Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception

How do partisans arrive at seeing the world differently than the rest of us? I combed the research that’s been done, and look at where we need to go next.

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This paper was presented May 27, 2017 at the International Communication Association Annual Conference in San Diego, Calif.

Political ideologues, religious zealots, die-hard sports fans… people who are heavily invested in a “side” tend to see the world differently than those who don’t have a dog in the fight. Over time, we’ve amassed a wealth of research that exhibits partisans entrench in their positions either by merging evidence into their argument that probably doesn’t belong (something called assimilation), or by dismissing any threatening information as irrelevant, biased, or hostile (contrast).

What’s less clear is how the partisan mind determines its method of biased information processing – how do we choose between assimilation or contrast?

The two have largely been studied in their own separate arenas, but it makes sense for us to come together. The connection has been there for a long time, dating back to the Sherifs’ work on social judgment, which suggested “latitudes” of acceptance or rejection of dissonant messages. More recently, Albert Gunther and colleagues suggested an assimilation-contrast continuum.

But how would that work? I examined the existing literature within two theoretical frameworks – biased assimilation and hostile media perception, to search for key predictors. Those can be grouped into two primary categories: Continue reading “Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception”

Newspaper portrayals of celebrity suicide: Examining coverage of Robin Williams

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

icaPresented May 23, 2015 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, San Juan, P.R., Journalism Studies division. Information about accessing this paper and associated materials available here, or by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked his fans around the world. His depression and history of addiction, though not uncommon to celebrity biopics or news of suicide, did not pair with the Williams we thought we knew. We have a relationship with Williams through the characters he portrayed in film, from the Genie in Aladdin to a man who literally healed through humor in Patch Adams. Though roles for an actor, they become a public persona – one that we don’t associate with depression and suicide.

Research on media coverage of suicide mostly deals with the risk of imitation, what has been referred to as the Werther effect. Celebrity suicide, in particular, increases the amount and prominence of coverage, and the parasocial relationships fans have with those celebrities might exacerbate imitation.

Numerous advocacy organizations issue guidelines for journalists covering suicides, suggesting that the content of the story, and not simply the subject, may be at fault. However, this assumption turns out to be woefully under-investigated. What we do know is that media –both in news and entertainment – have a less than stellar track record of accurately representing people with mental illnesses. They are depicted as being disproportionately dangerous, and their identity is rarely examined beyond their illness.

The Williams suicide presented a unique case study to look at how the story of a prominent celebrity suicide was told through the media. This particular study considered coverage from the 20 highest circulation newspapers in the U.S., including tabloids, over the week immediately following Williams’ death. It looked at the types of sources and content used in articles, as well as how prominent those articles were in the newspaper. Findings were then compared to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for reporting on suicide and existing literature on media stigmatization of mental illness.

The degree of detail needed for this type of study required some intensive work on the part of our coders. The team analyzed almost 6,000 individual sentences within 174 stories that cited over 550 sources. If you’re one for reliability statistics and methodology, drop me a line and I’d be glad the details of achieving reliability with so many moving parts.

Among the Findings:

– The suicide was largely told through the lens of Williams’ celebrity – his career and reaction from fellow movie stars – rather than focusing on issues of mental health.

– Coverage became less celebrity-oriented as time passed, but the frequency and prominence of articles also declined considerably, meaning that while coverage became more substantive, it also became harder to find.

– While medical experts weren’t widely cited, they were relied upon for most health-related information. Only twice was sourcing problematic. Medical sources were lacking in articles regarding addiction and speculating as to possible reasons for suicide.

– Tabloids were behind most WHO guidelines violations. They were far more likely than traditional newspapers to speculate about external “triggers” for the suicide. These “reasons” were almost always attributed to celebrities or friends of Williams, oftentimes anonymously. Tabloids also described the suicide in the most graphic detail – something that, aside from taste, is thought to increase imitation. This New York Daily News cover pretty well sums up the problems with tabloid coverage:

hanged

Overall, print coverage of the suicide departed from stigmatizing presentations. As a result of Williams’ stature, he was not a faceless victim; rather, his identity was explored rather deeply. Aside from the tabloids, attempts to link the suicide to some “trigger” event were rare, and suicide as a form of escape was not promoted, despite that message being circulated by some very prominent sources. Most impressively, the stigma that people with mental illness were dangerous did not appear a single time in almost 6,000 sentences analyzed. This was especially surprising when drugs and alcohol entered the discussion.

However, there was still room for improvement. It took time for a medical angle to emerge and for medical experts to appear as sources. That leaves room for unwarranted speculation in the immediate aftermath, when audience attention is at its highest. Print coverage also appeared to miss an opportunity to talk about depression, addiction, and suicide in a more general context. Such extrapolation was isolated.

The real question is whether coverage was unique to the uniqueness of its subject. Is the press getting better at explaining mental illness, or was coverage more delicate because of the beloved actor who made us all laugh? Future research will tell us more, though we hope it is a long time before a context for investigation presents itself again.

This research was conducted by the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab, a part of the College of Communication and Information Sciences. McLemore served as the lead researcher for this study.

Institutional Isomorphism and the Community Structure Approach in Visual Framing of the Trayvon Martin Shooting

icaPresented May 25, 2014 at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, Seattle, Wash., Journalism Studies division.

To request the accompanying visual aids for this paper, email Dylan.

To read the abstract, go to the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

UPDATE: This conference paper has since been published.
DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2014.988993

 

The Trayvon Martin shooting and the legal (in)actions that followed, became perhaps the first major American news story of 2012. Narratives surrounding Martin and George Zimmerman widely varied, as did the images available to depict them. There’s a big difference between Zimmerman in an orange prison jumpsuit (for an unrelated charge for which he was never tried) and Zimmerman smiling in a suit and tie. Images of Martin depicted a boy much younger than the 17-year-old involved in the incident. Given the impact of imagery on the framing of a news story, this study considered competing explanations for why editors from newspapers serving racially distinct communities may have selected particular photographs to represent Martin and Zimmerman in their coverage. The method specifically sought to measure institutional isomorphism – a field-level homogeneity fed by stabilization and risk-reduction – and the community structure approach – variances at the local level based on the demographics of the market.

Among the findings:

– The story was far more likely to be depicted visually with images of or relating to Martin in the sample period (Feb. 27-Apr 27, 2012, or, from the day after the shooting to four days after Zimmerman’s not guilty plea in court).

– These depictions of or relating to Martin were overwhelmingly positive, while portrayals of Zimmerman were neutral-to-negative. Image valence held true across publications.

– Images of Martin himself quickly gave way to images of his family, and supportive demonstrators around the country. This initial spike of intense visual framing toward Martin diminished over time, and an increase in images of Zimmerman became apparent as he made more public appearances. Once again, these trends were consistent across publications.

What does it mean?

The findings observe a fairly homogenous media depiction of the Martin shooting. This is indicative of institutional isomorphism, though clear evidence of mimetic inter-media agenda setting was not identified. The results may be better explained by normative isomorphism, as media outlets quickly moved away from images captured outside of the context of the story. The apparent strength of journalistic norms in the face of a story that presented so many salacious angles offers some comfort to those concerned with the profit motive of the press affecting editorial decisions.

No support was found for the community structure approach. Despite the availability of images that portrayed Martin and Zimmerman in starkly different ways, newspapers serving predominately Black, Hispanic, and White communities employed similar presentations. Across the board, Martin was portrayed more frequently and more positively than Zimmerman, though Zimmerman’s legal battles seemed to be developing more frequent and nuanced coverage, a trend that should be followed beyond the sample in this particular study for a fuller understanding.