Trust in a fake news world

“Fake news” defined an election, and continues to play a prominent role in the presidency of the candidate that most benefited from all of its forms. Gather a bunch of journalism educators together, and it’s no surprise we’re going to want to talk about it. That’s what happened in Chicago at the 2017 annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Continue reading “Trust in a fake news world”


Sunday morning talk shows and portrayals of public opinion during the 2012 presidential campaign

The 2016 presidential campaign has been unique thus far, to say the least. It makes the 2012 cycle look downright boring. Yet, one aspect of the 2012 campaign that stood out to me was the use of public opinion polling by media to frame the race.

This paper was presented August 7, 2016 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minn. An early version was presented February 27, 2016 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Midwinter Conference in Norman, Okla.

The 2016 presidential campaign has been unique thus far, to say the least. It makes the 2012 cycle look downright boring. Yet, one aspect of the 2012 campaign that stood out to me was the use of public opinion polling by media to frame the race. Leading up to Election Day, it seemed pretty clear that President Obama would have the electoral votes to win a second term. Election forecasting guru Nate Silver thought so, and most polling data agreed.

However, a completely different picture was painted in conservative media – at least in a few anecdotal instances. Fox News contributor Dick Morris infamously predicted a “landslide” victory for Mitt Romney, while Karl Rove’s refusal to accept Obama’s victory-sealing win in Ohio made for awkward Election Night coverage for the cable news ratings leader. Both had evidence on their side – poll numbers that made it look like Romney was indeed going to win Ohio and the White House. But those polls were in the minority, and they were wrong.

This matters. Previous research suggests that publishing of public opinion polls can actually influence public opinion, and eventually, voting. To be fair, these findings have always been tough to untangle. Does a poll showing a candidate with a big lead create a bandwagon effect where everyone wants to vote for the inevitable winner, or does it spur an underdog effect in which the losing candidate’s supporters mobilize to close the gap? Does depicting a close race boost turnout, while voters skip out on a projected blowout? There’s evidence of all of these. Continue reading “Sunday morning talk shows and portrayals of public opinion during the 2012 presidential campaign”

(Some of) What we learned through a health intervention program for elementary school children

aejmc15Papers presented August 7, 2015 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, San Francisco, Calif. Information about accessing specific papers available by visiting the Academia page on

Recently, researchers with the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab spent two weeks with second- and third-grade children at a racially diverse public elementary school. We conducted a health intervention, leading physical education activities, talking about health and nutrition, and using new technologies to encourage physical activity and healthy diets. These are a portion of those findings:

Media Effect on Children’s Health

Media use is a popular target of blame for childhood health problems, particularly obesity. It is widely assumed that media use limits exercise by increasing sedentary activity, though most studies find that media simply displaces other types of sedentary activity. A second proposed media effect is that media content (especially advertising) teaches unhealthy attitudes and behaviors regarding nutrition. And while content analyses of children’s television programming find enough sugary snacks to rot your teeth, it’s less clear how effective those messages are at influencing children.

We asked children in our health intervention to report how often they consumed various media (not just television – a limitation of many prior studies). Turns out, pre-existing media use did not significantly moderate intervention effects on attitudes or knowledge. Perhaps more surprising, media use did not affect baseline values before the intervention. In other words, whether children were glued to their screens or were playing outside, what they knew and how they felt about exercising and eating healthy was roughly the same.

Existing studies largely emanate from medical disciplines, where many of the measures are behavioral or biological, and assume a powerful media effects paradigm that has been disputed for over 50 years. This study, grounded in communication theory, rebuffs the century-old powerful media effects paradigm and suggests that media influence on the formation of children’s knowledge and attitudes is less evident.

Active Video Games

As part of the physical education intervention, children took a break from real-life play to engage in active video game play. Using a series of sports training games for the Wii, we measured children’s heart-rate, as well as self-reports of enjoyment and exertion. One of the papers to come out of the Wii sessions focused on the efficacy of active video games as a physical activity option for African American children. African American children are typically less physically active than White children. Two causes were particular relevant to the present study – negative attitudes toward physical activity and limited access to quality places for such activity.

We found that the Wii games each resulted in increases in heart rate mimicking that of real-life physical activity. This was true regardless of gender or weight status. Even better, children enjoyed playing the games, and reported desire to continue to play. However, real-world play could not be disregarded. For at least one game – a basketball drill – perceived efficacy at real basketball predicted enjoyment of the simulated game. The results suggest that active video games might provide alternative physical activity spaces that are enjoyed and desired by African American children.

Tablet-Sized Portions

Children used an iPad app designed by the researchers to keep track of the foods they ate at each meal. Compared to pre-intervention measures, children’s nutritional knowledge significantly improved as they thought about the types and portions of food they ate. The results suggest that the interactivity offered by touch technologies may make for an accessible, appealing way to not only present nutrition information to children, but to engage them with it.

Taken together, we learned that the various unhealthy messages in media may not be as impactful as widely believed. However, interactive media offer viable routes to engaging children in exercise and learning about nutrition.

Involvement Types and Hostile Media Perception: A Consideration of Campus News

PrintPresented March 27, 2015 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Southeast Colloquium, Knoxville, Tenn., Newspaper and Online News Division.

Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on

Hostile media perception (HMP) is a fascinating occurrence. Have two people highly invested in different sides of a divisive issue read the same newspaper article, or watch the same interview, and they will each declare emphatically the exact same message to be hostile toward their side of the argument. We’ve documented this for decades; what we struggle to explain is exactly why it occurs, which makes it difficult to correct for the bias.

This paper – part of a larger study – examines one possible explanation that could equip journalists and other message creators with a way to conquer HMP. We’ve long suggested that higher levels of involvement lead to more careful, and therefore more accurate message processing. The problem for partisans is that when your mind is full of arguments defending your position, thinking about a new argument more carefully probably isn’t going to result in objective reasoning.

Another way of looking at involvement is not in its extremity, but rather its type. Following Johnson and Eagly’s conceptualizations (1989, 1990), this study looked at how value, outcome, and impression involvement related to HMP. Briefly, value involvement refers to deeply held convictions, beliefs, and… well… values. The principles that guide your life. Those contribute to and are shaped by partisanship. They’re also pretty important things to defend, thus likely predictive of HMP. Outcome involvement is triggered when you recognize tangible consequences associated with a message. It would seem to be a deterrent to HMP. You may hate the IRS and everything they stand for, but if news breaks about a change to the tax code that could get you a big refund (or hit you with a huge hike), you might put aside your feelings and try to figure out the particulars. Impression involvement has more to do with fitting in socially, with a tendency to be weaker and more normative than the other involvement types. The assumption is that it won’t affect HMP, but that’s never been tested empirically.

So, an experiment was conducted. Participants – students on a college campus that had just experienced bouts of fraternity and sorority misconduct – read fictitious newspaper articles about disciplinary sanctions being taken against the Greek organizations. This context produced strong partisans on both sides of the issue. And, the more extreme one’s opinion about whether the sanctions were a good idea, the greater the perception that the newspaper article was taking the exact opposite stance – classic HMP.

The involvement types, however, didn’t behave as anticipated. Value involvement predicted increased HMP among those opposed to sanctions, but was overshadowed by the strong influence of outcome involvement. Instead of counteracting perceptual biases, high outcome involvement only served to heighten HMP. For supporters of the sanctions, value involvement actually served as a weak resistance to HMP. About the only clear and expected result was the lack of a relationship between impression involvement and HMP.

Digging deeper into the data, it looked like the strange findings regarding involvement types might have been the result of quick, heuristic defense mechanisms on the part of pro-Greek participants. While supporters of sanctions perceived differences in various article versions fairly accurately, those opposing sanctions saw less nuance and almost uniform bias. This researcher has an idea as to what might have been the catalyst for that information processing shortcut, and explores it in the second phase of this study… coming soon. (Well, soon-ish… he has to finish his dissertation first.)

The Effect of Instant Media Commentary on Perceptions of Political Speakers: A Conventional Case Study

aejmc14Presented August 9, 2014 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Montreal, Qc., Canada, Electronic News Division.

For more information about this paper available here, or by visiting the Academia page on

Television news networks regularly allow us to see live instances of political communication – presidential addresses and candidate debates, for instance. Those communications are immediately followed by an attempt by anchors and commentators to contextualize and analyze what has just been aired. This instant media commentary has long been a source of concern for government officials. If media are biased in their coverage (which is the position of more Americans than perhaps any other time in our history) then this position of first impression could hold great persuasive power.

There is some evidence that instant media commentary can color our perceptions of presidential debates. However, those events are already subject to obfuscation. After all, the entire context of a debate is adversarial, with the audience left to evaluate numerous conflicting messages. This study seeks to extend that research to single-speaker political events, in which an opposing view is absent. Does instant media commentary still have the ability to influence audiences that have been exposed to a more cohesive argument? Embracing the adversarial view of the press, can it step in and ask tough questions with any real consequence?

Today, party nominating conventions are well polished spectacles – a full week ceded to one party to present a controlled message and an ideal depiction of a candidate. Television plays a significant role in this presentation – conventions are afforded primetime coverage by network television, and receive almost the entirety of the news cycle on 24-hour cable news channels.

As it turns out, this spotlight can have a big effect on a candidate’s presidential aspirations. Research has documented what Campbell, Cherry, and Wink dubbed the “convention bump,” in which spikes in public support immediately following a convention can carry through to the general election.

Convention speeches seemed an excellent context to test the effects of instant media commentary of single-speaker events. For this study, participants viewed the keynote address of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the 2012 Republican National Convention. (This study was completed before “Bridgegate,” and pre-test questions confirmed that Christie was a relatively obscure political figure to most observers at the time.) After the speech, participants were exposed to one of three sets of commentary (favorable-unfavorable-neutral), all from the Fox News telecast that evening. A control group watched the speech with no commentary. To test the effect of the “instant” nature of the commentary, some participants were given five minutes to think about the speech before proceeding to the commentary condition, while the rest watched the commentary in real time.

Among the Findings:

– A good speech delivered on a national stage can still move the needle for an aspiring political figure. Even liberal audience members found Christie to be a credible and talented speaker, though, as expected, conservative audiences embraced him the most. More importantly, the speech was especially persuasive to those who did not usually pay attention to politics – an audience primetime convention speeches reach better than most political communication.

– The effect of instant media commentary on audience perceptions might be overstated. All commentary conditions resulted in similar speaker impressions across receiver ideology. In fact, the only consistent finding was that viewers in the control group (no commentary) thought better of Christie, and even had stronger voting intentions.

– The “instant” nature of commentary may not be all that important. Taking a break between speech and commentary did not significantly change perceptions of Christie.

– So, what was really going on between the commentary groups and the control group? This study leaves plenty of room for speculation. Maybe it was the media outlet. All participants, regardless of ideology, perceived the Fox News commentary (even the negative condition) to be favorable toward Christie. Perhaps Fox’s reputation as a right-leaning news outlet primed audiences to expect a certain tone of coverage, and then see it, regardless of the reality. Interestingly, while this hurt media credibility among liberals and moderates, it actually increased media credibility among conservatives.

– Maybe it’s just the media. Evaluations of media speakers were considerably lower than evaluations of Christie. Folks don’t care for the press, we know, but this dislike may negatively affect impression development of the subjects being covered. After all, impressions of Christie dropped even when media commentary was entirely positive.

This was one of those projects that inspired more questions than answers, but was fun to interpret nevertheless. Replication in different contexts, with different source cues may help work through the various explanations for the results seen here.

%d bloggers like this: