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April 30, 2024, 10:36 a.m.
Audience & Social

Why are politicians so negative? (Hint: It’s a media problem)

Plus: Surprising attitudes about gender and credibility on the beat, how Trump drives outsized mainstream media attention to alternative media, and “sifting” as the key mode of next-gen news consumers.

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.

The press rewards negative politicians with attention, and that engenders more negativity.

Politics can seem almost synonymous with negativity, with politicians bashing opponents with almost reckless abandon — at political rallies, in attack ads, on congressional floors, and on TV. Which begs the question: Does all this negativity actually work — and what’s causing it in the first place?

new study by Željko Poljak in The International Journal of Press/Politics offers some fascinating answers. Before we get to that, though, consider what we know so far from the research. First, when politicians or political candidates level criticism at one another, it’s not necessarily a bad thing: It can increase public attention to politics and even lead people to feel more satisfied with democracy, perhaps because voters feel empowered to make decisions based on more clearly defined distinctions between politicians and parties. On the other hand, and not surprisingly, negativity by politicians (particularly when it devolves into incivility) also has adverse effects on society, such as lower voter turnout, greater resentment toward politics, and more polarization of the kind that leads people to wish the worst on their perceived enemies.

Whatever the outcomes for society, politicians go on the attack because they think it works for them electorally and they believe that discrediting their opponents is their basic job. It can certainly seem that way. Yet research has shown that such negativity can have a “boomerang effect,” backfiring in a way that hurts negative politicians’ approval ratings and makes other candidates look more attractive by comparison.

Being hyper-negative, then, carries risks — so why do politicians seem so intent on behaving like this?

For this research project, Poljak hypothesized that the news had something to do with it. Namely, that the media’s bias toward negativity, fueled by the audience’s predominant interest in negative news, might “explain why politicians continue to use negativity despite its uncertain impact on public approval and negative side effects on society.” More specifically, he hypothesized that negative politicians would have a higher likelihood of appearing in news coverage, especially if they use uncivil forms of negativity, and that, once politicians are rewarded with media access after using negativity, they would be incentivized to do it again.

Poljak, of the University of Antwerp, tested these hypotheses in Belgium, which offers a useful setting for these questions. The country, he notes, is considered “a consensus democracy with a multi-party system where politicians need to cooperate to pass legislation or form a government.” As a result, politicians are less likely to go negative in such countries because there tends to be more cross-party coordination to assemble coalitions, as opposed to lower-cooperation, two-party systems like the U.S. So, if negativity is prevalent and rewarded with media attention in the Belgian context, that likely speaks volumes about the causes and consequences of these dynamics in more fractious political environments.

To test the hypotheses, Poljak first analyzed how often individual politicians used negativity in Belgium’s federal parliament during “question time” (held every week for two hours), and then compared that with how often the same politicians were covered on prime-time TV news later that day. He also calculated whether appearing in the news because of negativity would lead the same politicians to go negative again. In all, his dataset included 367 politicians and thousands of their speeches sampled randomly from 2010 to 2020.

It’s worth clarifying differences here between negativity and incivility. If, say, Politician X attacks Politician Y based on a policy difference, that’s just negative; but if X goes after Y in a mocking or name-calling sort of way, that’s negative and uncivil — the kind of breaking of social norms in politics and communication that can be corrosive to public trust and societal wellbeing.

So, does taking a negative tack work in giving politicians the media spotlight they crave? Indeed it does. “Negative politicians in parliament have a higher probability of getting into prime-time TV news, especially if they use negativity that is uncivil,” Poljak writes, “and once they gain media access following negativity, this experience increases the probability of going negative again.”

Here’s how that played out: Politicians who were negative during question time were about 60% more likely to be featured on the evening news versus their colleagues who were not negative. And among those who were negative, they had a roughly 53% greater chance of getting media coverage if they used incivility. Then, over time, there’s a knock-on effect: “For example, politicians that were in the news twice after they were negative have a 4.5% higher probability of going negative again compared to those that were in the news following negativity only once.”

These results confirm the theory of “mediatization,” which suggests that politicians modify their behavior to meet the needs and demands of media in order to gain media attention and thus influence in the public arena. Even in the social media era, Poljak notes, politicians recognize the enduring power of news media access, and they work hard to speak and act in ways that makes themselves newsworthy — by providing journalists with things like conflict (by going on the attack) or entertainment (by generating spectacle or trying to be funny). And, because humans are hard-wired psychologically to pay more attention to threats associated with negative information (compared with feel-good positivity), media organizations tend to oblige by giving people what they want: negativity. Politicians are only all too eager to help that effort.

These results from Belgium may seem to point to a doom loop of reinforcing negativity from politicians and journalists, but the researcher notes several encouraging signs from the study. First, less than half of politicians used negativity during question time, suggesting that neutrality could be more common than assumed. Second, even among those who went negative, the majority of them did so without being uncivil. And if political negativity can happen mostly around policy differences, rather than personal attacks, that ultimately can be beneficial for democratic well-being.

But the media’s rewarding of negativity (and incivility in particular) nevertheless raises questions for journalists. “Because incivility is easily distinguishable in a parliamentary debate from civil discourse,” the study notes, “journalists’ time constraints may lead to the rapid dissemination of such rhetoric, unlike more beneficial general negativity.”

How can reporters resist the knee-jerk temptation to focus on incivility, the most inflammatory and attention-grabbing type of negativity in politics, one that is demonstrably harmful to society? How can the “good” forms of negativity — such as policy-difference critiques — get more airtime instead? Even more, how can we cultivate greater appreciation for neutral or non-negative forms of argumentation? Those are questions worth considering for journalists, educators, and news audiences looking to think differently about the status quo in politics.

Research roundup

“Who covers what? Analyzing audience perceptions of gender differences in news beat coverage.” By Martina Santia, Lars Willnat, and Stan Jastrzebski, in Journalism. Gender stereotypes have been baked into news organizations’ structure ever since news organizations had a structure. It only takes a quick glance at the “women’s pages” that used to come standard in U.S. newspapers to see how rigidly gender stereotypes have enforced not just who works in which part of the newsroom, but how our very notions of news are conceived of along gendered lines.

Even in recent years, research has found that news beats still divide along gendered lines in the U.S. and around the world. One of the thornier questions is precisely why: Is it because of stereotypes among editors about women’s suitability to cover traditionally “feminine” issues? A sense that these issues are less important, along with biases about women’s qualifications? Something else?

The answer, as usual, is some combination of “all of the above” and “it’s complicated,” but Santia and two other researchers from Syracuse University help tease this out by spotlighting a less-considered factor in these stereotypes: the audience. They used a survey of 1,600 U.S. journalists to determine the breakdown of beats by gender. (No surprises here: Men are still disproportionately assigned to beats that have historically been stereotyped as masculine.) Then they also used an experiment to look at how audiences assessed the credibility, qualifications, and fit of a man or woman journalist based on the stereotypically gendered nature of the beat.

What they found was surprising. You might think that audiences would rate women as more credible and qualified than men when covering a stereotypically feminine issue, but the opposite was the case. Women were viewed as significantly less credible and qualified than men on stereotypically feminine issues, though better fitting. Women journalists were seen as more credible and qualified on stereotypically masculine beats than feminine ones.

The authors suggested that audiences might expect women to simply gravitate toward more feminine beats and penalize them for doing so, while elevating their importance if they cover traditionally masculine beats, despite any perceived incongruity with gender roles there. The authors concluded with a renewed call for editors to promote women to higher-profile beats, perhaps making newsrooms more equitable by cycling reporters through the most prominent beats.

“Trump, Twitter, and Truth Social: How Trump used both mainstream and alt-tech social media to drive news media attention.” By Yini Zhang, Josephine Lukito, Jiyoun Suk, and Ryan McGrady, in Journal of Information Technology & Politics.

“Presidential authority and the legitimation of far-right news.” By Allison M.N. Archer, Carolyn E. Schmitt, Shannon C. McGregor, and Heesoo Jang, in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

In many countries, populist politicians and media have ascended hand in hand over the past decade, as the same sentiments that propel one into mainstream prominence also drive engagement to the other. We’ve seen that take place in the U.S. since the Trump administration began, as media organizations that had been on the fringes of national discourse are given a more prominent place — some (Breitbart) because of direct connections with Trump, and others (Epoch Times) part of a more general populist, anti-mainstream wave.

Two studies published in the past month both sought to answer questions related to that phenomenon. One, led by Allison Archer, looked at the degree to which the attention Trump paid to far-right news organizations brought mainstream media and political attention to those organizations. The other, led by Yini Zhang, looked at a similar dynamic on social media, examining differences in media coverage of Trump’s activity on Twitter versus his own Truth Social platform.

The studies were univocal in their findings: Trump was a significant driver of mainstream media attention to alternative media sources, whether news sources (i.e., OANN, Newsmax, Breitbart) or his own social media platform in Truth Social. Archer and her team found a significant increase in mainstream media articles written about alternative media sources in the months after Trump mentioned them on Twitter (though less so for Breitbart), as well as significant increases in the number of Republican members of Congress who interviewed with the sources (though not Republican senators). Much of the mainstream coverage was neutral toward the right-wing news sources, leading the authors to caution journalists about legitimating those sources in the eyes of their audiences.

The Zhang study found that even though Truth Social had only a fraction of the users of Twitter, far from marginalizing Trump in the mainstream media, his posts there received considerably more media attention than his posts on Twitter. The authors noted that not all populist politicians might experience the same influence on an alt-tech social media platform relative to a mainstream one, but did conclude that “Trump’s ability to attract news attention via social media is not predicated on a specific platform, but on an ability to engage social media users generally.”

“Politicians, newspapers, and immigration referendums: Exploring the boundaries of media effects.” By Judith Spirig, in Political Communication. Donald Trump, of course, is far from the only politician to determine that owning a media platform could provide a way to fast-track political influence. It’s an old story, whether media moguls entering politics or political heavyweights buying, funding, or starting up media organizations. A central question, though, is what kind of effect it actually has. Can a political actor actually influence voting outcomes by buying a media organization and directing its coverage? And if so, how much?

There are so many variables involved when determining the political effects of any given news organization that there isn’t likely to be a definitive answer to that question anytime soon. Previous studies on the media ownership of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Sheldon Adelson in Israel have indicated some influence on voting behavior. But Spirig has a rigorous study of a fascinating case in Switzerland that indicates that, at least in this case, the influence might be weaker than we think.

Spirig examined the case of Basler Zeitung, a regional daily newspaper that was bought in 2010 by investors with strong ties to the right-wing, anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party. In a remarkable study design, she used four different data sets — the newspaper’s articles on immigration issues, newspaper circulation data, municipal-level voting data, and post-vote survey data — to determine the effects of the change in ownership on voting on immigration referendums.

The newspaper’s immigration coverage did become more slanted toward the party’s anti-immigration stances, though its readership declined substantially, and the data broadly suggested that the remaining readership tended to agree with its new anti-immigration stances. Based on geographical voting results and survey results on immigration attitudes, there was no indication of substantial effects of the newspaper on either votes or attitudes.

Spirig noted that it’s hard to pinpoint precisely why the effects were so negligible in this case, but she concluded that two factors especially limited the effects. First, there were many other news sources available as alternatives, and second, the new owners’ political motivations were widely known to audiences. When those conditions are present, she wrote, even a shift toward highly slanted media may have little ability to produce concrete political effects.

“Tale of two requesters: How public records law experiences differ by requester types.” By A. Jay Wagner and David Cuillier, in Journalism. Just about every journalist has a horror story (or two, or 10) about a request under freedom of information laws gone awry, with requests that are responded to at a glacial pace, or in comically inaccessible formats, or stonewalled entirely. Each request seems to come with its own theory as to why it was handled so poorly: Incompetence? Indifference? Malice? Fear?

Wagner and Cuillier’s study isn’t the “government bureaucrats tell all” that will definitively answer those questions, but it does provide some evidence that people’s FOI experiences vary in telling ways. They surveyed 330 people in the U.S. who had made FOI requests, using a variety of sampling methods (including a random sample of publicly available FOI logs), asking about how often they made FOI requests, what their experiences had been with the responses, and how they felt about the efficacy of FOI laws.

They found that experiences varied dramatically between for-profit requesters (like lawyers and commercial requesters) and public-interest requesters (like journalists, academics, and nonprofits). For-profit requesters reported far better experiences with FOI requests than public-interest requesters, who were much more likely to say that requestees reported that they were exempt because of privacy or legal concerns, national security, or trade secrets. (Perhaps relatedly, for-profit requesters were more likely to say that they filed a lawsuit regarding FOI requests.) Yet public-interest requesters were much more likely to see democratic value and positive impact of FOI laws.

The findings are frustrating — the people who see the most social good in FOI laws are “also the ones most disadvantaged, and most shunted” by that system. Wagner and Cuillier note that perhaps the findings shouldn’t surprise us, though: For-profit requesters are more seasoned in their requests, less likely to request records they aren’t sure exist, and less likely to request records that will embarrass or incriminate government officials. They offer several concrete recommendations to improve the system, including providing better adjudication options as alternatives to lawsuits.

“Next Gen News: Understanding the audiences of 2030.” By FT Strategies and the Knight Lab, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Given the dramatic shifts in media habits and the increasing instability of news business models, news organizations around the world are scrambling to develop an understanding of their youngest news consumers. One of those organizations, the Financial Times, just released a useful report on its work understanding news consumers between the ages of 18 and 25, especially how young people consume news and what they see as an ideal news experience.

The report was conducted by FT Strategies in conjunction with the Knight Lab at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and it involves interviews with 45 18-to-25-year-olds in India, Nigeria, and the U.S., as well as 19 industry experts on the topic. They found that because of the sheer amount of information they’re bombarded with, young people’s primary mode of news consumption is “sifting,” which (ideally) consists of “simple, short, and low-effort ways to keep up with and discover relevant information without feeling overwhelmed.” They also found four higher-effort modes of consumption: substantiating what’s true, studying to build knowledge and expertise, socializing to connect information with others, and sensemaking to determine meaning.

The research team also developed a framework of characteristics that young news consumers want from the news, built around a trusted source (as determined not only by credibility, but also by affinity and transparent intentions), personal significance (both in topic and actionability), and storytelling in a convenient and stimulating format and with accessible language. They also finished with several specific calls to action for news organizations. Unlike much of the research we share in this newsletter, the report is freely available, so it’s worth exploring more deeply.

POSTED     April 30, 2024, 10:36 a.m.
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