings about interpretation—the point when framing takes place. Thus, a way to operationalize framing effect is to ask individuals how they perceive an issue; for example, asking why climate change is important. An answer that says climate change is important because of the economic problems it brings about is usually considered an economic framing, or linking climate change with economic evaluations. This is how an individual thinks about climate change.

Framing and second-level agenda setting are explained by very similar processes. Some scholars would even argue that second-level agenda setting is framing, that it was just coined to strengthen the original agenda-setting theory. I would argue, however, that despite the same processing mechanism that underlies them, framing and second-level agenda setting remain distinct, if we keep the conceptualization of second-level agenda setting faithful to and consistent with the original agenda-setting theory. A difference is how framing effects talk about the interpretation of a message, as each message contains frames and triggers frames in the minds of those who process them; while second-level agenda setting is supposed to be explaining how people interpret particular agenda, which do not stem from a single message, but from the accumulation of messages. Indeed, when individuals believe an issue is the most important, they also have their interpretations of that issue, or what is the most salient consideration within that issue. A media agenda contains multiple, sometimes even conflicting, frames. When individuals think of an important issue, they also think of it through the lens of particular frames—evaluations and interpretations—that have resonated from previous attention to individual articles that repeated, highlighted, and contributed to the issue occupying a place in the public agenda.  In interpreting each message about an issue (messages that contributed to its place in the overall agenda), individuals frame each message in particular ways through the process of applicability. Repeated exposure to the same issue in subsequent messages, no matter how they are framed, makes previous frames not only applicable, but also accessible. Thus, as an issue becomes more and more accessible (and thus part of the agenda), frames applicable to that issue, or the ways an individual has consistently evaluated and interpreted the issue (based on prior experience, personal interest, among others), also become more and more accessible. Thus, second-level agenda setting remains to be an accessibility effect, consistent and faithful with the first-level agenda setting, and distinct but related to framing effects.

***

The comprehensive examination at the Missouri School of Journalism is a nerve-racking but fun process. For several weeks I had to read about 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books from five subject areas. These reading lists were developed in consultation with my dissertation committee members.

Then, for five days spread in just two weeks, I had to take five four-hour closed-door, closed-book, no-internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world exams, with just me, an old PC provided by the department, and a few sheets of scratch paper inside the window-less room. You never get to know the exact exam question until that day you are locked into that room.

Now that I have successfully defended my comps—yes, we also have an oral defense for the comprehensive exams—I am uploading some of my answers. 

The backlash effect: Why black propaganda also hurts those behind it

It is a certainty that as we move closer to the election homestretch, many politicians in the Philippines will be resorting again to black propaganda, and this reminded me of an exam response I drafted for my media and politics class during my first semester here at the University of Missouri. In the following article, I will refer to a body of research that shows how negative advertising can hurt, rather than help, those behind it.

A photo I took when I covered the special elections in Lanao Del Sur in May 2007

A photo I took when I covered the special elections in Lanao Del Sur in May 2007

The only advantage the Philippines gets from holding elections is the slight, temporary boost to its economy attributed to massive campaign spending.

The campaign season is especially a fiesta for the media, particularly for television networks, which benefit not only from an unusually larger audience for political news (as many citizens treat politics as a form of entertainment) but also from a significantly larger advertising pie from campaign ads.

Political advertising is important as the public learns from it.

A study found that recall of political ads was more significantly associated with knowledge of candidates’ issue positions than newspaper use or watching television news (Brians & Wattenburg, 1996).

This is especially true for negative ads, or those that portray a candidate in a negative light.

Let’s refer to negative advertising as attack ads (Benoit, 1999).

A meta-analysis of political advertising literature found that political television advertising had significant, although low, effects on both learning about issues and on perceptions of candidates (Benoit, Leshner & Chattopadhyay 2007).

This is especially true for attack ads as another study found that “negative campaigns increased campaign knowledge” (Lau, Sigelman & Rovner, 2007).

But some words of caution: Attack ads don’t always work in favor of those behind them.

A study found that while attack ads can negatively affect attitudes toward the target of the ad, they also negatively affect attitudes toward the politician behind the attack ad (Allen & Burrell, 2002). Or, by extension, whoever the public perceives to be behind it.

This is called the backlash effect.

The study concluded that “negative advertising hurts the sponsor more than the target.”

The effects of media effects research

The comprehensive examination at the Missouri School of Journalism is a nerve-racking but fun process. For several weeks I had to read about 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books from five subject areas. These reading lists were developed in consultation with my dissertation committee members.

Then, for five days spread in just two weeks, I had to take five four-hour closed-door, closed-book, no-internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world exams, with just me, an old PC provided by the department, and a few sheets of scratch paper inside the window-less room. You never get to know the exact exam question until that day you are locked into that room.

Now that I have successfully defended my comps—yes, we also have an oral defense for the comprehensive exams—I am uploading some of my answers. The following abridged version comes from my first exam—one of the four questions I had to answer for my mass communication theory test. I was asked to discuss the issue with media effects research.

If I got anything wrong, please consider I was writing this from memory (away from my books and notes), within a four-hour deadline (I was to answer three more questions), and without immediate access to donuts, chocolates, or pad thai that could have inspired me to do much better.

 

The Missouri School of Journalism

The Missouri School of Journalism

The field of mass communication research has been dominated by studies on media effects. For instance, most accounts of the history of mass communication research tend to organize periods based on paradigms about the effects media have on audiences, from the magic bullet era, to limited effects, to the so-called return to powerful effects (e.g. Klapper, 1960; Noelle-Neumann, 1991). This focus on the effects of the media is traced back to the earliest mass communication studies, when scholars and policy makers were concerned about the adverse effects the media exert on those exposed to them. For example, the Payne Fund studies in 1929 looked at the effects of sex and violence in the movies on children. Cantril (1938) studied the mass hysteria triggered by the radio broadcast War of the Worlds. The Second World War brought attention to the power of propaganda and the process of persuasion, prompting the Hovland studies in 1948. These studies, and those they spawned in later years, are supported by the valid rationale that we should be concerned with how media messages influence audiences.

However, while media effects research have contributed to much of what we now know about the media, this tradition misses the big picture. McLeod, Kosicki and Pan (1996) said media effects research is focused on three main aspects: the audience, influences on the audience, and the sources of these influences (e.g. particular medium, content). An important, but missing, piece, is the process by which these influences come about. Thus, media effects research have been critiqued by many other traditions. Critical cultural theorists found media effects research to have ignored important power relations that provide the context to why particular effects are more prevalent, and preferred, than others. The focus is skewed toward the individual, ignoring the fact that individuals exist within norms and traditions shaped and subscribed to by groups. Indeed, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) argued that this preoccupation with individuals among American scholars has cultural roots, the American society being dominated by ideologies such as capitalism which celebrates individualism and competition. Even behavioral and quantitative scholars have found media effects research wanting. They argued that even within the paradigm is a disagreement in how media effects are characterized. Several schisms exist: is it micro or macro, cumulative or non cumulative, direct or conditional, short term or long term, based on alteration or stabilization (McLeod et. al 1996)?  I argue that this lack of agreement and consistency in findings from studies on media effects stems from the fragmented manner in how the mass communication process has been studied. The preoccupation to finding effects has overlooked the investigation of the overall process that brings about these effects.

First, media effects research has conceptualized “effect” as change (Lang & Ewoldsen, 2010; McLeod et. al, 1996). Thus, most media effects studies have been biased for finding change, for change is easier to observe (McLeod et. al., 1996). The plausibility that sometimes, and for some people, the effect of the media is protection from attitude change, or what we might call reinforcement, is insufficiently explored. This bias for change has become ingrained in the academic culture, with journal publications preferring articles that reject the null hypothesis of finding no-change.

Second, media effects research have been preoccupied with short-term effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) argued that the use of the word “effects” connotes a short-term duration, which again is also easier to measure. This preoccupation on short-term effects, which oftentimes are found to be minute in magnitude, misses the plausibility that media processes unfold over time, that the actual “effect” is not exerted upon exposure to media and messages, but rather it unfolds with the process of constant, repeated exposure.

Third, the idea that something has an effect on someone presents a view of the communication process as a linear process, when it is a dynamic process. This argument is particularly relevant in today’s complex media environment. Those who use the media no longer wait for content to be passed on to them. They seek content. If they don’t find what they want, they can create their own content. Aggregating existing content, then melding them with their own content, is a different process from the usual linear who-says-what-in-which-channel-with-what-effect model that started media effects research. It is a different process that most likely culminates with a different type of effect. In order to understand this effect, we have to understand and explain the process.

Finally, media effects research usually conceptualizes media users as passive receivers of messages. Talking about effects—and effects only—and ignoring media processes supports the conceptualization of a passive audience, something researchers have found to be unsupported.

I argue that the problem with media effects research is not the focus on media effects, but the focus on media effects only. First, mass communication research does not yet devote equal attention to message production, or to the study of the processes that lead to messages that we suppose to exert effects. For example, Tewksbury and Scheufele (2009) classified framing research into frame-building and frame-setting, and most framing studies have been concerned with frame-setting, or how frames in communication (e.g. Druckman, 2001), those that are contained in media messages, affect individuals who process them. Second, we have seen very few attempts to consolidate the often fragmented studies on media effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) pointed out that the marginal short-term effects different isolated studies have found might not be marginal at all, for if these short-term effects, tiny as they are, are found consistently across different media in experiments and surveys across different times and places, then they should trigger the suspicion that media effects are rather cumulative, owing their “effect” from consistency and repetition. This is more difficult to measure, but it brings us closer to what we are supposed to be looking for. I argue that media and content indeed have effects. They exist. We have empirically observed them. We have measured them in our surveys and experiments. But media effects alone do not define mass communication. Effects are outcomes of a dynamic, complex and linear process. Studying media effects is only one path, not the only path, to shedding light on complex mass communication processes.

Study comparing bloggers, journalists wins top faculty paper

Here is the abstract of one of my three papers to be presented at the International Communication Association conference in London in June. This paper, co-authored with Dr. Bruno Takahashi of the Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, won top faculty paper from the Environmental Communication Interest Group.

THE CHANGING NATURE OF ENVIRONMENTAL DISCOURSE

An exploratory comparison of environmental journalists and bloggers

By Edson C. Tandoc Jr. & Bruno Takahashi

       In this study we present an exploratory comparison of environmental journalists and environmental bloggers. No study has investigated environmental bloggers as a source of environmental reporting. Using a web survey, we compared environmental journalists and bloggers across a range of different variables that the literature shows matter in understanding the environmental discussions that they produce. This study offers important insights about the people behind the mediated messages we get about the environment. We found that environmental journalists and environmental bloggers are similar and different at the same time. They have the same level of concern and perceived knowledge about the environment. But they also conceive different roles in society and source their information differently. We discuss the implications of these findings on the evolving nature of environmental reporting and discourse.

 

Why freedom of information can make people happy

Dr. Takahashi and I presented a version of this paper at the ICA Conference in Phoenix in May 2012.

Dr. Takahashi and I presented a version of this paper at the ICA Conference in Phoenix in May 2012.

The Philippines takes pride in having a free press, and yet the Freedom House Index (FHI), the most cited index of press freedom, rates the country as only “partly free.” Having a free press is important for democracy to flourish, and this is especially true for young democracies such as the Philippines.

In a study I co-authored with Dr. Bruno Takahashi of Michigan State University, published by the Social Indicators Research journal, we found that press freedom also contributes to increasing life satisfaction among citizens. Using a path analysis model involving data from 161 countries collected by different organizations, we found that countries with press freedom tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction among their citizens. Press freedom also contributes to having healthier environments and better standards of living, which then also contribute to happiness.

So where’s the link to having freedom of information (FOI), something the Philippines still does not have?

Having established that press freedom contributes to happiness, the next step is to understand what conditions are linked to it. Freedom House Index’s ratings look at three broad categories: the legal environment (e.g. laws and regulations that could influence media content), the political environment (e.g. pressure by the government, censorship, and violence against journalists), and the economic environment (e.g. structure of media ownership). FOI, I believe, is an important legal mechanism to ensure a free flow of information that guarantees press freedom.

With my happiness research as the springboard, I embarked on a new project, this time comparing press freedom, corruption ratings and freedom of information laws among 168 countries. In this still unpublished paper, I found that countries which have institutionalized FOI laws for a longer period of time tend to enjoy higher press freedom ratings.

Having an FOI law also leads to lower corruption levels and higher levels of human development. The global trend points to a positive effect of institutionalizing an FOI law on lowering corruption and improving human development.

This empirical evidence from the experiences of countries around the world shows how the Philippines, a country still wiggling out of economic inequality and corruption, can benefit from having its own FOI law.

Of course, enforcement is another matter, but let’s cross the bridge when we get there.

A story about these rants was published today on Inquirer’s frontpage. You will also find the article here: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/253370/study-links-press-freedom-to-happiness

And here is what our school had posted on its website:  http://journalism.missouri.edu/2012/08/press-freedom-leads-to-happiness-environmental-quality-study-finds/

The theory that theory doesn’t work

One night I read a book about building theories. Nope, I did not build a new theory after reading it, but at least it made me write again. So how about discussing “theory” in a national paper?

Here is how it looked, as published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/221605/the-theory-that-theory-doesn%E2%80%99t-work

University of Missouri’s Memorial Union

COLUMBIA, Missouri—For many industry people, theory and practice don’t mix. Outside the school, you will often hear the cliché that something is “good only in theory.”

I have heard this as a journalist. What you learned in school, I was told, was different from how things worked on the news beat.

This disdain for the theoretical among people focusing on what’s practical is a surprise to me, especially now that I am a student again.

A theory is a set of statements about the relationships between concepts. Theories not only help explain things but also predict outcomes.

In our everyday routines, we make our own theories.

We avoid a particular road during rush hour. We know there is a relationship between the time of day and traffic jams based on personal experiences.

We pick a restaurant with lots of people, theorizing that having lots of customers means the food is good.

It is the same principle behind the theories we come across in books.

In one of my research projects, I wanted to test the assumption that the Internet displaced traditional media like television and newspapers.

The claim is that as people’s use of the Internet increases, their use of traditional media decreases. This understandably worries traditional news organizations.

I turned to two theories to better understand the issue.

Maxwell McCombs’ relative constancy theory says resources allocated to the media, such as time and money, are finite, so if a new technology gets a share of the pie, the slices for the existing technologies become smaller.

John Dimmick’s niche theory also says that no two mediums can occupy the same niche; if both mediums serve the same uses, only one will survive for that particular niche.

These theories guided my research. From them, I deduced some expectations (or what we call hypotheses). For example, that Internet use drives down the use of other traditional media.

But theories are meant to be tested. That’s why it is important that we apply theory to practice.

To test these theories, I used data from the literacy surveys of the National Statistics Office. These surveys asked respondents to report their use of each medium, like newspapers, radio, television and the Internet, among others.

I compared media uses reported in 2003 and 2008.

What my analysis showed is that, consistent with the two theories, the resources allocated to Internet use increased in 2008 compared to 2003. The resources allocated to radio and newspapers decreased.

However, the resources allocated to television—and even moviegoing—increased in 2008 compared to 2003.

Does this prove the theories wrong? Not really.

It points to a need to reformulate the theories. What I think my findings showed is that while a new medium might displace the resources allocated to old mediums, some of these displaced resources get redistributed to mediums that survive.

We reformulate our theories even in our everyday lives.

We eat in that restaurant filled with people and find out the food is not really that good. It is actually the cheap price that drives traffic.

We drive on Edsa outside rush hour, but still get caught in a jam, and realize that the Ortigas malls are holding sales. Then we realize that the volume of cars, and not just the time of day, is the culprit.

When we find that something is “good only in theory,” then we might have been using the wrong theory after all. Or maybe we need to reformulate the theory—even create our own theory—to better guide our behavior.

Theories are helpful not only because they provide tentative explanations. They are helpful because they make us think.

They work if we make them work.

(The author is a Fulbright scholar and a Ph.D. candidate at Missouri School of Journalism. He is scheduled to present the results of his Internet displacement study at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Chicago in August. If you have questions, or want to know more about the paper, e-mail edson@fulbrightmail.org.)