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Steven Chaffee; Professor Wrote Extensively on Media in Politics

May 23, 2001|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steven H. Chaffee, a professor of communications at UC Santa Barbara who wrote extensively on the role of mass media in political campaigns, has died. He was 65.

Chaffee died May 15 in Santa Barbara after a short hospitalization for a heart ailment.

A prolific writer, Chaffee produced 13 books and monographs and more than 100 journal articles and book chapters. He was co-editor of "Handbook of Communication Science," a text widely used by graduate students, and was co-editor of "Television and Human Behavior."

"My writing is devoted to establishing the identity of human communication in a field of research that is distinct from the more established social sciences such as psychology and sociology," Chaffee said years ago.

To that end, Chaffee focused on the mass media's role in the political process.

In an article for the newspaper Newsday in 1996, Chaffee defended the role of political conventions in American elections, arguing that despite the skeptical views of journalists and campaign analysts, the televised reports offered voters valuable insights.

"Many voters treat the conventions as the proper moments to evaluate the candidates," Chaffee wrote. "Although issues stressed in a convention are rarely new to reporters, voters often ignore the competing messages until it is clear just whom they are choosing among and what these people are proposing."

He went on to say that swing voters looked at the conventions as "a kind of job interview by television."

"As a candidate presents himself in accepting the nomination, millions of swing voters are comparing him to the opposition. Who commands more respect? What are their ideas, and can they get them across? Which one seems to care more about people? While it may be unwise to trust television alone for answers to such questions, voters would be foolish not to try."

A native of South Gate, Chaffee earned a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Redlands, a master's degree in journalism at UCLA and a doctorate in communication at Stanford.

Chaffee held editing and reporting jobs for several small Southern California newspapers before beginning his academic career in 1965. He was a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 16 years and was director of the school in the 1980-81 academic year. He was a professor of international communication at Stanford, where he taught from 1981 to 1999 and for seven years was chairman of the department.

After retiring from Stanford, he moved to UC Santa Barbara in 1999, where he was appointed to the Arthur N. Rupe chair in the social effects of mass communication. He taught political communication, communication theory and media effects.

"He was one of the foremost scholars of political communication, of how people used and responded to mass media for political information and how the mass media exerted political influence," Donald Roberts, a professor of communication at Stanford, said of Chaffee.

He is survived by his wife, Debra Lieberman, and their son, Eliot. He also is survived by three adult children from a previous marriage: Laura Friedrichs, Adam Chaffee and Amy Chaffee; three grandchildren; a sister, Elaine Kern Brooks; and a brother, Henry Paul Kinghorn.

The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Yosemite Assn., P.O. Box 230, El Portal, CA 95318.

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