Media Priming A Synthesis Essay

The priming theory states that media images stimulate related thoughts in the minds of audience members.[1]

Grounded in cognitive psychology, the theory of media priming is derived from the associative network model of human memory, in which an idea or concept is stored as a node in the network and is related to other ideas or concepts by semantic paths. Priming refers to the activation of a node in this network, which may serve as a filter, an interpretive frame, or a premise for further information processing or judgment formation.[2]

General aggression model[edit]

The general aggression model (GAM) integrates the priming theory with the social learning theory to describe how previously learned violent behavior may be triggered by thoughts, emotions, or physiological states provoked by media exposure.[1] However, the GAM has come under considerable criticism in recent years regarding underlying and unproven assumptions and poor data support for the theory.[3]

Political media priming[edit]

Political media priming is "the process in which the media attend to some issues and not others and thereby alter the standards by which people evaluate election candidates".[4] A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a dimension of powerful media effects that goes beyond agenda setting. In 1982, Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder first identified this added dimension as the “priming effect.”[5] The theory is founded on the assumption that people do not have elaborate knowledge about political matters and do not take into account all of what they do know when making political decisions — they must consider what more readily comes to mind. Through drawing attention to some aspects of politics at the expense of others, the media might help to set the terms by which political judgments are reached, including evaluations of political figures.[6]

It should be noted that priming is often discussed in tandem with agenda-setting theory. The reason for this association is two-fold. The first, per Hastie & Park, is that both theories revolve around salient information recall, operating on the idea that people will use information that is most readily available when making decisions. The second, per Iyengar and Kinder, is that priming is latter part of a two-fold process with agenda-setting that takes place over time. Once agenda setting has made an issue salient, priming is the process by which "mass media can... shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgements about political candidates or issues". In short, both theories point to ease of accessibility of information in one's mind but priming is something that can occur over a period of time after exposure to a given media segment.[7]


Priming isn’t always unintentional, as Jacobs and Shapiro demonstrate in a quantitative and historical analysis of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Their research extends the application of priming theory from its original focus of how individuals form attitudes and make decisions to the study of candidate behavior. This new approach, they say, "changes the analytic focus from unintentional priming to intentional priming, namely, the deliberate strategies that candidates pursue to influence voters". Priming can be an effective campaign strategy for presidential candidates, the authors indicate, by a process of carefully calculated uses of public opinion on policy issues to influence voters’ standards for assessing the candidates’ attributes. In this study, the authors focus on the 1960 election because innovative public opinion surveys were incorporated into Kennedy’s campaign strategy that enabled him to use position taking to shape his image. Their research was based on primary evidence drawn from archival records and interviews, as well as a combination of interpretative and quantitative analysis. They found that a relationship exists between Kennedy’s positions on policy matters and results from his private public opinion surveys. His campaign combined image building with position taking on issues that responded to perceived public opinion. Though this study does neglect questions concerning how and why real politicians use polling results to prime voters, Jacobs and Shapiro effectively demonstrate that the priming process is powerful enough to be used intentionally by political candidates as a tool to influence public opinion during election campaigns.[8]

In Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder's 1982 study of priming, they set out to determine what effect intentional priming might have on the public's evaluation of president Jimmy Carter. Their hypothesis stated that making certain political topics salient through primetime media, such as defense or spending, would cause viewers to evaluate president Carter based on said topics. The experiment's results demonstrated the phenomena of agenda-setting and priming. First, Iyengar et al. found evidence of agenda-setting in the positive correlation between exposure to a given political topic and its importance when evaluating the president. They then found that said standards affected the actual evaluation of the president's performance, demonstrating priming. This experiment points to the potential of news media to direct the public's attention and perception of political figures, though the researchers also indicate that subjects with higher self-reported levels of knowledge of politics showed decreased effects of priming. This lead Iyengar's team to the conclusion that priming has varied implications depending on an individual's given knowledge prior to political news media exposure.[5]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Bruce, V., Carson, D., Burton, A.M., & Kelly, S. Prime time advertisements: repetition priming from faces seen on recruitment posters. Memory and Cognition, 26, 502-515.
  • Bushman, B.J. (1998). Priming effects of media violence on the accessibility of aggressive constructs in memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 537-546.
  • Domke, D., Shah, D.V., & Wackman, D.B. (1998). Media priming effects: Accessibility, association, and activation. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 10, 51-75.
  • Goidel, R.K., Shields, T.G., & Peffley, M. (1997). Priming theory and RAS models: toward an integrated perspective of media influence. American Politics Quarterly, 25, 287-318.
  • Hetherington, M.J. (1996). The media’s role in forming voters’ national economic evaluations in 1992. American Journal of Political Science, 40, 372-395.
  1. ^ abStraubhaar, LaRose, Davenport.
  2. ^Pan, Z. & Kosicki, G.M. (1997). Priming and Media Impact on the Evaluations of the President's Performance. Communication Research.
  3. ^Ferguson & Dyck (2012). "Paradigm change in aggression research: The time has come to retire the General Aggression Model"(PDF). Aggression and Violent Behavior. 17: 220–228. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2012.02.007. 
  4. ^Severin & Tankard, 1997
  5. ^ abIyengar, Peters, and Kinder (1982). "Experimental Demonstrations of the "Not-So-Minimal" Consequences of Television News Programs". The American Political Science Reivew. 76 (4): 848–858. doi:10.2307/1962976. 
  6. ^Alger, D.E. (1989). The Media and Politics. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  7. ^Scheufele & Tewksbury (2007). "Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models". Journal of Communication. 57: 9–20. doi:10.1111/j.0021-9916.2007.00326.x. 
  8. ^Jacobs and Shapiro (1994)

A large number of studies in communication evaluate priming effects specific to depictions of violence, sex, race/stereotypes, as well as evaluating effects of advertising and political communication. Roskos-Ewoldsen, et al. 2008 and Roskos-Ewoldsen, et al. 2007 provide reviews of priming studies in communication, the former focusing on theoretical underpinnings and the latter focusing on similarities and differences in methods and results across these studies. Herring, et al. 2013 and McNamara 2005 discuss priming from a psychology perspective. Herring, et al. 2013 provides an analysis of the major effects coupled with the types of primes used, whereas McNamara 2005 focuses more specifically on theoretical and methodological foundations in priming research. As the above reviews cite Higgins’s work in reference to general knowledge activation, Higgins 1996, a chapter on knowledge activation, is included in this section. Finally, Price and Tewksbury 1997, Scheufele 2000, and Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007 review the literature on priming and knowledge accessibility from a political-communication perspective, with each consecutive work building off the previous review. Taken together, these three reviews provide a historical account of the development of political priming theory and highlight different methodologies for studying priming within political communication.

  • Herring, David R., Katherine R. White, Linsa N. Jabeen, et al. 2013. On the automatic activation of attitudes: A quarter century of evaluative priming research. Psychological Bulletin 139:1062–1089.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0031309E-mail Citation »

    This meta-analysis reviews a quarter century of studies of priming effects on judgments, from evaluative decisions to lexical decision tasks. Media primes are not discussed. However, primes are analyzed with regard to factors that describe the diversity of media primes, including repetition of the prime, verbal/nonverbal characteristics, and positive/negative valence.

  • Higgins, E. Tory. 1996. Knowledge activation: Accessibility, applicability and salience. In Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. Edited by E. Tory Higgins and Arie W. Kruglanski, 133–168. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter is an excellent primer on how we think memory is stored and retrieved, as well as how concepts are activated in memory and become more accessible, or “ready,” for use in later thoughts and actions. Key concepts often used to describe the priming process are expressly defined.

  • McNamara, Timothy P. 2005. Semantic priming: Perspectives from memory and word recognition. New York: Psychology Press.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203338001E-mail Citation »

    This book describes models that underpin semantic priming, including spreading activation models, distributed network models, multistage activation models, and compound-cue models. Methodological issues in testing priming effects are discussed, as are the typical effects recorded in the psychology literature.

  • Price, Vincent, and David Tewksbury. 1997. News values and public opinion: A theoretical account of media priming and framing. In Progress in communication sciences. Vol. 13, Advances in persuasion. Edited by George A. Barnett and Franklin J. Boster, 173–212. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter describes the psychological processes underlying media priming and framing effects. The discussion about priming harkens back to the idea of network models of memory, detailing what it means to increase the accessibility of a concept and how this increased accessibility might cause short-term and long-term effects.

  • Roskos-Ewoldsen, David R., Mark R. Klinger, and Beverly Roskos-Ewoldsen. 2007. Media priming. In Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis. Edited by Raymond W. Preiss, Barbara Mae Gayle, Nancy Burrell, Mike Allen, and Jennings Bryant, 53–80. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    E-mail Citation »

    This meta-analysis provides an overview of priming, relying largely on network models of memory to explain priming effects. Special attention is given to media violence and political communication. The authors then take forty-two priming studies and analyze the magnitude, duration, and homogeneity of priming effects across these studies.

  • Roskos-Ewoldsen, David R., Beverly Roskos-Ewoldsen, and Francesca Dillman Carpentier. 2008. Media priming: An updated synthesis. In Media effects: Advances in theory and research. 3d ed. Edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 74–93. New York: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    A follow-up to a synthesis from the previous edition of Media Effects, this chapter reviews key studies in media violence, political news coverage, and stereotype activation. Models describing how priming effects occur are also reviewed and discussed in terms of how well they explain short-term and long-term effects.

  • Scheufele, Dietram A. 2000. Agenda-setting, priming, and framing revisited: Another look at cognitive effects of political communication. Mass Communication and Society 3:297–316.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327825MCS0323_07E-mail Citation »

    Drawing in part on Price and Tewksbury 1997, this article presents two models in an attempt to provide a theoretical differentiation between agenda setting and priming processes and processes leading to framing effects. Priming and agenda setting are linked by their reliance on memory-based models and use of increased accessibility.

  • Scheufele, Dietram A., and David Tewksbury. 2007. Framing, agenda setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication 57:9–20.

    E-mail Citation »

    Building on Scheufele 2000, this article further differentiates between the accessibility-based frameworks of priming and agenda setting and the underlying framework that best describes framing. Priming is described in terms of memory-based models. The journal issue in which this article appears contains additional discussion about differentiating between framing, priming, and agenda setting.

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