We may like to believe that our political beliefs aren’t swayed by the media, but Eran Ben-Porath and Lee Shaker (Journal of Communication, September 2010) show how subtle editorial differences can reframe perceptions.
The authors studied how just the inclusion of a photograph invokes different emotions and opinions about the government and Hurricane Katrina. Many believe the government was to blame for mismanagement after the disaster, so the authors thought simply adding photos to news stories wouldn’t have much of an effect. But after manipulating a news story to include or exclude victim photos, they asked respondents to rate the government’s crisis response. African American respondents overwhelmingly held the federal government more responsible than did white respondents, regardless of photographs. White respondents who were exposed to articles with photographs, however, were less likely to hold the government responsible than those who didn’t see photos.
Ben-Porath and Shaker believe the inclusion of a victim photo is a classic example of priming. The photos made white respondents sort of “forget” structural forces and think more abstractly about the person in the picture. Although this loss of critical analysis didn’t hold for all groups, this research reminds us that presentation can change interpretations.