Polling on Public Policy: A Case Study in Engaging Youth Voters in the Public Opinion Process for Effective Civic Discourse

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This report details the steps involved in setting up a polling club as part of related classes in political communication, public policy, and civic engagement among college students. It also examines an extracurricular activity that provides students with the opportunity to assess public opinion on policy matters at the local, state, and national levels. Insights as well as challenges from professors and students involved in such pertinent themes as web analytics, aggregate polling, and the internal and external constraints and biases inherent in such a project will be explored, as well as the need to focus on an integrated strategic communication perspective that bridges the frequent silos of marketing, advertising, public relations, journalism, and political communication.

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In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues--that is, the media may set the "agenda." of the campaign.
Research on the agenda-setting role of the news media has often been guided by a rather narrow conception of how media content affects members of the public. In particular, reliance on a "mirror-image" model of media effects, and a focus on "the agenda" as an overall ranking of issues, has not shed much light on the processes linking public issue salience to varying media attention. This study introduces an "audience-effects" model which treats issue-specific audience sensitivities as modulators, and news coverage as a trigger stimulus, of media impact on issue salience, issue by issue. An analysis of "most important national problem" mentions in the 1974 National Election Study, augmented by data on front-page content in the newspapers read by respondents and on "real-world" conditions in the respondents' communities, provides considerable empirical support for the proposed audience-contingent effects model. In addition, secondary diffusion of problem salience through networks of informal social communication is shown to eventually override early news media impact. Our findings underscore the need for research on agenda-setting to focus on both the temporal and the social dimension of media impact.