Journalists use ordinary people as exemplars in their news stories to make their reports more interesting and understandable for the audience. This journalistic practice has often been discussed as a potential democratic problem because of its effects on perceptions of and attitudes toward political issues. Taking exemplification theory as our starting point and drawing on research from decision-making and social psychology literature, we add to this discussion by examining how exemplars in news reports affect intentions to participate in political activities. Using an experimental design, we randomly exposed respondents to a news report with or without exemplars or no news report at all. We found that for respondents who were similar to the exemplars, exposure to a news report with exemplars triggered an empathic concern and increased political participation intentions. For dissimilar respondents, exposure to a news report with exemplars decreased empathic concern, which in turn decreased political participation intentions. By highlighting these differential effects of exemplars in the news media on political participation, the study shows how a common journalistic practice potentially engages some citizens in democracy and disengages others.
- media effects
- political participation