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”

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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.

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”

Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

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 dylanmclemore.com.

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 dylanmclemore.com.

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.

Are open primaries a good idea? Depends on who you ask: Primary systems and polarization in light of the Mississippi Senate race

Mississippi’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate was not decided purely by Republican voters. While the specific number of “crossover” votes can be difficult to ascertain, the fact is that turnout in traditionally Democratic areas increased dramatically from the June 3 primary to the June 24 runoff (perk of all that national attention? Fantastic data journalism). It’s also true that incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran’s campaign targeted those voters between his 2nd-place finish to Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel on June 3 and his victory on June 24.

AP/Politico
AP/Politico

While legal in Mississippi, plenty will say that’s dirty politics. McDaniel certainly felt so. He refused to concede on election night, arguing that “the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats in Mississippi.”

“Before this race ends,” McDaniel said, “We have to be certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

And while I felt McDaniel’s reality-defying non-concession speech only affirmed those who question the ability of ideologues to govern, I also felt a certain degree of sympathy. In the eyes of his supporters (and, to be fair, some of his detractors), his party’s nomination was stolen from him by people who wouldn’t consider themselves part of that party.

Primaries exist so that parties can select their nominee for a particular office. That used to be a decision left to party leaders (via conventions or caucuses), but because of a number of reasons – establishment-bias and corruption chief among them – popular votes through primary elections have become the nominating mechanism of choice. Because of their purpose, many states have closed primaries, meaning that the only people allowed to vote in a party primary are registered members of that party. “Semi-closed” primaries also allow for non-affiliated voters (independents) to participate. (A handy map of state primary rules is available here.)

Mississippi’s primaries are open, meaning that with each new election cycle, voters can choose anew which party’s primary they wish to vote in, regardless of personal political affiliation. In the case of the Cochran-McDaniel runoff, anyone who voted in the Democratic primary on June 3 was ineligible to vote in the Republican runoff (they already made their choice this cycle). But everyone else, including registered Democrats who stayed home on June 3, could participate.

Cristiano Ronaldo is confident you don’t want to play against him. // Jorge Silva, Reuters

Political scientists question just how often open primaries lead to strategic voting, and whether the effect is anything but marginal (see references below). Even the notion that open primaries moderate candidate choice – the reason many states adopted them – doesn’t have much empirical support. But on its face, it doesn’t quite jive with the intent of a primary. To use a timely, though imperfect illustration, imagine if World Cup rosters were selected by the rest of the world, including fans of opposing teams that also want to win. Would Americans want Cristiano Ronaldo to be part of the Portuguese squad? Would anyone other than the Portuguese? Probably not. Fortunately, only a coach with firm ties to Portugal selects that nation’s team, and he wants to field the best players possible.

However, that is not what crossover voters did in the Mississippi Senate race. They didn’t sabotage the primary by lending support to the candidate they were most likely to beat in a general election… that would have been McDaniel, hands down. So why did liberal voters want a Republican nominee that Democrats can’t beat? Continue reading “Are open primaries a good idea? Depends on who you ask: Primary systems and polarization in light of the Mississippi Senate race”

Chick-fil-A, the First Amendment, and the drawing out of a public relations firestorm

Since Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s comments on same-sex marriage one week ago, folks on both sides of the debate have been speaking out. Opinion leaders have publicly shown their support for the fast-food chain, like former Arkansas governor and current talk show host Mike Huckabee, who is orchestrating a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Opinion leaders have publicly denounced the fast-food chain, like the Henson Company, which announced its Muppets characters would no longer be tied to Chick-fil-A promotions. As I wrote last Thursday, choosing a side on a hot-button issue is not going to come without repercussions. From a purely business perspective, the hard-line stance could only harm Chick-fil-A’s bottom line by offending some and turning a trip to the drive-thru into a moral dilemma.

[RELATED: Chick-fil-A on public relations tightrope after latest Cathy same-sex marriage comments]

But in recent days, Chick-fil-A has received some unexpected help in its public relations quagmire from an opposition that has lost its mind and its constitutional principles.

Continue reading “Chick-fil-A, the First Amendment, and the drawing out of a public relations firestorm”