The evidence on the individual-level moderators of agenda-setting suggests that the impact of local news will be conditioned by viewers’ personal experience with crime. In addition to factors known to be correlated with exposure to crime (such as gender, race and age), we might expect the news to exert greater influence among viewers who live in relatively high-crime areas. In addition to such experiential factors, several other potential moderators are worth considering. These include patterns of media use (people who rely exclusively on local news versus those who watch a variety of news shows), evaluations of the credibility of local news, level of political involvement and expertise, and so on.
In summary, spiralling coverage of crime by local news has contributed significantly to the current furor over crime. Most Americans do not experience crime directly. They do, however, receive huge doses of crime news. With increasing numbers of Americans tuning in to local news, crime occupies a privileged position on the public agenda.
The fact that crime is a salient issue has important ramifications for public opinion. The so-called priming effect refers to changes in the weight individuals assign to their specific opinions on issues when they make political evaluations and choices as a result of the amount of news coverage accorded issues. The basic finding -- which has been replicated extensively – is that the more prominent an issue in the news stream, the greater the impact of that issue on political attitudes (for reviews, see Iyengar and Kinder, 1987, Ch. 7, Krosnick and Brannon, 1995; Miller and Krosnick, 1997).
In the context of election campaigns, the core implication of priming is that issues in the news become the principal talking points for voters. In 1980, for instance, the media’s sudden preoccupation with the Iranian hostages in the closing days of the campaign caused voters to consider the candidates’ credentials on the issue of terrorism when choosing between Carter and Reagan. Naturally, this logic proved disadvantageous to President Carter. More recently, the fact that news of the economy drowned out news of the Gulf War at the time of the 1992 election cost President Bush dearly. Had the media played up military or security issues, of course, the tables would have been turned given Bush’s reputational advantage over Clinton on matters of national defense. (See Iyengar and Simon, 1993; Krosnick and Brannon, 1993).
The perennial newsworthiness of crime has forced all candidates for elective office -- no matter what their political leanings -- to address the issue. Given the state of public opinion (with large majorities favoring a "tough" approach to crime), it is no coincidence that increasing numbers of public officials advocate the death penalty and stringent law enforcement. While the "law and order" posture was previously associated with Republican and conservative candidates, today the position is consensual; to be on the other side of this issue is generally considered politically fatal. Thus, the impact of the news media on the audience’s political agenda has resulted in a substantial shift in the policy positions of political elites.
Not only is violent crime central to local newscasts, the episodic or personalized style of reporting means that the news is typically about specific crimes and perpetrators. In Los Angeles local newscasts, the ratio of episodic to thematic crime stories exceeds 4:1 (for details, see Gilliam and Iyengar, forthcoming). Nearly sixty percent of the crime reports provide some information about a suspect.
Research into the framing effects of news coverage suggests that the episodic frame draws viewers’ attention to the actions of particular individuals rather than societal conditions (see Iyengar, 1996). Poverty is understood as a consequence of insufficient effort and motivation, crime and terrorism as a