Television interviewers like NBC's Tim Russert may subtly influence their audience's opinion of interview subjects, according to a study in the December Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 11, No. 4). The research suggests that interviewers' behavioral cues, such as tilting their heads and altering their voice inflections, may sway viewers' impressions.
Elisha Babad, PhD, an education professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, randomly assigned 83 university students to watch two versions of a four-minute mock interview conducted in a language they did not speak. Babad spliced the politicians' footage with either a hostile or friendly interviewer so that the interviewees behaved identically in both interviews.
The students rated the interview subject, a politician, on a number of personality attributes, like the politicans' cheerfulness and communication skills. Researchers also asked participants whether they thought the politician was likely to be elected. Since the participants could not understand the interview's content, they based their ratings on the politicians' voice inflection, hand gestures and other nonverbal cues.
The participants perceived the politician to be friendlier when the interviewer was acting friendly and more hostile when the interviewer acted hostile. They also rated the politician in the friendly interview more favorably overall.
Babad also examined whether participants' ratings were a reflection of a halo effect, or the participants' overall liking or disliking of the interviewee. While a strong halo effect was found for the entire sample, Babad found no significant difference between either condition, leading him to conclude that both the nonverbal cues and the halo effect influenced the participants' ratings. "Interviewers can cost interviewees a price, especially if the interviewer is hostile or aggressive," says Babad.
In future studies, Babad aims to investigate the effects of educational programs for critical television viewing to see whether they can reduce the effects of media bias.
- Z. Stambor