Framing the Lewinsky Affair: Third-Person Judgments by Scandal Frame



Recent studies have documented a “third-person effect” whereby people are found to judge others as more influenced than themselves by the mass media. Meanwhile, contemporary research on issue framing has demonstrated the powerful role of mass media in shaping people's political judgments. But are the perceptual judgments that define third-person effects sensitive to how the media frame an issue? Two studies investigated this question in the context of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal, one in late August 1998 and the other during spring 1999. Several hundred undergraduates in each study were randomly assigned to one of two media frames. In the 1998 study, the political scandal was depicted as a matter of sexual indiscretion by the president or as legal wrongdoing; in the 1999 study, the recently concluded impeachment process was depicted as the consequence of partisanship or of Clinton's actions. The participants’ judgments of media influence on themselves and on the public were then recorded. The results show that third-person effects were sensitive to issue framing, but change occurred primarily in participants’ judgments about their own vulnerability to media influence.