Virtuous Circle
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A Virtuous Circle

Reinventing Political Activism

Pippa Norris

Book published 2003 CUP 416 pages 38 line diagrams 36 tables | ISBN: 0521793645 Paperback $24 Hardback $65


During the last decade a rising tide of voices has blamed the news media for growing civic disengagement. Indeed this view has become so widespread that it has developed into something of an unquestioned orthodoxy in the popular literature, particularly in the United States. A related perspective, more prevalent in Europe, regards the growth of professional political marketing by parties as also contributing towards greater public cynicism.

But is the process of political communications by the news media and parties responsible for civic malaise? This book sets out to challenge and critique the conventional wisdom. Based on an examination of the comparative role of the news media and parties in 29 OECD countries, this book argues that rather than mistakenly ‘blaming the messenger’ we need to understand and confront more deep-rooted flaws in systems of representative democracy.

The book adopts a ‘most similar’ comparative research strategy by examining OECD member states which share similar economic and political backgrounds, as most are long-established democracies and advanced post-industrial societies.  Nevetheless there are significant variations within this comparative universe in terms of news environments, such as the predominance of commercial or public service television, the circulation of newspapers and use of the internet. The last part of the book, analyzing the impact of news on the electorate, focuses on the 15 member states of the European Union, drawing on  content analysis and public opinion data from the European Commission.

Part I of the book sets out popular theories of ‘videomalaise’, or the negative impact of the news media on public opinion. Chapters then discuss the appropriate normative standards for evaluating the performance of the news media and the methodological approaches available to study this issue.

Part II establishes trends in political communications, in terms of the news environment, political parties and the public.

Part III then examines the impact of attention to the news media for political knowledge, trust and participation.

The conclusion draws together the major findings and considers the implications for  public policy.


"Pippa Norris takes on the received wisdom about media effects and media-induced political malaise and concludes that media critics got it backwards. Blaming television and now the Internet is just picking an easy target. Norris's careful analysis reveals a more complex evolution of behavioral and institutional change in the US and Europe. This important and controversial book may not end the debate, but it will significantly advance our understanding of how changing media and changing politics in advanced industrial societies are intertwined." - W. Russell Neuman, University of Pennsylvania

"This brilliantly argued, fact-filled book is a major contribution to the heated debate about mass media impact on civic life. Pippa Norris explodes pervasive myths with a powerful array of well-chosen data from Europe and the U.S. This may well be the death knell for media malaise theories and confirmation that ample use of news media remains a prescription for civic health." - Doris Graber, University of Illinois/Chicago

"This book boldly challenges much of the existing literature on the mediaas impact on political attitudes. While many scholars may not agree with the conclusions, this well written study opens up a major controversy and furthers the important critical debate on the mediaas political impact." - Holli A. Semetko, University of Amsterdam Professor of Audience and Public Opinion Research

"A Virtuous Circle is praiseworthy....This is a significant book. It is, to be sure, an academic's book." Columbia Journalism Review

"...remarkably good...we have a significant and controversial book, with a wealth of new evidence and argument to support an interesting theory about an important problem facing modern democracy." Mediated Democracy


 Part I The News Media and Civic Malaise 


The News Media and Democracy



Evaluating Media Performance



Understanding Political Communications


Part II Trends in Political Communications


The Decline of Newspapers?



From Rise (and Fall?) of the Television Age



The Emerging Internet Era



The Evolution of Campaign Communications



The Rise of the Post-Modern Campaign?


Part III The Impact on Democracy


Negative News, Negative Public?



Knows Little? Information and Choice



Cares Less? Cynical Media, Cynical Public? 



Stays Home? Political Mobilization



American Exceptionalism?




A Virtuous Circle?






Technical Appendix



Select Bibliography



Author Index



Subject Index




Copyright 2004 Pippa Norris, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138.

Last updated 12/06/2009