If a Tree Falls in the Forest…? Balance, Context, and the Mass Media’s (Lack of) Coverage of Expert Agreement
A large gulf separates expert and public opinion on a wide range of questions of science and economics directly relevant to public policy. This may problematically put pressure on politicians to enact policies that are welfare reducing in the long-run. Multiple theories have been advanced to explain why these gulfs exist. First, individual-oriented research emphasizes that citizens may be motivated to cognitively resist information from experts that go against their social identity-anchored priors. These theories implicitly assume expert information is readily available in the information environment. Second, media-centred approaches emphasize that news outlets are often biased against context, which may limit coverage of expert information, and towards authority and balance. They may elevate dissenting experts and political actors, and in so doing dilute the value of the expert information. However, little effort has made to systematically study these biases beyond the issue of climate change. This study will present an analysis of over 230,000 newspaper, newswire, broadcast, and cable American news stories on 10 issues where there are important elements of agreement among scientists and economists. It will combine automated methods, such as machine learning and dictionaries, with hand coding. This paper aims to demonstrate the extent to which the news media provide expert information through its coverage, including consensus cues, and whether the presentation of such information is contaminated by authority and balancing bias.
The Dynamics of Polarization: How the Media and Party Elites Facilitated the Growth of Climate Skepticism
(with Dominik Stecula)
Commentators are often perplexed about American polarization on issues where there is scientific consensus. One such issue is climate change. This article explores how the dynamics of climate change news media coverage contributed to polarizing the American public. We show that climate skepticism has been on the rise in America by constructing a “mood” measure going back to 1992 using the Roper Centre polling archive. We use automated and human content analysis of nearly 12,000 news articles published by the New York Times, Washington Post and the USA Today over a 34 year period (1980-2014) to show that journalistic “balance” in climate coverage has declined overtime, while politicization has steadily increased. We provide evidence using simple time series models that rising skepticism is primarily a result of party elite-driven persuasion facilitated by a proliferation of party cues in media coverage. Democratic cues, higher in volume and more consistent in direction, appear to drive public skepticism rather than being primarily influenced by Republican elites. The results conform to Berinsky’s elite cue theory and suggest we should see climate change polarization as a more typical case of public opinion formation.
Prepared for presentation at the APSA Annual Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. Link here.
Updated paper prepared for presentation at the PNWPSA Annual Conference 2016 in Portland. Link here.
United they Stand, Divided they Fall? An Experimental Examination of the Cost of Legislator Dissent
Scholars and parliamentarians have argued that legislator dissent undermines a party’s policy agenda and its leader – a claim which has received scant empirical attention. It is pursued here using the experimental method. Respondents were exposed to mock news articles about a bill before British Columbia’s legislative assembly that varied the presence of dissent and its framing. Findings show that dissent undermined policy support, while also negatively affecting party leader competence and performance evaluations. The latter effects are more apparent when media coverage clearly links dissent to the leadership capacity of the party leader. The findings help illustrate the collective action dilemma facing parties – individual legislators may well benefit from dissent, but the party and its leader face potentially steep costs.
Latent Opinion, Issue Attention, and Policymaking
(with Andrew Owen)
A rich literature in political science examined the responsiveness of government policy to public opinion. However, a notable limitation has been the inability to grapple with latent directional opinion and issue-attention cycles. Prior research may underestimate policy responsiveness by failing to account for policymaker efforts to anticipate the public’s opinion on issues at election time – both its direction and its salience. This paper uses a survey on a snowball sample of former and current policy advisors for Canadian federal and provincial ministers to shed light on this issue. Survey experiments were conducted using policy vignettes that manipulated latent directional opinion and salience to establish the mechanism of policy responsiveness to latency at the micro-level. Findings show that our respondents adjusted their policy support to account for latent issue salience, but that responsiveness to latent directional opinion is conditional on issue attention. This suggests policymakers in Canada are only responsive to public opinion for the purposes of re-election – they will follow their policy preferences at odds with public opinion if they think they can get away with it. Descriptive survey results also provide new insights that could help future researchers study latent opinion and policymaking.
Prepared for presentation at the CPSA Annual Conference 2017 in Toronto. Link here.
A Canadian “Perceptual Screen”? Partisan Bias in Information Processing
Partisan bias exists when supporters of different parties have systematically different views of reality. A rich literature has shown that Republicans and Democrats systematically view the world in very different ways largely because they resist the assimilation of information not congenial to their party’s interests and goals. Studies of partisan perceptual bias, however, have not typically been extended beyond the American context. This paper presents the preliminary results of a survey experiment conducted on a broadly left-leaning sample of 157 undergraduate political science students. Subjects were exposed to mock economic news that contradicted their reported priors. This news was imbued with partisan implications for either the Liberal or Conservative parties. It shows that students selectively updated their economic evaluations to the benefit of the Liberal Party and to the detriment of the Conservatives. This effect was found largely among those with less political knowledge, providing evidence on how party cues may backfire for less knowledgeable citizens.
Partisan Media Bias and Differential Responsiveness to Economic Conditions: New Evidence
Research shows that the media adjust their tone of economic coverage in response to economic conditions, which provides information necessary for retrospective economic evaluation. However, they may not do so in an even-handed way. This paper explores whether the media systematically rewards economies under Democratic or Republican presidents with more positive coverage and if their responsiveness to economic conditions is similarly tinged with partisan bias. It uses a time series, cross-sectional analysis of the dynamics in media tone based on almost 400,000 stories on inflation, and unemployment from top-circulating American print media. The results suggest there is bias in favor of Democratic presidents. Media tone in unemployment and inflation coverage is approximately 10 percent more favorable during Democratic presidencies after controlling for economic performance – a bias found primarily among Democratic-endorsing newspapers. Media tone is also generally more responsive to Republican economic performance on inflation and unemployment in the short-run, such that Republicans are punished more for negative economic news. Similar biases exist in the public’s aggregate evaluations of the economy, which appear to be, at least in part, accounted for by the media’s influence on these evaluations. These findings suggest partisan bias in the mainstream press may be systemic.
Whose News? The Media and the Distribution of Economic Gains and Losses
(with Tim Hicks, Alan Jacobs, and Scott Matthews)
There is considerable evidence that citizens’ choices at the ballot box are shaped by their assessments of the state of the economy. We also know that economic perceptions are considerably influenced by the news, and that economic news responds differently to different kinds of economic developments. This paper advances our understanding of how the news responds to the economy by investigating _whose_ economic welfare drives economic reporting. In particular, how responsive is economic news to developments shaping the material fortunes of the rich, the broad middle, or the poor? In this paper, we analyze a massive dataset of economic news content over the last three decades in the United States to examine how the tone of economic news responds to real economic developments with differing distributional consequences. The analysis draws on all economic news stories from the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1977 and 2013, together with all economic news from 13 other newspapers among the top 50 in print or digital circulation between the years 1991 and 2013, yielding a dataset of almost 1 million observations. We use Lexicoder, an automated, dictionary-based coding tool with high validity for large samples, to measure the positivity or negativity of all economic stories in the selected newspapers. This allows us to generate annual and quarterly tone scores for the economic news being consumed by a large share of the American electorate over the last three decades (cf. Soroka, Stecula & Wlezien, 2014). We validate this index as a measure of the tone of the broad news environment by demonstrating that it acts as a strong predictor of consumer evaluations of the state of the economy and of the government’s performance in managing the economy (when controlling for actual economic conditions). We then undertake time-series analysis to examine how well the tone of economic news tracks changes in economic fundamentals with differing distributional implications, including median earnings, corporate profits, and capital incomes. The results will provide novel insight into the political economy of economic information, yielding a systematic and detailed portrait of the informational environment within which voters punish and reward their representatives. The findings will also help us make further sense of the mass politics of inequality (Bartels, 2008; Gilens, 2012). Whether low- and middle-income voters are equipped to defend their economic interests at election time depends critically on the distributional content of the informational environment in which they make economic and electoral judgments.
Prepared for presentation at the APSA Annual Conference 2016 in Philadelphia. Link here.