What Draws Politicians’ Attention? An Experimental Study of Issue Framing and its Effect on Individual Political Elites

Stefaan Walgrave, Julie Sevenans, Kirsten Van Camp & Peter Loewen

Political attention is scarce and consequential. Policy change only happens when political elites attend to the policy issue at hand. But, the number of problems vying for politicians’ attention is too large given the time they have to attend to these problems. Politicians lack the time, resources, staff, cognitive capacities and motivation to attend to all, or even many, problems. This turns the political game into a bottleneck of attention. Many societal signals simply do not get through, but are filtered out and ignored. Politicians are highly selective in the signals they attend to. This study investigates some features of societal signals and examines which features contribute to the underlying information being noticed by politicians.

Following ample research on the attention ordinary citizens spent to media signals, the study examines three features of an incoming signal that may increase the attention politicians give to the signal. We examine (1) whether the message deals with conflict, (2) whether it deals more specifically with political conflict, and (3) whether it refers to who is politically responsible for the problem in the first place. Do politicians react in the same way, and do they devote more attention to signals displaying these features?

By and large, the answer is ‘yes’. Just like ordinary citizens, politicians prioritize information that has certain features or that, technically put, is ‘framed’ in a certain way. We come to this conclusion by examining 410 national and regional politicians in three countries, Belgium, Canada and Israel. These countries were chosen because they are so different. Their electoral systems—how politicians are elected—differs strongly. This means that re-election, this is what politicians probably value most, depends on different things. For example, since Canadian politicians are elected in a district that only counts one representative, Canadian representatives have strong incentives to only look at their constituency and to ignore signals from the rest of the country. This is very different in Israel, for example, were politicians are elected in a nationwide district. Still, notwithstanding these strong system differences, we find almost identical attention devotion patterns in the three countries under study. This makes us conclude that the found framing effects are due to politicians being human and being politicians, they are not due to their operating under a certain electoral system.

More concretely, we confronted each politician that participated in our research with a number of so-called “story titles” that contained a short piece of information (e.g. about down-payment requirements for buying property). We told our politicians that this was a fictional title of an email they received and asked them how likely it was that they would read the full story. The self-reported likelihood that they would read the full story is our measure of the attention politicians devote to the signal. The story titles were manipulated and different versions of a similar story title were made, one containing conflict and the other consensus, one containing political conflict and the other non-political conflict, and one containing a political responsibility attribution and the other a non-political responsibility attribution.

Conflict draws more attention than consensus, the results show, but it mainly draws more attention by opposition politicians, less by government politicians. Political conflict, in contrast, draws more attention in general, but the effect is stronger for government party members than for opposition members. When a signal contains a reference to the political responsibility for a problem, finally, all politicians’ attention is drawn, from government and opposition, and in all countries. This makes a political responsibility frame the strongest of the three frames we investigated. It is a potent driver of political attention.

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