Eric Merkley and Dominik A. Stecula. Forthcoming. “Party Cues in the News: Democratic Elites, Republican Backlash, and the Dynamics of Climate Skepticism.” British Journal of Political Science.
Abstract: Supporters of the Republican Party have become much more skeptical of the science of climate change since the 1990s. We argue that backlash to out-group cues from Democratic elites played an important role in this process. We construct aggregate measures of climate skepticism from nearly 200 public opinion polls at the quarterly level from 2001 to 2014 and at the annual level from 1986 to 2014. We also build time series measures of possible contributors to climate skepticism using an automated media content analysis. Our analyses provide evidence that cues from party elites – especially from Democrats – are associated with aggregate dynamics in climate change skepticism including among supporters of the Republican Party. We then conduct a party cue survey experiment on a sample of 3,000 Americans through Amazon Mechanical Turk to provide more evidence of causality. Together, these results draw attention to the importance of out-group cue-taking and suggest we should see climate change skepticism through the lens of elite-led opinion formation.
Eric Merkley. 2020. “Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media Coverage of Expert Consensus.” Political Communication. Online Access.
Abstract: Overlooked in analyses of why the public often rejects expert consensus is the role of the information environment. News coverage of expert consensus on general matters of policy is likely limited as a result of journalists’ emphasis in news production on novelty and drama at the expense of thematic context. News content is also biased towards balance and conflict, which may dilute the persuasiveness of expert consensus. This study presents an automated and manual analysis of over 280,000 news stories on ten issues where there are important elements of agreement among scientists or economists. The analyses show that news content typically emphasizes arguments aligned with positions of expert consensus, rather than providing balance, and only occasionally cites contrarian experts. More troubling is that expert messages containing information about important areas of agreement are infrequent in news content, and cues signaling the existence of consensus are rarer still.
Eric Merkley. 2020. “Anti-intellectualism, Populism, and Motivated Resistance to Expert Consensus.” Public Opinion Quarterly. Online Access.
Abstract: Scholars have maintained that public attitudes often diverge from expert consensus due to ideology-driven motivated reasoning. However, this is not a sufficient explanation on less salient and politically-charged questions. I argue that more attention needs to be given to anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust of intellectuals and experts. I make three main contributions using the General Social Survey and a survey of 3,600 Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk. First, I provide evidence of a strong association between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific positions on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs, and water fluoridation, particularly for respondents with higher levels of political interest. Second, I conduct a survey experiment to show that anti-intellectualism moderates the acceptance expert consensus cues such that respondents with high levels of anti-intellectualism actually increase their opposition to these positions in response. Third, I connect anti-intellectualism to populism – a worldview that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite. I show that exposure to randomly assigned populist rhetoric – even that which does not pertain to experts directly – primes anti-intellectual predispositions among respondents in the processing of expert consensus cues. These findings suggest that rising anti-elite rhetoric may make anti-intellectual sentiment more salient in information processing.
Eric Merkley and Andrew Owen. 2019. “Back to the Future: Democratic Responsiveness and the Estimation of Future Public Opinion.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Online Access.
Abstract: Research on the responsiveness of policy to public opinion has infrequently confronted the possibility that re-election seeking politicians’ policy choices may reflect their expectations about future public opinion. This paper reports observational and experimental findings from a survey of senior Canadian policy makers. Results from vignette-based experiments that manipulate the characteristics of current and estimates of future opinion show that policy makers are responsive to the estimated direction of future opinion, but this relationship is conditional on high estimated future salience. Survey results shed additional light on the role that estimates of future opinion play in policy making. Combined, these experimental and observational results suggest existing empirical work on policy responsiveness is incomplete.
Eric Merkley, Fred Cutler, Paul J. Quirk, and Benjamin Nyblade. 2019. “Having their Say: Authority, Voice, and Satisfaction with Democracy.” Journal of Politics 81(3): 848-861.
Abstract: As studies using macrolevel evidence have shown, citizens are more satisfied with democracy when they feel that their instrumental preferences are represented in government, and this feeling is more likely in nonmajoritarian institutional contexts. Scholars have given less attention to whether such institutions also increase satisfaction by providing more inclusive political discourse. Citizens may value having their voice represented in politics, regardless of the resulting authority. This article presents the first microlevel evidence of this mechanism by having subjects experience a simulated election campaign that manipulates both the political discourse and the outcome independently. We find that subjects were less satisfied with democracy when their party lost the election, but this effect disappeared when the campaign discourse featured thorough discussion of an issue that they felt was important. The findings suggest that institutions and party systems that provide more diverse voices may soften the blow of losing elections.
Eric Merkley. 2019. “Learning from Divided Parties? Legislator Dissent as a Cue for Opinion Formation.” Parliamentary Affairs. Online Access.
Abstract: Scholars have generally seen united parties as normatively desirable. However, little work has explored the implications of divided parties for public opinion. This article examines whether legislator dissent reduces public support for the policy positions of divided parties. Dissent can do this in two ways: by undermining the consistency of party cues sent to co-partisans of the divided party; or by providing a signal regarding the likely distance of the policy proposal from citizen preferences. These possibilities are evaluated here using a survey experiment. Respondents were exposed to mock news articles about a debate on a bill that manipulated the presence of dissent on government benches and its spatial location—either proximate to the opposition party or located on the government party’s ideological flank. Legislator dissent appears to reduce the support of government policy for opposition co-partisans, but only when it is centrist and for those with high levels of political knowledge. These results suggest legislator dissent can act as a cue, if a complex one, to help citizens form policy evaluations in line with their preferences.
Eric Merkley. 2019. “Partisan Bias in Economic News Content: New Evidence.” American Politics Research 47(6): 1303-1323.
Abstract: Claims that the mainstream media are biased in favor of the Democratic Party are commonplace. However, empirical research has yielded mixed results and neglected potential bias in the dynamics of media behavior and the exploration of observable implications of a biased media environment. This paper contributes to this literature by using time series analyses of the dynamics in media tone based on over 400,000 stories on inflation and unemployment from top-circulating American print media and the Associated Press newswire. The results suggest there is bias in favor of Democratic presidents. Media tone in unemployment and inflation coverage is more favorable during Democratic presidencies after controlling for economic performance. Tone is also generally more responsive to negative, short-term changes in economic conditions during Republican presidencies. In other words, bias is stronger with worsening economic conditions.
Dominik Stecula and Eric Merkley. 2019. “Framing Climate Change: Economics, Ideology, and Uncertainty in American News Media Content from 1988 to 2014.” Frontiers in Communication.
Abstract: The news media play an influential role in shaping public attitudes on a wide range of issues—climate change included. As climate change has risen in salience, the average American is much more likely to be exposed to news coverage now than in the past. Yet, we don’t have a clear understanding of how the content of this news coverage has changed over time, despite likely playing an important part in fostering or inhibiting public support and engagement in climate action. In this paper we use a combination of automated and manual content analysis of the most influential media sources in the U.S. -the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press- to illustrate the prevalence of different frames in the news coverage of climate change and their dynamics over time from the start of the climate change debate in 1988. Specifically, we focus on three types of frames, based on previous research: economic costs and benefits associated with climate mitigation, appeals to conservative and free market values and principles, and uncertainties and risk surrounding climate change. We find that many of the frames found to reduce people’s propensity to support and engage in climate action have been on the decline in the mainstream media, such as frames emphasizing potential economic harms of climate mitigation policy or uncertainty. At the same time, frames conducive to such engagement by the general public have been on the rise, such as those highlighting economic benefits of climate action. News content is also more likely now than in the past to use language emphasizing risk and danger, and to use the present tense. To the extent that media framing plays an important role in fostering climate action in the public, these are welcome developments.
Eric Merkley and Dominik A. Stecula. 2018. “Party Elites or Manufactured Doubt? The Informational Context of Climate Change Polarization.” Science Communication 40(2): 258-74.
Abstract: Americans polarized on climate change despite decreasing uncertainty in climate science. Explanations focused on organized climate skeptics and ideologically driven motivated reasoning are likely insufficient. Instead, Americans may have formed their attitudes by using party elite cues. We analyze the content of over 8,000 print, broadcast, and cable news stories. We find that coverage became increasingly partisan as climate change rose in salience, but climate skeptics received scant attention. Democratic messages were more voluminous and consistently pro–climate science, while Republican messages have been scarcer and ambiguous until recently. This suggests Republican voters took cues from Democratic elites to reject climate science.