Elite Messages: The Role of Race as a Source Cue
University of Washington
School of Communications
Seattle, WA 98195
FAX: (206) 543-9285
In public debate about many social issues, leading societal actors, groups,
and institutions interact with a goal of shaping citizens’ perceptions
and outlook. In this process, a growing body of research suggests that
what social and political elites say and do, and the manner in which news
media report these actions, often exerts considerable influence upon citizens’
opinion formation and policy evaluations (Jasperson, Shah, Watts, Faber,
& Fan, 1998; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991; Watts, Domke, Shah,
& Fan, 1999; Zaller, 1992). A premise of this research is that while
some individuals are motivated, interested, and capable of comprehensive
processing of political ideas and messages (e.g., Chaiken, 1980; Petty
& Cacioppo, 1986), many citizens, when given appropriate opportunities,
use shortcuts in forming political judgments, such as relying on trusted
sources of information (Kuklinski & Hurley, 1994; McGuire, 1969; Mondak,
1993). Building upon this scholarship, this paper suggests that a nuanced
understanding of elites and their influence in politics must take into
account the role of source cues in citizens’ information processing.
Indeed, some aggregate-level research suggests that elites’ partisan ties
serve as important cues in the public’s filtering of discourse about media
and politics (Zaller, 1994; Watts et al., 1999). Virtually unexamined,
however, is the potential influence of other seemingly important source
characteristics of political elites — such as one’s race or gender.
With this in mind, this paper offers a theoretical framework that attempts
to link elite discourse, source cues, and citizens’ racial and political
cognitions. I then report some results of an experiment in which the source
of a first-person essay about race relations, presented in the context
of a leading newsmagazine, was systematically altered — as written by either
a white elite or black elite — within otherwise constant
information environments to examine how individuals process, evaluate,
and use elites’ ideas and perspectives in forming political judgments.
The sample consisted of undergraduate students at the University of Washington.
II. A Theoretical Framework
Race relations, particularly between whites and blacks in the United States,
intersect with much contemporary political discourse, either manifestly
in discussion of racial policies such as affirmative action or implicitly
in debate about issues such as crime, welfare, immigration, and poverty.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to expect that citizens have schema about
race that are mentally available and, in varying degrees, "accessible"
— that is, fairly easily activated and retrieved from memory in response
to stimuli (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Graber, 1988; Higgins & Bargh,
1987; Higgins & King, 1981). Further, it seems likely that these constructs
consist of values, such as principles of equality and personal responsibility,
inter-mingled with perceptions about racial groups, particular issue policies,
and race relations in general. In combination, these factors increase the
likelihood that discourse about race will, first, activate certain values
and perceptions, and then, secondly, influence whether individuals apply
these considerations in race-related political judgments, as some recent
research suggests (Domke et al., 1999; Mendelberg, 1997; Pan & Kosicki,
1997; Valentino, 1999).
I posit that these processes are particularly likely to occur when (a)
the sources in political conversation are social and political elites,
and (b) their perspectives are presented within a news media context. Indeed,
as noted, research suggests that what elites say and do, and the manner
in which news media report these actions, exerts considerable influence
upon public opinion; lacking, however, is individual-level examination
of the cognitive processes involved in such influence. My perspective is
that elite sources are perceived as highly credible, particularly when
presented within a news media context in which "expert" status is magically
bestowed upon key political actors by seemingly neutral journalists and
editors. I contend that as a result of generally perceiving elites as credible
sources, citizens encountering ideas by elites in news discourse will not
only have certain mental constructs activated, but will consider adopting
that elite’s political perspective. Indeed, several decades of research
suggests that sources perceived as highly credible often are highly influential
upon people (e.g., Aronson & Golden, 1962; Chaiken, 1980; McGuire,
1968). To be clear, my argument is not that elites create individuals’
viewpoints, but rather that elites are particularly successful at both
activating certain ideas and inspiring individuals to adopt and apply those
ideas in political interpretations and evaluations.
At the same time, however, I believe that this theorized influence of elites’
messages upon citizen cognitions will be substantially mediated by source
characteristics of the elites, in particular one’s race. Considerable research
suggests that negative perceptions or stereotypes of racial minorities,
such as African Americans, are widely held among U.S. adults (e.g., Devine,
1989; Sears et al., 1997). Such negative racial perceptions seem likely
to prompt individuals to give less credibility to an argument if the source
is an African American, and the relative dearth of black elites in U.S.
politics would seem to ensure that their race would be noted by citizens.
Further, the fact that whites and blacks are deeply divided on many political
concerns (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Page & Shapiro, 1992) — a fact
widely discussed by elites, journalists, and pundits in recent years in
the context of high-profile racialized incidents involving black men such
as Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and Amadou Diallo and white police officers
— may prompt many white individuals, in particular, to become skeptical
about an African American elite’s perspective. In the context of discourse
about issues with clear racial implications, for example, a black source
may be perceived as having what Burkhart et al. (1997) call a "vested interest"
in the debate, thereby undermining their perceived impartiality. Both of
these factors, then, suggest, that an argument by a black elite about the
status of race relations will be viewed as less credible, particularly
by white citizens, and, as a result, will be less influential upon individuals’
information processing, than discourse by a white elite. Accordingly, my
first hypothesis is that individuals presented with an argument about
race relations by an elite white source will be more likely to adopt
the perspective of the source than individuals presented with the identical
argument by an elite black source.
I also am interested in how an elite’s race may influence the cognitive
associations formed by individuals as they process information and make
political judgments. Some research suggests that a person’s mental framework
is a network of integrated and intersecting concepts and constructs, with
the linkages between constructs strengthened each time they are activated
in tandem (Anderson, 1985; Collins & Loftus, 1975; Judd & Krosnick,
1989). As a result, Berkowitz and Rogers (1986, pp. 58-59) argue, "When
a thought element is activated or brought into focal awareness, the activation
radiates out from this particular node along the associative pathways to
other nodes," thereby increasing the probability that related constructs
will come to mind, influencing subsequent evaluations and the formation
of impressions (Lodge & Stroh, 1993). It may be, then, that elites
are in a position to "trigger" priming effects that begin with individuals’
thoughts about a topic and then, through spreading activation, carry over
to associated cognitive elements (Domke et al., 1998; Iyengar &
Kinder, 1987). In this process it seems likely that discourse by elites,
by emphasizing certain considerations and relationships and not others,
may help to strengthen (or weaken) the linkages between one mental construct
and related ones. Such processes may have substantial implications for
politics and race.
In particular, due to the historical, social, and political significance
of race in U.S. culture, it is my expectation that people’s orientations
toward relations between blacks and whites are linked, in varying degrees,
with a wide grouping of values and political ideas and judgments. With
this in mind, I posit that elite discourse may not only activate
certain race-related values and political perceptions, particularly those
that are the focal point of an elite’s argument, but also may strengthen
the associations among these constructs, as well as linkages with other
related political evaluations such as specific policy positions. I contend
that such a process of spreading activation is likely to occur because
the mental linkages among race-related values and political evaluations
have been established over time for many citizens, in part due to seemingly
periodic "racial moments" — e.g., Rodney King, O.J. Simpson — that occur
in U.S. society; as a result, I expect that such linkages are activated
with relative ease whenever political elites emphasize race relations in
discourse. In essence, then, my view is that elite messages can trigger
a set of cognitive linkages that strengthen the associations among individuals’
mental frameworks, and that such frameworks are particularly likely to
be integrated in the domain of race relations.
At the same time, consistent with earlier theorizing, I believe that such
influence of elites’ messages upon citizens’ mental associations will be
substantially mediated by a source’s race. Specifically, when the discourse
focuses on how to improve race relations in some fashion, an argument by
a white elite, who has already achieved some measure of stature, seems
likely to be perceived as motivated by factors other than personal gain,
thereby increasing the credibility of the source. As a result, individuals,
particularly white citizens, may not only adopt the source’s perspective
(as argued in hypothesis 1), but will — albeit unconsciously in many cases,
I suspect — exhibit strengthened linkages among race-related political
considerations, particularly those that are emphasized by the elite, within
their associative networks. In contrast, an argument by a black elite seems
likely to spur concern about source motivations and credibility, thereby
focusing individuals’ information processing and evaluations upon considerations
other than those emphasized by the elite. As a result, when an African
American elite is the source in discourse about race relations, the associations
among individuals’ race-related political considerations seem likely to
be weak. Instead, in such instances I expect that other factors — in particular,
views of black Americans in general — will become central to individuals’
information processing and subsequent judgments. Accordingly, my second
hypothesis is that the relationship between individuals’ race-related
values and political perceptions will be much stronger among individuals
presented with an argument about race relations by an elite white
source than among individuals presented with the same argument by an elite
black source. And my final hypothesis is that the relationship
between individuals’ race-related values and political perceptions with
their position on racial policy (e.g., the appropriate role of government)
will be much stronger among individuals presented with an argument about
race relations by an elite white source than among individuals presented
with the same argument by an elite black source.
III3. An exploratory study
The core of this research strategy is the controlled presentation of political
information environments. In this study, two experimental conditions and
one control condition were created. In the experimental conditions, subjects
received one article and one first-person essay, both presented in a newsmagazine
format modeled upon Time and Newsweek. The article was an
actual Newsweek story (shortened slightly) on portable communications
technology, a subject unrelated to the research focus but consistent with
the forward-looking nature of the essay. The first-person essay, created
for this study, discusses the current status and future outlook of U.S.
race relations. The essay was given the headline "Race in the New Millennium,"
and was accompanied by three photographs. Across these experimental conditions,
all information and photographs were held constant; only the first name
of the essay author was altered. The control condition contained no stimulus.
To manipulate the race of the elite source, the essay author’s name was
altered. In one experimental condition, "Patrick Sullivan" was the essay
author; I expected that this name would bring to subjects’ minds a white,
European American individual. In the other experimental condition, "Tyrone
Sullivan" was the essay author; I expected that this name would bring to
subjects’ minds an African American author. These names were selected based
on a survey conducted prior to the experiment with other undergraduate
students in the same academic discipline. Of 19 commonplace names in the
survey, Patrick was most often associated with "white (European)" and Tyrone
was most often associated with "African American": 68 of 69 respondents
made each of these associations. To confer elite status upon the essay
author, he was identified — seemingly by the newsmagazine editors — as
"Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan
organization," which is a real agency in the federal government’s executive
branch (the link to the government was not mentioned). Use of male names
controlled for gender, and political ideology was controlled by having
the essay author affiliated with a bipartisan organization.
The essay was adapted from a speech given by President Bill Clinton during
a commencement ceremony on June 14, 1997, at the University of California
at San Diego, to unveil his "One America" initiative. The text was modified
considerably; in particular, content was added that advocated three concerns.
First, the essay argued for the importance of equality in race relations.
Second, the essay argued that while gains have been made in U.S. race relations,
the extent of racial progress is inadequate. Third, in a similar
fashion, the essay argued that while gains have been made in creating equal
opportunities regardless of race, the current extent of opportunities
for racial minorities is inadequate. These three arguments, then, were
the focal points of the essay.
Subjects were told that they were being asked to participate in a research
project examining their views about news coverage and social issues. Each
subject in the experimental conditions read the articles and then filled
out a questionnaire; subjects in the control group only filled out the
questionnaire. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of the three
conditions, and took approximately 30 to 40 minutes to complete the materials.
The questionnaire examined subjects’ (a) ranking of equality in a hierarchy
of 15 values; (b) perceptions of the extent of racial progress; (c) perceptions
of the extent of equal opportunity regardless of race; (d) impressions
of black Americans in general; (e) belief in the importance of equality
among groups in society; and (f) view of the appropriate role of government
in race relations. All were closed-ended measures, and are not described
here for the sake of brevity.
IV. Some results and discussion
The view offered in this paper is that a nuanced understanding of elites
and their influence in politics must take into account the type of source
cues present in the political arena, and the role of such cues — particularly
a source’s race — in citizens’ information processing. The experiment results
provide support for this perspective. Three components of the theory and
findings merit discussion.
First, I contend that negative perceptions, or stereotypes, of African
Americans that are widespread in U.S. culture seem likely to diminish many
citizens’ assessments of the credibility of black elites and will, as a
result, reduce the influence of their messages. Second, I suggest that
in political debate about race relations, a perception that African Americans
have a "vested interest" in certain policies also will damage the perceived
credibility of black elites. The pattern of results is consistent with
both of these arguments. Findings show that individuals presented with
a newsmagazine essay on race relations "authored" by an elite black source
were significantly less likely to adopt this elite’s perspective
than individuals presented with the same essay by an elite white source.
I find this in (1) the emphasis that individuals place upon equality in
their personal values, (2) individuals’ perceptions in the extent of racial
progress, and (3) individuals’ perceptions in the extent of equal opportunities
across racial groups. Further, results also indicate that the associations
among one’s race-related values and political perceptions — specifically,
those which were the focal points of the elite’s argument — were considerably
weaker when the elite source was black rather than white. Similarly, results
indicate that when a black elite was the source, individuals’ perceptions
of African Americans in general and individuals’ own racial status
were the only variables significantly linked to their views of the appropriate
role of government in race relations, suggesting that racialized cognitions
were salient for these individuals.
Third, in contrast, my view is that an argument by an elite white source
will exert the "expected" influence suggested by growing bodies of scholarship
on priming effects and the role of elites in public opinion formation —
that is, the elite’s message is likely to (a) activate and increase the
accessibility of certain mental constructs for individuals, and (b) strengthen
the linkages among associated cognitions and judgments (e.g., Iyengar &
Kinder, 1987; Krosnick & Kinder, 1990; Zaller, 1992). Indeed, the experiment
results indicate that individuals presented with a white elite as the source
of the newsmagazine essay on race relations were highly likely to adopt
the elite’s perspective and to exhibit linkages among race-related values,
political perceptions, and policy evaluations, all of which are suggestive
of the cognitive processes some scholars have suggested are triggered by
news media and elite messages about race (Domke et al., 1999; Valentino,
1999). These findings among individuals presented with the elite white
source, therefore, are wholly consistent with both aggregate-level research
on the influence of elite discourse and individual-level work on priming
effects, nearly all of which has been conducted in contexts in which
the key political actors are white. While such a primary focus
is understandable given the prevalence of white elites in U.S. political
culture, the limitations of these theoretical frameworks, as currently
formulated, are unmistakable. These findings, then, in combination with
some other work (Kuklinski & Hurley, 1994; Mondak, 1993; Zaller, 1994),
strongly suggest that source characteristics of elites may substantially
influence how citizens process, evaluate, and use the ideas and arguments
of political elites.
With this mind, it seems important, at a minimum, to explore the potential
influence of other racial and ethnic source categories. For example, examination
of whether an Asian American or Hispanic source similarly influences citizens’
processing and evaluation of elite messages about race relations would
shed further insight into these relationships. My speculation is that a
similar pattern of findings would emerge — albeit it is likely that other
stereotypes and associated constructs would enter into active thought —
but that racial status would nonetheless continue to be an important source
cue. Further, it seems plausible that the relevance of an elite’s racial
status may vary across issue domains. For example, a source’s race seems
likely to be most crucial in discourse about topics with manifest racial
dimensions, such as race profiling by law enforcement or disagreements
regarding display of the Confederate flag in public places, since in these
instances minority sources must face both culturally embedded stereotypes
and questions about their personal stake in the issue outcomes. When individuals
encounter elite discourse about issues that intersect with race relations
more implicitly, such as crime and welfare, some evidence suggests that
racial stereotypes may remain an important influence, particularly if discourse
takes on a "racially coded" tenor (Gilens, 1996; Jamieson, 1992; Mendelberg,
1997). Finally, the influence of race as a source cue would seem likely
to be smallest in issue domains that, at the surface, are seemingly unrelated
to race relations, such as tax cuts and gay rights. All of this, of course,
remains to be explored in future research.
It also seems likely that other source characteristics — such as gender,
sexuality, age, religious affiliation, and so on — may be important cues
for the public as it processes elite discourse about political issues.
For example, Huddy and Terkildsen (1993) found that individuals’ stereotypic
gender expectations "translated directly" into perceptions of political
candidates’ competency to address particular social problems, but that
the political consequences of such gender stereotypes remains an open question.
Further, Burt and Code (1995) suggest that the mental image of a "typical"
person possessed by most Americans is "male, white, able-bodied, heterosexual,
and ‘of a certain maturity’ (neither too young nor too old)" (p. 15); if
this is the case, then citizens may implicitly, and in some cases explicitly,
evaluate social and political sources in relation to such qualities. At
the same time, it seems plausible that elite source characteristics may
interact in significant ways with audience characteristics. In this study,
subjects were primarily white, with a sizable minority Asian American;
among these individuals, the credibility and influence of the black elite
source suffered in comparison to the white elite source. Intuitively, it
seems reasonable to expect that sources, at least initially, would hold
higher credibility among populations with similar characteristics (see
Kuklinski & Hurley, 1994), but whether such a relationship endures
might depend on elites’ messages as well as several other factors. In short,
considerable avenues exist for future work on how elite messages and messengers
interact with citizens’ political cognitions.
While this research offers insight into the role of source cues as a mediating
factor in citizens’ processing of elite discourse, I recognize that it
has some weaknesses. In particular, I theorize that the cognitive effects
spurred by contextual factors such as the newsmagazine essay and elite
source’s race depend, to some degree, on the associations and inter-connections
within an individual’s mental system. With this perspective, the results
in this study suggest that the white elite’s ideas substantially
strengthened the linkages among individuals’ race-related values, political
perceptions, and outlook on the appropriate role of government in race
relations, while the black elite’s race prompted individuals to
draw upon their perceptions of African Americans and their own racial identities.
I am unable, however, to offer concrete evidence of the relations between
mental constructs, partly due to the difficulty of getting inside the cognitive
"black box." Further, the limitations of any single experimental study
are obvious. Until the type, role, and import of source cues in individuals’
processing of messages are examined across differing populations and differing
issues and with differing methodologies, I recognize that this theoretical
perspective, while intriguing, must be argued cautiously.
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