The impact of the mass media on the structure of economic perceptions : Britain in the 1980s
This thesis focuses on two interlinked issues. First, whether citizens evaluate economic information on the basis of what it means to their families or immediate acquaintances (pocketbook theory), or what it means to the country, irrespective of the impact on their own economic situation (sociotropic theory). And second, how far such a distinction is related to alternative channels of communication, especially the mass media. The study attempts to elaborate the thesis that we need to focus on short run influences if we are to understand the nature of political support. It is also contended that we need to go beyond class models of voting behaviour and explore the strengths and weaknesses of the variety of techniques used in assessing the impact of fluctuations in the economy. The emphasis is on a model incorporating economic fluctuations and their appreciation by the electorate; important political events; and the role of the mass media. The study begins with a critical review of some of the existing literature, with special reference to class and issue voting models. The substantive chapters derive from the position developed in this assessment: economic perceptions are significant even if the earlier models of economic voting are deficient. The initial thrust is comparative and tests an economic model of Government popularity against data from the regional domain. The results confirm the media dynamic behind popularity fluctuation. The thesis then develops the notion of the importance of general (or "sociotropic") perceptions in influencing Government popularity. Econometric techniques are employed to test and elaborate existing model constructions. The importance of general perception is confirmed, and the following analysis explores the structure of these perceptions using disaggregated public opinion poll data. The results specify more clearly the nature of the public's perceptual strata. We suggest that neither class groupings nor the unemployed have a distinctive set of economic perceptions. Furthermore, a group of media dependent individuals can be isolated. This dependency is unrelated to class, or to employment status, and the dependent group share a distinctive set of perceptions which are consonant with media influence. The last section of the thesis explores data generated from a panel study conducted in Lewisham, South London. We highlight the importance of sociotropic perception, and related attributional inferences. We look at volatility in economic perceptions and the relationship between personal, local and sociotropic attitudes. Subject to the necessary qualifications, in conclusion we submit that economic perceptions have important rather than a determinant impact on voter preference. This impact is part of an incremental process leading to glacial shifts in political popularity - a process in which the media have a significant place.