Ongoing Research

Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media Coverage of Expert Agreement

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.

Prepared for presentation at the APSA annual conference in Washington D.C. Link here


Party Cues in the News: Elite Opinion Leadership and Climate Skepticism

(with Dominik Stecula)

Abstract:
Supporters of the Republican Party are have become much more skeptical of the science of climate change since the 1990s. We argue that this phenomenon can be explained by a model of top-down persuasion by party elites. We construct aggregate measures of climate skepticism at the quarterly level from 2001 to 2014 and at the annual level from 1986 to 2014 based on nearly 200 public opinion polls. 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 suggest we should see climate change skepticism through the lens of elite-led opinion formation.

Prepared for presentation at the APSA political communication pre-conference in Washington D.C. Link here.


Whose News? The Media and the Distribution of Economic Gains and Losses

(with Tim Hicks, Alan Jacobs, and Scott Matthews)

Abstract:
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

Abstract:
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.