Ongoing Research

Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media 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. The question is: why? Neglected in this inquiry has been the role of the media as a source of information about expert agreement. We have grounds to suspect that the media environment may be ill-suited to providing this information. Political communication theory highlights the fact that news outlets often neglect thematic content in favour of novelty, drama, and personality, which may limit coverage of expert agreement on general matters of policy. Media content is also biased towards balance and conflict – they may cite contrarian experts and polarizing political actors, and in so doing dilute the persuasiveness of expert information when presented. This study presents an analysis of over 280,000 newspaper, newswire, broadcast, and cable American news stories on 10 issues where there are important elements of agreement among scientists and economists. It combines automated methods, such as machine learning and dictionaries, with hand coding. The analyses show that journalists write news content that largely emphasizes arguments aligned with the position of expert agreement, and only infrequently present a true balance of perspectives in news content. This is particularly true for climate change and vaccine news. More prevalent is the presentation of expert agreement amidst claims and counter claims by polarizing political actors that could prime motivated citizens to resist expert messages. Most troubling, however, is that expert messages containing information about important areas of agreement are simply not common in news content, and cues signaling the existence of consensus are vanishingly rare. Citizen are not likely to learn about expert consensus through the news media on most issues.

Prepared for presentation at the CPSA annual conference in Regina, SK. Link here.

Anti-Intellectualism, Anti-elitism, and Motivated Resistance to Expert Consensus

Public opinion is far apart from experts on a wide range of issues. The dominant explanation of this is ideologically-driven motivated skepticism. However, this is not a sufficient explanation for less salient and politically charged questions. I argue that more attention needs to be placed on anti-intellectualism – the generalized mistrust and suspicion of experts and intellectuals. Using the General Social Survey and a survey of 3,600 Americans on Amazon Mechanical Turk, I show a strong association between anti-intellectualism and opposition to scientific positions on climate change, nuclear power, GMOs, and water fluoridation, above and beyond the effects of ideology and partisanship. An embedded survey experiment also shows that anti-intellectualism moderates the acceptance of messages related to scientific agreement. Finally, the paper explores the existence of a link between anti-intellectualism and populism – a world view that sees political conflict as primarily between ordinary citizens and a privileged societal elite. It shows that populism is strongly associated with anti-intellectualism, and demonstrates experimentally that generalized populist rhetoric – even that which doesn’t pertain to experts directly – can activate anti-intellectual predispositions in the processing of expert messages on unrelated issues. These findings suggest that rising anti-elite rhetoric may make anti-intellectual predispositions more salient for information processing.

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.

“Back to the Future”: Democratic Responsiveness and the Anticipation of Future Public Opinion

(with Andrew Owen)

Research on the responsiveness of policy to public opinion has failed to confront 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 future opinion, show that policy makers are responsive to the anticipated direction of election-proximate opinion, but this relationship is conditional on high expected salience. Survey results shed additional light on the role that future, or ‘latent’, opinion plays in policy making. Combined, these experimental and observational results suggest existing empirical work on policy responsiveness has incomplete and must account for the role electoral incentives play in democracy.

Prepared for presentation at the CPSA Annual Conference 2017 in Toronto. Link here.

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.

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.