Priming Theory


In order to more fully understand the underlying processes for key theories about the impacts of media coverage and depiction, it is helpful to learn about how human memory works. Priming theory is a particularly helpful tool in that regard.

It is worth noting that priming theory — and associated models theorizing about the workings of human memory — come from social psychology and cognition, and it is not the only explanation for how humans make sense of the world. However, such models of human memory have proven to be enduring and influential when it comes to understanding the processing of information disseminated by journalistic outlets.

Priming Theory

In a nutshell, priming theory contends that media depictions stimulate related thoughts in the minds of audience members. For example, talking about “climate change” with a person might activate their thinking about “extreme weather” because, for that person, those two concepts have become related. Media depictions can strengthen (or weaken) the association between those concepts.

In this associative network model of memory, the direction and strength of the ties between ideas and concepts matter. For example, thinking about “extreme weather” may trigger “bad” most of the time, but thinking about “bad” may not trigger “extreme weather” (or trigger it only some of the time). Additionally, stronger ties between two ideas or concepts will result in the faster recall of the association between them.

This model also differentiates between explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory refers to things an individual actively tries to recall. This would include the answer to the question, “Who is the best professor you’ve ever had?” The key with this type of memory is that the individual can consciously recall the associations between “best” and “professor” and explain that information.

Implicit memory refers to things an individual does not try to purposely recall, such as how to ride a bicycle. The key with this type of memory is that it might take an individual a while to explain the related concepts (and they may not even be able to explain them well or at all), but they are able to subconsciously draw on all the requisite associations to not fall over when they start pedaling.

Priming theory contends that people do not make use of all of the associations they have developed. Instead, they take shortcuts to connect an information need — for example, how to make sense of a professor’s quality — to the previously stored associations that are most readily available. Thus, there is a strong emphasis on recent associations — such as recent journalistic coverage of the relevant issue(s).

Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming

Agenda-setting theory connects to these understandings of how human memory works in two related ways. The first proposes that repeated journalistic coverage of an issue results in an individual associating that issue with more concepts. That, in turn, increases the likelihood that the issue will be triggered later (as there are more opportunities to trigger it). The second proposes that repeated journalistic coverage of an issue increases the availability of information related to that issue by bringing it to the top of an individual’s mind. That, in turn, increases the likelihood that the issue will be triggered later (as the issue, and its related concepts, are relatively easy to access). Both of these ways influence perceptions about how important an issue is because of how easily it is recalled.

While framing theory draws upon many of the same core propositions about the causal mechanisms in human memory, it differs from agenda-setting theory in that it takes an extra step. Framing theory is not simply about the availability of information. Instead, it argues that media can also influence attitudes toward those issues by rewiring the associations between that issue and different concepts, such as by relating “climate change” to “bad” and “anthropogenic.”

Framing theory and priming theory have been connected to examine issues of stereotypes in journalistic depictions. For example, scholars have used those frameworks to assess journalistic outlets’ role in promoting associations between the concepts of “people of color” and “poverty,” “crime,” and “urban blight.” Those associations may result from the over-representation of crime involving people of color in local television news coverage. Conversely, primes may be used strategically to counter stereotypes, such as by depicting people of color as being successful, serving as community leaders, and inhabiting pleasant neighborhoods. In some cases, however, primes can result in the rejection of the message being primed. For example, a news story about a police officer acting in self-defense may be rejected as being false to someone who has had multiple negative encounters with police, as the depiction of the officer’s actions may appear off-base to that person.

Limitations of Priming Effects

The effects of priming are neither uniform nor universal, though. In isolation, priming effects are often short-lived. They can last as little as 90 seconds and weaken over time if they are not triggered. However, repetition strengthens associations, and that can lead to more lasting effects over time. Indeed, many of our strongest associations are those promoted during our youth and reinforced over the course of our lives as a result of the contexts within which we live.

For example, higher amounts of local television news viewing will often involve more exposure to stories about crime that feature people of color as perpetrators. That, in turn, can result in greater concerns about people of color — or, at minimum, the perception that crime by people of color is an important issue.

Such an effect is not predicated on the words and associations made by journalists themselves, though. Although journalists may use careful language and avoid stereotypes, they may choose to quote individuals who intentionally or unintentionally use language and frames that strengthen and weaken associations between concepts. Audiences often do not meaningfully differentiate between the journalists’ words and those of their sources. This underscores the responsibility journalists have when selecting who and what to quote.

Additionally, media priming is most powerful when individuals have little existing knowledge about a target concept (e.g., “nuclear power”) and are therefore more susceptible to media-driven associations. Put another way, media primes are especially impactful when they involve contexts, people, and ideas that are new or foreign to audiences — that is, when audiences are most dependent on journalistic outlets for their understanding of something.

Individuals do not develop associations between topics through journalistic media consumption alone, though. First, news is incredibly complex, and there are often many competing cues within a single journalistic message (e.g., an article), which in turn trigger multifaceted responses. Second, media environments are also complex, with journalistic outlets operating alongside entertainment, popular culture, politics, and so on. Third, individuals establish associations — and, often, the strongest associations — based on their personal experiences or those relayed by other trusted sources, like their family and friends.

Thus, in order to fully understand a priming effect, one must understand the environment and context around the prime.

Key Takeaways

  • At its core, priming theory posits that media depictions develop relationships between concepts and stimulate related thoughts in the minds of audience members.

  • Both agenda-setting theory and framing theory are premised on associative network models of human memory, which focus on the associations between concepts and the ease through which they may be recalled. However, they presume different pathways for the activation of concepts.

  • Priming effects are often short-lived, but repetition strengthens associations and thereby allows effects to become more lasting.

  • Priming effects are not uniform or universal. The magnitude of the effect of a prime depends on the context surrounding it.