In grad school, I studied Attitude Theory under Dr. Hamilton at Pittsburg State University’s Communication Department. Below is my response to a final question about persuasion and human attitude theory.
The debate about persuasion is one that theorists have long been questioning and the debate is still out. However, my research shows that there are techniques that at least help bring the recipient closer to a place of persuasion. According to my research concerning editorials and persuasion, editors and scholars have a variety of opinions about whether editorials should attempt to persuade readers to a certain point of view.
Through a survey of editors in the Midwest and research in the literature, I found that there are specific purposes for editorial pages. The three purposes were as follows:
- First, to provide a public service to the readers. That is, to provide the reader with an admittedly subjective look at a topic that is in the interest of the public mind.
- Secondly, editorials are an influence tool used to persuade the audience of readers to a specific point of view. (There are some editorials that are not attempting to persuade but they are attempts to get the readers riled or upset enough to get a response. These editorials typically take a strong view of a particularly controversial topic and are not usually trying to persuade but to simply increase reader involvement and thought.
- Thirdly, editorials have a two-fold purpose: to reflect and to lead public opinion.
In the non-scientific survey that I used to question editors, I found that editors often related an editorial that they said persuaded people to act in a certain manner. This suggests that people can be persuaded, but I think this is glorifying the ability of editorials a little much and down playing the rational mind of readers. I agree that editorials can have an influence on the thinking patterns of readers and contribute toward a persuasion, but I have yet to see any study that eliminates the many variables involved in such a public attempt at persuasion as editorials. Therefore, I concede that editorials can be contributing factors toward persuasion, but I would provide rebuttal to the editors examples. One Joplin Globe editor said they wrote an editorial about city police officers patrolling on I-44. The police department later changed its policy (the editor attributed this change to his editorial), but I suggest that by placing issues in the public eye, the fear of public disapproval or even the lash of the public tongue is more influential than the actual editorial itself. Yes, this is part of the process that caused the persuasion to change but a sole contributing factor? I don’t agree.
While research shows that editorial pages are the second most highly read pages in newspapers, I suggest from my own experience that the people who read the editorials carefully are those who are highly involved in the issues addressed in the editorials they read. The research shows that those highly involved people are more likely to develop counter-arguments to the arguments toward a certain viewpoint proposed by the editor.
Therefore, the consequences of attempting to persuade high-involved audiences is more likely to be negative rather than positive. Still, there are many readers who may be persuaded. Research suggests that there are several persuasion techniques to use:
- Rational arguments,
- Passionate appeals, and
- Even by presentation of a topic that they expect to have to discuss in the future.
Before delving into these and other persuasion techniques that I found while studying the literature surrounding editorial attempts at attitude change, consider four suggested designs for presenting an editorial message in a persuasive form:
- First, is brevity. Keeping messages brief, to the point and on the message help the readers focus exactly where the editorial is trying to guide them. This helps eliminate distracting peripherals that would weaken the message.
- Second is to have an attention getting factor. This may be a story, example or short example that captures the attention of the readers and draws them into the reasoning that follows for a specific way of thinking. Attention getting qualities relates to the third design–show not tell. Again this is part of maintaining the attention of the reader throughout the entire editorial thought. The idea of show not tell is that examples and stories are used to get the message across rather than only directing by declarative statements that may come across as too forceful.
- Another design that the literature suggests as being part of an effective editorial is information that becomes part of the long-term memory of the individual. Research shows that if a reader thinks information will be used in a future discussion of the topic they are more likely to retain that information and as they retain that information they are more likely to integrate that information into their own attitude toward the topic. In effect, this long-term memory may be a strong contributor to persuasion in individuals who retain that information.
Anyone who has experience in mass media studies or field, will probably recognize the above design factors as part of the design used in news or feature stories as well. In keeping with the journalism style, editors carry this same style to the editorial page.
Go on to Part 2 to read the conclusion of this discussion.