Partisanship Influences Perceptions of Communications from Government Agencies

[February 16, 2010]

Government agencies have long distributed prepackaged “video news releases,” or VNRs, to media outlets, as part of their mission to keep the public informed about their policies and activities. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that distributing VNRs without clearly identifying the government as their source, as was done on at least two occasions by the Bush Administration, violates laws against covert propaganda. However, to date little has been known about the effects of attribution – or lack of attribution – of government VNRs on audiences.

A study by a team of researchers from Penn State University and the University of Hartford published in the current issue of the Journal of Public Relations Research indicates that the effects of attribution on audiences seems to depend more on who’s watching the VNR than on what the government agency is saying in it.

According to Colleen Connolly-Ahern, an Assistant Professor at Penn State University and the leader of the research team that included Susan Grantham of University of Hartford and Maria Cabrera-Baukus of Penn State, “The original reason for the legislation, and the premise upon which the GAO has operated, is that VNRs are somehow more credible when they appear to be independent news stories, and not identified as government communications. But our findings don’t indicate that at all.”

In fact, said Connolly-Ahern, the credibility of the communications seems to depend on your political affiliation. “Self-identified Republicans actually judged a VNR higher in expertise when they knew it was from a government agency, and not a traditional news story. For self-identified Democrats the effects were reversed, with Democrats finding the VNR less expert when it came from a governmental agency.” The data was collected during the last year of President Bush’s second term.

The role of government is to develop policies that support public interests and reduce risks for all citizens. But Connolly-Ahern, Grantham and Cabrera-Baukus’ findings indicate it’s important for administrators to understand that citizens may base the credibility of their communications on their relationship with the party in power.

The research was supported by a grant from the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at the Penn State College of Communications. The authors are now planning to repeat the study. “The change in administrations has given us the chance to see whether or not the findings are different under a Democratic administration,” said Connolly-Ahern.

Contacts: Colleen Connolly-Ahern, Assistant Professor, College of Communications, Penn State University, connolly-ahern@psu.edu or Susan Grantham, Associate Professor, School of Communication, University of Hartford, Grantham@hartford.edu.

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