Module 2. Political aspects of mass media

The impacts of media exposure to political trust and social trust

X. Guo, X. Wang

(China, Southwest University of Political Science and Law)

I. Introduction

In recent years, Chinese commercial enterprises, government departments and NGOs suffered severe trust crisis. In fact, the decline of social trust is a common problem worldwide. Since 1960s, the United States, European Union and other countries have all experienced trust decline. In the United States, more than 50 per cent of the public believed "most people can be trusted" in 1960. However, only 30 per cent believed so in 2000 (Putnam, 2001).

Trust is a prerequisite for the existence of contemporary society. Once the trust is lost, all kinds of cooperation will fail. Uslaner (Uslaner, 2002) argued that a community with a sense of trust is a community with spirit of tolerance, where discrimination and bias will be cursed. People who trust others will take a tolerant attitude, and this attitude makes cooperation easier.

Simmel (Simmel, 2004) believed that trust is one of the most important comprehensive strengths of the community. If the general trusts between people vanished, the society will become a mess, because few relations will be able to build on the exact perception of others.

There are varieties of factors leading to an overall decline of trust in society. Through empirical study, this study aims to find whether media exposure has impact on the audience's trust level. How the media exposure affects on trust? The results can provide a reference for further study on how to improve social trust and political trust.

II. Literature review & hypothesis

Communication studies show that media exposure has a significant impact on social trust and political trust. However, whether this effect is positive or negative, different empirical studies have come to diametrically opposite conclusions.

"Media malaise" theory proposed by Robinson (Robinson, 1976) suggests that media exposure has a negative impact on political trust, emphasizing the negative media coverage is a key factor in causing public distrust of government agencies and politicians. Putnam (Putnam, 1995) explained the impact on the community television media exposure from two aspects in the study of social capital: (1) people spend a lot of time watching television, which could squeeze their time for social interaction; while civic engagement and social capital are two indicators closely related to social trust; (2) television content has a negative impact on social trust; to the contrary, newspaper reading has a positive impact on social trust. Putnam (Putnam, 2001) pointed out that broadcasting media is the culprit causing the decline of social capital and social trust in American.

Many studies support this hypothesis. For example, Cabella (Cabella, 1997) noted that broadcasting media tend to focus on superficial details in a political campaign such as deluxe scenes and strategies with no substantive and profound content. Thus TV turns campaign coverage like a sporting event, which would undermine the public's trust. Some scholars found that those audiences who often watch crucial debate via TV show do not trust Congress, politicians and government (Mutz et al., 2005).

In contrast, some scholars have found that newspaper reading plays an active role on social trust ( Becker et al., 1980). Another study also supported the optimistic attitude on print media: newspapers exposure can improve trust in the government ( Moy et al., 2000).

Norris (Norris, 2000) proposed a “virtuous cycle " assumption that the media exposure leads to greater political trust and civic participation. She believes that those who had a high degree of political trust will be more willing to utilize the access to the information provided by media, and strengthen their political trust. Whereby she proposed that political trust leads to greater media exposure, and greater media exposure leads to a higher degree of trust. According to this view, people who are more interested in politics, who actively participate in and hold the trust will give more attention to news reports, for further understanding of the government and the politics; and additional knowledge will lead to greater trust and positive citizen participation, generating a virtuous cycle, and enhance democracy. Conversely, those who are not interested in politics will ignore political news reports in most occasions; even if they are exposed to political news reports, the potential impact of media exposure on them will be reduced because of distrust. She takes the British general election in 1997 as an example, the public trust in the government and attention to news reports reached a peak at the same time.

An empirical study conducted in Europe found that there is no causal relationship between the public trust and the degree of media exposure, but is closely related to media content ( Luengo et al., 2009).

Through analysis of some audience survey and media content during the U.S. presidential election in 2000, Avery (Avery, 2009) found that the impact of the media on social trust depends on two factors. The first is the type of media: broadcasting media has a negative impact on public trust, while the printing media has a positive impact on public's trust; the second is the original trust held by the audience individually: people with low degree of trust were not affected greatly by media, while people with high degree of trust are more likely to be influenced by the media.

In recent years, Chinese scholars have just started to study the impact of media exposure on trust, and they usually undertake a number of empirical studies of Chinese issues in the theoretical paradigm of Western research. Some scholars have also extended the media type to the online media; for example, Zhengxiang (Zhengxiang, 2009) found that: the overall use of online media has negative impact on social trust. The more frequent of online media exposure, the lower the level of social trust will be. However, the impacts of other media factors on social trust are not significant.

To sum up, previous studies of the impact of media exposure on the trust shows that the impact factors of media on trust include: media type, content coverage, as well as individual factors.

To carry out the study of media exposure impact on the social trust in China, we have to consider the following aspects:

First, the scholars have considerable disagreement in the view of Chinese social trust. One typical view is put forward by Fukuyama (Fukuyama, 1995): the Chinese community is a low-trust culture. But some Chinese scholars proved that China has a high level of social trust (Shaoguang et al., 2002). The reason why there are different views mainly due to differences in the conceptualization and operationalization of social trust.

Second, Western scholars explained why media exposure on television has a negative impact on the trust: broadcasting media is used for sensationalism and entertainment, and often present the social conflict, political scandals and other negative news to the audience, which has a negative impact on the political trust and social trust. Postman (Postman, 2006) also described a similar view: in the electronic media age, compared with the printing times, the entertainment eroded news and the boundaries between entertainment and serious public discourse is missing. However, Chinese television media’s role is different from that of Western world, so the differences of impacts between television and newspapers on trust may not be too significant.

Conversely, online social media (such as: twitter, Facebook, etc.) is much different from the traditional media, so the online media exposure may produce significant differences from traditional media exposure.

Third, Media can effectively influence public awareness, attitudes and behavior, but the audiences are also active meanings producers. For the complex relationship between media and audience, Burton (Burton, 2005) pointed out the audiences use media content selectively in order to strengthen their existing beliefs, but he also stressed that the belief people already have itself is the product of the media.

Hence, considering on the impact of media exposure to the audience trust, this paper not only has to measure the audience's media contact frequency variable, but also is fully aware of the audience's autonomy, their preferences for media content, their media literacy and other variables. In addition the paper also takes the individual differences of the audience (such as: gender, income, family situation, etc.) as a control variable to be measured.

Therefore, this paper proposes the following hypotheses:

H1: social network media exposure and traditional media exposure cause significant different impacts on trust;

H2: audience’s preferences for media content have an impact on trust;

H3: the audience’s media literacy could affect their trust level.

III. Method

This paper uses questionnaire as research method, and the data are from the survey in March 2013 conducted in Chongqing Colleges and Universities. We considered on the scale of sample, survey accuracy, operation error, human and capital and other factors, and six graduate students gave away and took back the questionnaires. A total of 360 questionnaires were spread, and after excluded missed or low validity questionnaires there were 304 valid questionnaires.

The survey uses multi-stage random sampling method. The basic situation of the sample survey is as follows: as for gender, females accounted for 35.9%, males 64.1%; family location: students from rural areas accounted for 42%, and 28.9% came from small cities, those from the big cities accounting for 28.3 percent; parents monthly income: those below 500 yuan accounted for 4.6%, 501-3000 yuan accounted for 34.8%, 3001-8000 yuan accounted for 45%, 8001-15000 yuan accounted for 12.6%, more than 15,001 yuan accounted for 3%.

Questionnaire mainly related to two parts, the measurement of the media exposure and trust.

1. Media exposure

In general, measurement of domestic and foreign researchers on media exposure focused on two variables: the frequency of exposure to different media types, and duration. In addition, many studies have placed greater emphasis on possession of audience in all media ecology, but little attention to the audience’s media exposure and media exposure depth in this new media environment.

Therefore, in addition to measuring the frequency of media exposure by audience, but also measure the following indicators: audience’s preference of content (media exposure experience), as well as the audience’s media literacy (media exposure depth).

2. Trust Index

According to the definition and purpose of this study on the trust, the measurement of trust should include at least two dimensions: simple trust and systematic trust; the former is interpersonal trust, while the latter is dependent on the more stable interaction of media, such as: trust in government, corporate, and other charities.

IV. Findings

1. The media exposure investigation

Media Exposure Scale conducted statistical measurement on three aspects: media exposure frequency, media content preferences and media literacy.

(1) Media exposure frequency

This paper uses Likert scale to survey the frequency of exposure by respondents’ use of following media types in the past week, and the mean score of all kinds of media exposure are: newspaper 1.7697, 1.8750 magazines, radio 1.5395, television 1.8322, social media 3.9243, showing respondents have highest frequency of social media exposure, and the frequency of newspapers, magazines, radio and television exposure are relatively low. According to Table 1, almost daily or often use social media accounted for 68.8%, and almost daily or often use broadcast accounted for 3.3%. Contemporary college students are quite different in exposure level to different types of media exposure frequency: they have less exposure to traditional media, a relatively high frequency of social media exposure. In qualitative interviews, many students said in school they have less access to traditional media; there is neither reading corner nor TV in dormitories and classrooms, and they mainly rely on the Internet to read news, or on friends through social media. Laptops and mobile phones are the main sources of communication.

(2) Content preferences

The purpose of this investigation is to compare the respondents’ preferences in positive reports and negative reports (corruption, scandal, crime news, etc.). This paper uses the ideas and methods of semantic differential scales to let respondents choose between the two options as shown in Table 2, the mean of content preferences is 2.7697, while those who like negative news reports accounted for 36.2%, and positive news reports accounted for 18.8%. Some respondents said that positive reports on the media are totally propaganda, and even seem like fake, while negative news reports are readable and more realistic.

Media literacy

The U.S. “Foreign Policy” published an article on July 8, 2011 entitled “The People's Republic of Rumors”, which said: China's Sina Weibo is the world's best rumor-mongering machine ever. Weibo is often said to be China's equivalent to Twitter. Weibo spreads fact and fiction alike, at warp speed. Weibo users only really have access to initially unfiltered information. The ability of identifying rumors reflects the respondents’ media literacy. A similar survey of the content preferences, the respondents were required to make choices between social media and traditional media as shown in Table 3, which is scored at 2.6151. Those who choose to believe social media accounted for 47.7%, and believe traditional accounted for 17.5%.

2. Trust Index

This paper uses the Likert scale to measure the respondents trust index in strangers, NGOs, commercial enterprises and government. The lowest score is one point for each variable, and a maximum of 5 points. The higher the score is, the higher the level of trust is.

(1) Trust in strangers: Do you agree that the majority of people in society can be trusted? The mean score is 3.0789;

(2) Trust in NGOs: If you encounter on the street a charity holding fund-raising, calling for donations for the school children, how would you do? The mean score is 2.8553;

(3) Trust in commercial enterprises: Do you believe that corporate advertising for product promotion? The mean score is 2.6842;

(4) Trust in government: Do you believe that the commitments made by the Government? The mean score is 2.8191.

One can see that the respondents hold highest trust in strangers and lowest trust in commercial enterprises.

Detailed statistical results are shown in Table 4: the respondents have relatively high level of trust in strangers and NGOs, and relatively low level of trust in commercial enterprises and government agencies.

3. Media exposure and trust regression analysis

Take trust variables averaging as the dependent variable, the demographic factors (control variables) and media exposure (independent variable) to conduct regression analysis with trust respectively, and the results are shown in Table 5. Regression model R2 of media exposure and trust is 0.363, indicating that the model can explain the trust of dependent variable is 36.3%; the probability value of F-test is 0.000, indicating that the overall regression model tested statistically significant at the 0.01 level. Regression model R2 of the demographic variables and trust is 0.026, F-test probability value is 0.051, and therefore, the correlation between demographic variables and trust is relatively weak.

3. Media exposure and trust regression analysis

Take trust variables averaging as the dependent variable, the demographic factors (control variables) and media exposure (independent variable) to conduct regression analysis with trust respectively, and the results are shown in Table 5. Regression model R2 of media exposure and trust is 0.363, indicating that the model can explain the trust of dependent variable is 36.3%; the probability value of F-test is 0.000, indicating that the overall regression model tested statistically significant at the 0.01 level. Regression model R2 of the demographic variables and trust is 0.026, F-test probability value is 0.051, and therefore, the correlation between demographic variables and trust is relatively weak.

V. Conclusion and


According to the data analysis, the Internet media, especially social media has a negative effect on both social trust and political trust. To be specific, the frequency of exposure on social media has maximum level of negative impact on college students’ trust, which is one of the main findings of this study. With the rapid spread of the Internet in China, till the end of December 2012, the scale of China's Internet users has reached 564 million. Weibo (similar to twitter), Renren (similar to Facebook) and other social media are particularly popular in the student population, with a usage among college students far more than newspapers, television and other traditional media. However, it brings the convenience of information dissemination, but inevitably brings many new problems.

Since it doesn’t have gatekeepers in the traditional sense, social media often disseminate a lot of unconfirmed information, and even become netizens’ catharsis place. They questioned the official version and traditional media coverage in entertainment and ridicule way on hot issues, brought together to form a network of public opinion, which has a powerful influence and further exacerbates the social crisis of trust.

Frequency of exposure to newspapers has a significant positive impact on the level of trust, and this conclusion is consistent at home and abroad, but the impact of other types of media exposure frequency was not significant.

As for the variable of media literacy, when the traditional media reports differ from social media, to which party will you trust? This dilemma can truly reflect the respondents' psychological and behavioral tendencies. Survey results show that the stronger you trust traditional media reports, the higher the level of trust will be.

Another finding of this study is: the audience’ content preferences have a significant positive impact on trust. Some scholars shared a similar view that the content of positive media coverage will bring a corresponding effect on the audience. The findings show that if the audiences prefer "positive news" than "negative news", they will have higher trust level. This result suggests that those who prefer to read positive news audience will promote individuals’ level of trust; while those who prefer to read dark side of society, corruption and scandals will reduce sense of trust. The audience prefer negative news, by whose subjective selectivity, would "ignore" the positive media coverage, and hence simply rely on positive media coverage to raise the level of social trust. However, the effect may be limited.

Note: Humanities and Social Sciences Fund of the Chinese Ministry of Education grants the project. Project name: Research on media and social trust crisis. Project number: 11YJC860013.


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