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Nov. 13, 2023, 11:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

“Arguments on a daily basis”: How couples who disagree politically navigate news

Plus: Silent corrections to stories, how viral videos draw attention to right-wing news, and journalists’ (somewhat) like-minded Twitter networks.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

If you have a significant other in your life, chances are they probably share your politics: you both lean Democratic or Republican (or independent) together.

Romantic partnerships have long grown out of shared values and attitudes, but polarization has amplified these tendencies. These days, more than ever in the U.S., political sorting is happening more readily across neighborhoods, friendships, and dating and marriage relationships. And as political identity increasingly becomes synonymous with many people’s larger sense of social identity, the stakes for political disagreement seem higher than they once were: Partisan zealots are now more likely to wish the worst on their perceived foes on the other side.

But many couples are not politically in sync with each other, and there has been surprisingly little research about what such “cross-cutting” relationships mean for news consumption and political discussion in such politically mismatched pairings.

Emily Van Duyn of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a first-of-its-kind analysis of this issue in her article “Negotiating news: How cross-cutting romantic partners select, consume, and discuss news together,” published last month in the journal Political Communication.

She sought to address three questions: How do romantic partners in cross-cutting relationships influence each other’s selection and consumption of news? How do those patterns of news selection and consumption shape the conversations about politics and political news that happen between partners? And, ultimately, what does the role of news mean for these cross-cutting couples — is it helpful or harmful to their relationship?

To answer these questions, she conducted in-depth interviews with 67 U.S. residents in cross-cutting relationships. She chose to interview just one individual from each couple, in part because people might not be so candid with their comments if they knew their partner was being interviewed, particularly in cases where people strategically avoid talking about politics to maintain the relationship. Of the 67 interviewees, slightly less than half were married while the others were dating or cohabitating. All but five participants were in opposite-sex relationships.

Van Duyn found that cross-cutting couples deal with two main difficulties when navigating news: negotiated exposure, as couples try to influence news selection and consumption in the relationship, and two-step conflict, in which issues surrounding news — what type, how much, from which sources, etc. — not only led to discussion about politics but also to significant friction between partners.

Consider first the problem of negotiating what news to introduce into the relationship — or whether to avoid news altogether. “For one, the process of selecting and consuming news was especially difficult for cross-cutting romantic partners,” Van Duyn writes, “because it presented a choice that involved recognizing political differences and finding a way to navigate these differences. In turn, who selected news, what was selected, and how those choices were negotiated over time became a political act as much as an interpersonal one.”

For one couple studied, that meant sharing control over what TV news channel was playing during the day: the conservative woman would decide in the morning, and her liberal boyfriend took charge in the afternoon. For others, that meant finding shared news rituals they could both agree on — like watching the evening news on ABC while preparing dinner each night — while allowing space for individual podcast or social media consumption that tailored to each other’s interests.

And, for others, it meant a pulling away from news and politics altogether. One respondent said that he and his Democratic girlfriend “never share articles” on social media and “never watch the news together at all.” This was not intentional at first, he said, but the avoidance arose gradually out of a worry that sharing articles would incite conflict: “I guess we’re both afraid to bring up politics…I’d say I try to avoid it. I think she does too. So, we kind of both avoid it at all costs just so we don’t get into any arguments whatsoever.”

But arguments were, in fact, a frequent challenge for cross-cutting couples. Van Duyn talked about these in relation to “two-step flow,” a longstanding concept in communication research that emphasizes the powerful role of interpersonal conversation in shaping how people come to learn about politics through discussion about news with others in their social networks. “Yet in the case of cross-cutting relationships,” Van Duyn writes, “the news media served as more than a conduit for discussion or a transfer of information. In these relationships, news media also served as a source of political conflict between partners, activating differences between them that would have otherwise been unprovoked, a process I call two-step conflict.”

These conflicts would pop up related to the content of news. In one case, “Hannah was upset with her boyfriend not necessarily because he disagreed with her view on the article [they were considering], but because he did not have the same emotional reaction[emphasis added]….A gap in news emotionality displays the difficulty that arises when one partner is strongly invested in news coverage and the other is not.”

In other cases, conflicts emerged regularly over the sources for news. One 42-year-old Florida woman described listening to the news for a half-hour each night while cooking. “And so, while I’m cooking, he might be in the room adjacent,” she said. “I’ll bring up certain topics that are prevalent in the news, and he’ll start screaming. Like, ‘You listen to mainstream media, and that’s all lies.’ And so, it definitely causes arguments on a daily basis.”

At this point, you may be thinking: Yikes, why would anyone put up with the challenges of being in a cross-cutting political pairing? It’s a fair question, but also not a realistic one: In one survey (cited by Van Duyn) of more than 18 million married couples in the U.S., 30% were a “mis-matched partisan pair.” Plus, it’s hardly smart to suggest that people only choose a mate by political symmetry. And, let’s face it: We all need to become a little better at dealing with partisan differences, including and perhaps especially in these intimate relationships of life. More research like Van Duyn’s can help us figure out what’s gone awry so we can make things work better.

Research roundup

“News in motion: A quantitative analysis of incremental news updates by Flemish online news outlets.” By Yoram Timmerman, Sarah Van Leuven, and Antoon Bronselaer, in Journalism Practice. It has been a couple of decades since instantaneous publishing on the web first allowed news organizations to immediately update articles after they’d been published — without necessarily informing audiences. It has often frustrated audiences and journalists themselves, and journalists have often said that transparency is the best policy, but it doesn’t always happen in practice.

But how does it happen in practice? The questions of how often news organizations update or correct stories without telling readers, and why, have been tricky for researchers to answer (with some noteworthy exceptions), because news stories are so difficult to track incrementally when they are updated so quickly. This Belgian study used probably the most comprehensive, broadest-scale method yet — an internally built software program that checked articles for changes every 15 minutes and downloaded a new copy of the text every time a difference was found.

The researchers used the program to collect 197,979 updates on 291,666 articles across two years of coverage by six Flemish news outlets, and they manually analyzed a subset of about 7,500 updates to more precisely categorize the type of updates made. They found that 35% of news articles were updated in the 24 hours after publication. The wide majority of those updates were relatively small — involving adding or removing less than 5% of the article’s full length — though a notable minority (5-10%) either added or subtracted more than half the article’s original length.

What were news organizations doing with the updates? Almost half of the changes involved adding or removing information without correcting it. Another 30% also didn’t involve corrections, but simply rewording information or moving it around. But 22% of changes did involve corrections — most of them linguistic, but some (about 5% of total updates) involved correcting objective or subjective information. Most of those corrections were applied silently, and as the authors noted, readers were often left unaware whether they were reading a final article version or essentially an intermediate draft.

“The dark side of entertainment? How viral entertaining media build an attention base for the far-right politics of The Epoch Times.” By Yilang Peng, Tian Yang, and Kecheng Fang, in New Media and Society. There’s been an avalanche of research on right-wing media since the global ascendance of right-wing populism in the mid-2010s, with much of it looking at the how of the phenomenon — how right-wing media direct attentioncommunicate political ideasmobilize audiencesbuild authority, and so on.

This study argues that one aspect of that how has been overlooked: The crucial role of entertainment media — “feel-good videos, life hacks, and cute animal posts” — in drawing attention to right-wing media. In an environment in which news is only a vanishingly small fraction of the online media people consume, that content is an important part of a strategy to build an alternative news audience that might not be interested in purposefully consuming political news.

The authors looked at the role of entertainment media by studying the Facebook feed of the Chinese-American right-wing publication The Epoch Times from 2013 to 2020, a total of 117,000 posts. They compared three general types of posts: U.S. political news, Chinese political news, and viral entertainment videos. The U.S. political news — often extreme, incendiary content — attracted a higher share of immediate audience engagement, as we might expect given the proclivities of Facebook’s audience and algorithm.

But political news did not increase followers or increase engagement on future posts — it was a short-term strategy for gaining attention, not a long-term one. The true long-term effects belonged to entertainment videos, which not only attracted engagement for themselves, but were more likely to boost engagement on subsequent posts, even political ones. The authors classified the strategy as one of “narrative switching”: Using mundane non-political content to accumulate attention, then transitioning to extreme political material. Through this strategy, even less politically motivated users “could be readily assembled into an attention-expansion army of political information actors and act as amplifiers of political information messages,” the authors concluded.

“Journalists’ networks: Homophily and peering over the shoulder of other journalists.” By Qin Li, Hans J.G. Hassell, and Robert M. Bond, in PLoS ONE.
Twitter/X’s status as the office water cooler for journalists (especially political journalists) may have waned since Elon Musk’s takeover, but that has been one of its major functions for the past 15 years. The perceived insularity of those journalists has long been a concern of often conservative observers on social media — that’s how “blue-check” became a derogatory shorthand for the “elite” class of verified journalists on Twitter. But it has concerned scholars, too, who’ve posited that the old image of the pack of political journalists as “the boys on the bus” has become “the boys on the timeline.”

Several scholars have done interesting work lately to determine just how insular the community of political journalists on Twitter is. (The answer: Quite insular!) This study poses similar questions to those, but does so through one of the most methodologically robust designs yet. Li and her colleagues surveyed American political journalists about their journalistic and political values, then matched about 250 survey responses to the Twitter networks of the journalists who gave them. They also matched Twitter network data for more than 4,000 journalists with the data on the size of their publications.

What they found was perhaps a bit counterintuitive. Journalists were more likely to be connected on Twitter with other journalists who had similar views on professional values — objectivity, limiting harm, avoiding bias, etc. But they did not cluster with other journalists based on political ideology. “While conservative journalists are underrepresented in journalism,” the authors wrote, “we do not find that conservative journalists are isolated.” Nor were liberal journalists insulated from conservative colleagues. Less surprisingly, they found that journalists at larger publications had larger networks and were more central within them, giving support to their agenda-setting role.

Ultimately, the authors saw these network dynamics on Twitter as yet another outworking of journalists’ commitment to objectivity. Journalists congregated with other journalists who held the same professional values and with those who held different political ideology in service of those same professional values. “In an effort to limit the ideological bias in what and how news stories are covered, journalists — regardless of their political ideology — maintain connections with those who have divergent viewpoints,” the study concluded.

“Elite hostility toward journalism, news trust, and the mediating role of fear for motivating public support of news media.” By Jason T. Peifer and Alexis Haskell, in International Journal of Communication. Hostility to journalists from political figures has been one of the fundamental features of recent populist and authoritarian movements around the world. That anti-media rhetoric certainly galvanizes and helps form the identity of people within those politicians’ movements, but what effect does it have on rest of the public?

Previous work has found that attacks on particular news organizations can damage perceptions of that news organization, but don’t have an effect on news media more generally. And Peifer has found in another study that exposure to Donald Trump’s anti-media rhetoric could actually prompt increased support for journalism. In this study, he took that finding further, looking at what types of emotions (i.e., anger and fear) are most likely to elicit support for journalism in response to that hostility, and how the effects of hostility will differ among people with high and low media trust.

Peifer and Haskell conducted an experiment with American participants using a three-minute mashup of anti-media comments by politicians (none of them Trump). They found that the video prompted support for journalism (measured as a willingness to support journalism through communication in person or on social media, or financially), but with a few caveats. The effect was not direct — that is, the anti-media video only produced support for journalism if it induced fear, but not if it induced anger.

The video also wasn’t very effective in inducing support for journalism among those with low trust in media. In other words, there’s little evidence that it changed anyone’s mind. But Peifer and Haskell concluded that carefully considered exposure to politicians’ anti-media rhetoric could actually have some value in reinforcing attitudes of those who are already favorable toward journalism. “The significant benefit of building and maintaining a foundation of trust and support arguably outweighs the potential negative impact of giving a platform to elite hostility toward journalists,” they wrote.

“Trust signals: An intersectional approach to understanding women of color’s news trust.” By Chelsea Peterson-Salahuddin, in Media and Communication. The decline in media trust has been a ubiquitous topic in news discourse and research lately, but it’s a very old one among marginalized communities around the world that have been the victims of news organizations’ well-documented tendency to support structures of power and the cultural status quo.

Some of the research on media trust has acknowledged that particularly thorny dimension to news organizations’ trust deficit, though only a few studies have looked at it directly and in depth. One released earlier this year from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford drew from experiences of people within marginalized groups around the world regarding misrepresentations in news coverage and their related erosion of trust.

Peterson-Salahuddin’s study is another, involving focus groups of American women of color and paying special attention to intersectionality among race, gender, sexual identity, class, and age. The intersectional approach proved fruitful for Peterson-Salahuddin, as the most striking findings appeared across combinations of different identities, and age in particular.

She found that for women of color, trust was often connected to signals that news organizations were implicated in upholding oppressive systems across multiple dimensions of marginalization — including racism and sexism but not limited to them either. The most notable findings were in the women’s conceptions of accuracy, which differed by age. For older women, accuracy was closely tied to factual matters and transparency, as well as notions of “balance” and lack of bias. But younger women often defined news organizations’ accuracy “in terms of how their reporting reflected the realities of systemic racial, gender, and sexual oppression in shaping news events.”

An RQ1 read: Digital Journalism and the Facilitation of Hate, by Gregory P. Perreault

This is part of an occasional series of summaries by RQ1 readers of notable recent books on news and journalism. This month’s summary is from Will Mari, an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU. If there’s a recent research-oriented book on news or journalism that you’d like to write about, let us know!

Right now is, unfortunately, a timely moment for Gregory Perreault’s Digital Journalism and the Facilitation of Hate. Perreault, an associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, calls both journalists and those who study them to do a better job with coverage of hate groups and their poisonous messages.

Drawing on interviews with 142 digital journalists, as well as research from his time as the Fulbright-Botstiber Professor of Austrian-American Studies at the University of Vienna, Perreault points out that writing about racists has long been a struggle for American journalists — framing the problem as one rooted not in intentionality, but rather in an ideology of objectivity that can obscure difficult conversations behind a thin veneer of detachment. And while some of this is motivated by professional stresses from within news organizations and from their audiences, some of it is also driven by literal fear of angering groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In response, journalists have either avoided confrontation or have (again, unintentionally) allowed hate-based entities to relabel themselves as “alt-right,” which, in turn, allows for a mainstreaming of extremist views at a time when democracies and pluralistic societies are already under enormous strain.

In Perreault’s words, “journalists covering hate speech find themselves in a contentious arena where they must weigh their normative approaches to the field against the needs of the audience, even as hate groups put pressure on journalists to shape their coverage a certain way.”

To push back against these and other forces, amplified by how online journalism tends to work, with its emphasis on metrics, Perreault hopes that his book can “provide applied solutions to this problem [of covering hate speech responsibly] with the hope that journalists, journalism educators and journalism scholars will find a new way forward that preserves the essential activities of journalism while operating effectively in the digital space.”

To that end, he calls for journalism that covers hate and its adherents to be grounded and careful — to treat it as something different and thus demanding the best possible blend of the normative values of thorough, truth-based and transparent journalism, and the affordances provided by technology. Best-practice-driven journalism that covers hate is not easy, but it is necessary.

Perreault’s fellow scholars of journalism studies will find his book helpful in its sensible, deep dive into definitions and context, and its empathetic, constructive critiques of how both journalism researchers and practitioners can do better.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

POSTED     Nov. 13, 2023, 11:15 a.m.
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