Information about the wealth gap between Blacks and whites increases Americans’ awareness of disparity, but does little to increase their support for affirmative action, reparations
Since the “racial reckoning” of 2020, Americans have become increasingly aware of the barriers Black people face to accessing economic opportunities and achieving intergenerational mobility.
But despite widespread knowledge that racial inequality exists, even among liberal, white Americans, the public is radically uninformed about the depths of one of the most profound racial disparities: the racial wealth gap.
According to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, which collects nationally representative data on American households, the median white family has about 8 times more wealth (that is, total assets minus total debts) than the median Black family. And, despite popular perceptions of education as the vehicle for eliminating racial disparities, education does little to diminish the gap between Blacks and whites. The median white family where the household head did not finish high school has virtually the same wealth as the median Black family where the household head earned a bachelor’s degree. In other words, a Black American has to graduate from college to access the same level of wealth as a white high school dropout.
If you find these numbers startling and even difficult to believe, you are not alone.
Since 2020, my research team, which includes Vincent Hutchings, Kamri Hudgins, and Sydney Carr, has been learning what happens when we correct misperceptions of the racial wealth gap. Does informing people about the size of the racial wealth gap influence opinions about policies to address the gap? How does the public react to information about the racial wealth gap?
Using a novel survey experiment fielded on three nationally diverse samples, we found that exposing both Black and white Americans to information about the size of the racial wealth gap increases their awareness of this disparity– but exposure to this information does little to increase their support for race-targeted social and economic policies like affirmative action and reparations.
For example, among white participants, exposure to our racial wealth gap information treatment increased awareness of the size and severity of the racial wealth gap by, on average, 7 to 18% across the two studies. However, exposure to the same information did not significantly increase support for race-targeted policy changes to reduce the racial wealth gap among white or Black participants.
In contrast, our treatments did increase support for race-neutral equity policies like baby bonds, a program that would fund a trust for every newborn child to establish a baseline level of wealth for all Americans. When informed that Black college graduates have the same level of wealth as white high school dropouts, both liberal and conservative white Americans’ support for baby bonds increased significantly. For conservatives, support increased by 12% moving from a baseline of .41 (indicating weak opposition) to .53 (indicating weak support). For liberals, support increased by 11% moving from .71 (strong support) to .82 (very strong support).
But economists argue that race-neutral programs like baby bonds or canceling student loan debt would not be nearly enough to close the racial wealth gap. For example, Duke University economist William Darity, Jr. proposes that only a comprehensive reparations program requiring “the full resources of the federal government” to redistribute wealth to Black Americans would be sufficient for closing the gap.
Those who believe legislative action on reparations is urgently needed will find the political momentum behind it at the federal level to be insufficient. President Joe Biden made the most progress on this issue of any president in history when he proposed a commission to study whether or not reparations should be paid to Black descendants of the enslaved. But the bill has effectively died in committee and there have been no votes on the House floor regarding the commission or any other reparations policies. While several states and localities have made more progress toward providing reparations to Black residents and, in some instances, (like Evanston, Illinois) have even begun issuing payments, these programs will not resolve the Black wealth crisis nationwide.
As this project develops, we hope to probe public opinion on other racial disparities, including the racial gap in rates of maternal mortality, and increase scholarly and public understanding of what it takes to move the public towards action on racial inequality.
This post was written by Zoe Walker. Tevah Platt contributed to its development.
Zoe Walker is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow. Her dissertation research, supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, considers how beliefs about economic opportunity influence perceptions of racial inequality and support for racially redistributive policies among Black Americans.
Sydney Carr, Kamri Hudgins, and Zoe Walker are all Next Generation scholars of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and were consecutive recipients of the Hanes Walton, Jr. Endowment for Graduate Study in Racial and Ethnic Politics at the Center for Political Studies.
Hanes Walton, Jr. of the Center for Political Studies transformed the study of Black politics and helped establish it as a subfield of political science. The 2024 Hanes Walton Jr. Lecture at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research will be presented by Christian Davenport on Feb. 1.
After the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor by the police in 2020, the United States witnessed what was arguably the largest protest movement in that nation’s history. Millions of Americans marched in protest of racist police violence and in pursuit of systemic solutions to racial inequality. Scholars have rightfully documented this moment in history, analyzing the different conversations and opinions about Black Lives Matter, racial minorities, and racialized policies. For example, some have analyzed Members of Congress’s communications to their constituents, news framing of the Black Lives Matter protests, and antiracism in sports, teaching curricula, and social media posting. Notably absent from this important set of research, though, is an understanding of how these conversations played out in what are arguably the most central institutions to the everyday lives of millions of Americans: churches.
The stakes are high for understanding the content of religious services. While the pandemic caused a decline in religious attendance, still about 40% of the American population attends a religious service at least once a month or more. The number of Americans who listen to a weekly message from a religious leader far outnumbers the fraction of Americans who watch the State of the Union, presidential debates, or the presidential inauguration. It is even more than the portion of Americans who say they follow the news “all or most of the time.” Moreover, researchers have found that both religious elites and attendance at religious services can influence a number of political attitudes and behaviors, such as electoral participation, ideology, and views towards issues such as poverty and immigration.
It matters how discussions about racism play out in religious spaces. These conversations both shape and represent how many Americans understand the origins of racism and solutions for racial inequality. In the case of the United States, many of the religious spaces where these conversations take place are Christian churches. Churches are a fruitful venue for understanding political discussion among the American public because religious services could be viewed as communication among individuals who share a common religious identity and—due to racial and political segregation among U.S. Christians—likely agree on a number of political issues.
In my doctoral work in Political Science at the University of Michigan, I have analyzed sermons delivered in historically- and majority-white U.S. Christian congregations. I find that sermons infrequently mention racism: roughly 8% of sermons in my sample mention the words “racism,” “racist,” or “racial.” I also find only small distinctions across denominations. When clergy talk about racism, it is more frequently the case that racism and its perceived solutions are understood in individualistic rather than systemic terms. However, a few sermons do discuss racism as a more systemic issue, and call for the pursuit of racial equality.
In order to examine the contours of political discussion in religious spaces, I collected a dataset of transcripts of over 260,000 videos posted on YouTube by about 1,500 U.S. Christian congregations. Many congregations—especially in response to the pandemic—post recordings of their services online. These congregations are diverse on a number of dimensions, spanning all 50 states, and the video transcripts I collected span over 10 years. While some of these videos include the entirety of the religious service, my analysis focuses on “sermon” transcripts, defined here as the portion of the service where the religious leader (i.e. pastor or priest) is speaking on a topic specific to that particular service.
I rely on text analysis of the sermon transcripts to understand how politics are discussed in religious services. Text analysis is a set of computational techniques for reading, classifying, and sorting information from written texts, often at a larger scale than what would be feasible for a researcher to read and analyze themselves. In this project, I am particularly looking at differences in the frequency and context in which the word “racism” is used. (I also include mentions of the terms “racist” and “racial,” but I will collectively refer to these terms as mentions of “racism” throughout this post.)
In the above figure, I plot the fraction and number of sermons that mention one of these terms. On average, about 8% of sermons mention racism. Before the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, an average of 5% of sermons mentioned racism. However, there is a substantial increase in the number of sermons that mention racism around June 2020, where about 25% of sermons mentioned racism. In the period following, roughly 10% of sermons mention racism.
Next, I examine how clergy discuss racism through the use of word embeddings. A word embedding is a numerical representation of a word that preserves some semantic meaning. This means that words that are associated in real-world contexts are numerically closer together in their word embedding representation. An example of how political scientists have used word embeddings is to analyze how Republicans and Democrats in Congress differ in their discussions of immigration. For Republicans, the term immigration is more closely related to the term “enforce,” and for Democrats, immigration is understood more in terms of “reform.”
For my application, I am viewing word embeddings as a representation of how clergy understand the causes of and solutions to racism. I can also test whether racism is viewed as an individual or systemic concern in these messages. I find that Protestant congregations are more likely than Catholic congregations to understand racism in individualistic terms (such as “you” and “I”), and Catholic congregations are more likely than Protestant congregations to understand racism in systemic terms such as “injustice.”
Using this method of word embeddings, I can also find excerpts from the sermons that are, on average, the best representation of how racism is discussed across different denominations. The most representative example of how racism is mentioned in the non-denominational and the mainline protestant congregations in my sample is the following excerpt from a sermon delivered in a large, non-denominational congregation in August 2020:
“There are differences between us but God says those things don’t have to stay between us, and so there is a terrible hatred. If you think racism is a problem today, you’re right, but it can’t hold a candle to the level of racism that was present between Jew and Gentile.”
For evangelical congregations, the most representative example comes from a sermon delivered in June 2020, in a medium-sized evangelical church:
“If you think about it, we would solve racism in America in one generation if we would have Christ-centered homes. We would, racism just wouldn’t exist in our country anymore largely. So let’s pray for healing in our country. Father God, we lift up our country to you and the people in our country, our leaders Lord, our police officers, and our African-American brothers and sisters…”
These examples support arguments among scholars that many white Christians have difficulty acknowledging racism as a system of inequality and injustice because individualism is emphasized as a theological commitment. W.E.B. DuBois viewed religion as integral to U.S. race relations. Indeed, the Black church has long been viewed as a central institution for providing civic resources to its congregants. However, DuBois aptly viewed the white church as a space where white supremacy is nurtured, by reimagining our nation’s legacy of racism or by ignoring the issue altogether.
However, my research agenda is concerned not only with diagnosing the ways in which religion in white Christian contexts can perpetuate racial injustice, but also how it may play a crucial part in motivating congregants to pursue justice. Another example from the sermons—a prayer delivered in a Catholic mass in January 2021—demonstrates a more collective, action-based discussion of racism:
“Christ freed humanity from its slavery to darkness. May Christian communities deepen their commitment to racial equality and racism out of love for the one God and Creator of all, we pray to the Lord. Lord hear our prayer.”
While Catholic congregations in my data were more likely to discuss racism in systemic terms than Protestant congregations, there is evidence across all traditions of both individual and systemic understandings of racism. Documenting these discussions is important for gaining a better understanding of how Americans understand and engage with questions of racial justice.
In other research projects, I argue that religious identity is actually a crucial component of white Christians’ racial attitudes. If religion is an important factor in how a large portion of Americans understand U.S. racial politics, then perhaps we can also look to religion to understand how to build support for policies seeking to remedy racial equality.
This post was written by Shayla Olson; CPS staff member Tevah Platt contributed to its development.
Shayla Olson is a PhD student of American Politics and Quantitative Methods in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Her broad research interests fit within the fields of American political behavior and public opinion, with a focus on the intersection of race and religion in the United States. She is particularly interested in how local church contexts and clergy communication influence political and racial attitudes. A Next Generation scholar of the Institute for Social Research, Shayla Olson is the recipient of the Hanes Walton Jr. Endowment for Graduate Study in Racial and Ethnic Politics at the Center for Political Studies.
Hanes Walton, Jr. of the Center for Political Studies transformed the study of Black politics and helped establish it as a subfield of political science. The 2024 Hanes Walton Jr. Lecture at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research will be presented by Christian Davenport on Feb. 1.
In the past, excessive economic inequality has ended… badly. As Charlotte Cavaillé points out in her new book that studies the public’s reaction to rising inequality, “only mass warfare, a state collapse, or catastrophic plagues have significantly altered the distribution of income and wealth.” Will this time be different?
Through income redistribution, democratic and political institutions today have a clear mechanism to peacefully address income inequality if voters demand it. Still, as highlighted by Cavaille in Fair Enough?: Support for Redistribution in the Age of Inequality (Cambridge University Press), greater wealth and income inequality are not leading to greater demand for an egalitarian policy response as many would expect.
Cavaillé reports there is little evidence of rising support for redistribution, especially among the worse off. Consider public opinion in the two Western countries with the sharpest increase in income inequality: In Great Britain, public support for redistribution is decreasing, and in the United States, the gap between the attitudes of low-income and high-income voters is narrowing. What, asks Cavaillé, can we conclude about public opinion’s role as a countervailing force to rising inequality?
Based on Cavaillé’s doctoral work, Fair Enough? introduces a framework for studying mass attitudes toward redistributive social policies. Cavaillé shows that these attitudes are shaped by at least two motives: material self-interest and fairness concerns. People support policies that would increase their own expected income. On the other hand, they also support policies that, if implemented, “would move the status quo closer to what is prescribed by shared norms of fairness.” Material interest comes most into play when policies have large material consequences, according to Cavaillé, but in a world of high uncertainty and low personal stakes, considerations of fairness trump considerations about one’s personal pocketbook.
How fair is it for some to make a lot more money than others? How fair is it for some to receive more benefits than they pay in taxes? Cavaillé emphasizes two norms of fairness that come into play when we think about such questions: proportionality, where rewards are proportional to effort and merit, and reciprocity, where groups provide basic security to members that cooperatively contribute. Policy disagreement arises because people hold different empirical beliefs regarding how well the status quo aligns with what these norms of fairness prescribe.
With fairness reasoning in the picture, Cavaillé writes, “baseline expectations are turned on their heads: Countries that are more likely to experience an increase in income inequality are also those least likely to interpret this growth as unfair.”
Should we expect growing support for redistribution to be a driving force behind policy change in the future? A change in aggregate fairness beliefs, Cavaillé argues, will require a perfect storm: a discursive shock that repeatedly exposes people to critiques of the status quo as unfair on the one hand, and a large subset of individuals whose own individual experience predispose them to accept these claims as true on the other. Policy changes in postindustrial democracies are possible, Cavaillé concludes– but they are unlikely to be in response to a pro-redistribution shift in public opinion.
Charlotte Cavaillé is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and an affiliate of the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. Her dissertation, on which ‘Fair Enough’ is based, received the 2016 Mancur Olson Best Dissertation Award.
Tevah Platt and Charlotte Cavaillé contributed to the development of this post.
Post by Joshua Thorp
The 20th century Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is among the most successful and durable mass protest movements in American political history. Throughout the 20th century, DRM activists fought for equal political and economic rights– the desegregation of classrooms and public accommodations, the dismantling of coercive residential institutions, and an accessible built environment. Disabled activists and their allies occupied warehouses and university campuses, chained themselves to city buses, and took sledgehammers to inaccessible street curbs in an effort to make their voices heard. These remarkable episodes of political cohesion culminated in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a bill heralded by senator Tom Harkin, its chief congressional champion, as “the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”
Used by permission. © Tom Olin Collection, Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, The University of Toledo Libraries.
Despite the prominence of disability in American political history, political scientists have only a thin understanding of how disability shapes political behavior. For the most part, existing research focuses on election accessibility and emphasizes the role of disability in curbing political participation. Several studies find that despite being no less interested in politics, people with disabilities are substantially less likely to turn out to vote than their non-disabled peers.
However, researchers have largely overlooked the potential impact of disability on political psychology. In particular, we don’t know whether disabled Americans see their disability as a politically meaningful feature of their social identities, or whether disability might serve as a basis for political cohesion or collective action. While the history of disability rights activism suggests disability may be politically mobilizing for a small minority of activists, less is known about whether or to what extent disability may also shape political identity in the mass public.
In a recent working paper, I find that disability is indeed an important dimension of political identity for many disabled Americans.
While disabled Americans do not appear mobilized along party lines, a sense of belonging to the disability community is associated with ideological liberalism and support for a range of social and redistributive policies.
Measuring disability as a social identity
I used an online survey of 700 Americans with disabilities to investigate two questions: Who embraces disability as a social identity? And how does identifying as a person with disability shape political attitudes? To collect the sample for this study fielded by Forthright Panels, I screened participants using the same measure of functional disability used by the U.S. Census and the CDC. I asked respondents a range of questions about their everyday experience of disability. I asked them how old they were when they first acquired their disability, how visible or noticeable their disability is by others, and how much functional limitation they experience in everyday life. Then, I asked respondents a series of questions about the degree to which their disability shapes their social identity: their sense of who they are as individuals and their place in the social world.
I compiled these items into a new measure of disability as a social identity– what I call the “Disability ID” scale. Those who score higher on the Disability ID scale consider disability to be an important feature of their personal identity, and place a high value on belonging to the disability community. A sizable minority of Americans with disabilities, about 35%, fall “high” on this scale.
Who embraces disability as a social identity?
I looked at the various characteristics that are associated with higher scores on the Disability ID scale. This analysis yielded two main findings. First, Disability ID is closely tied to impairment characteristics. Respondents with more severe, visible, and long-standing impairments were all more likely to report strong Disability ID. Second, Disability ID is stronger among those who participate in social and political institutions for people with disabilities. Specifically, Disability ID was stronger among those who reported receiving disability accommodations at school or at work, and among those who reported receiving financial assistance from the government on account of their disability.
How does Disability ID shape political attitudes?
Next, I wanted to understand how Disability ID shapes political outcomes. I first looked at the relationship between Disability ID and two key outcomes of interest to political scientists: ideology (liberal or conservative), and partisanship (Democrat or Republican).
The results of this analysis were intriguing. On the one hand, those higher in Disability ID tend to be more politically liberal. On the other hand, Disability ID has no discernible impact on political partisanship. In other words, those who identify strongly with their disability tend to support ideas often associated with liberalism, like government support for social services, but aren’t more likely to identify as Democrats.
I also wanted to understand the potential impacts of Disability ID on policy preferences. Given the particular forms of social and economic disadvantage that accompany disability, I predicted that Disability ID would be associated with support for government policies aimed at improving material well-being for people with disabilities. To test this prediction, I asked participants a series of questions about their level of support for a variety of social and redistributive policies.
A clear pattern of results emerged. Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for a range of redistributive policies, especially those aimed at increasing financial security, public safety, and access to healthcare. In fact, in several instances the magnitude of the effect of Disability ID on policy attitudes is similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology. On the other hand, Disability ID has relatively little impact on attitudes toward policies theoretically more peripheral to disabled Americans, such as public schools or border security.
To test the validity of these results, I conducted a similar analysis using data from the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a prominent national political survey fielded by YouGov and researchers from Harvard University. Unlike the Forthright Panels study, the CES survey was collected in two waves, where the same set of participants were interviewed before and after the 2022 midterm elections. I included questions about Disability ID on the pre-election survey fielded in the fall, and questions about policy attitudes on the post-election survey fielded in January 2023. This survey design allowed me to conduct a stronger test of the relationship between Disability ID and policy attitudes. By asking participants about their policy preferences in the post-election survey, I am able to observe the relationship between Disability ID and political attitudes in a context where participants have not already been primed to think about their disability.
Results from the CES mirror those found in the Forthright study. Again, Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for redistributive policies, most notably those aimed at increasing financial security and access to healthcare. Furthermore, as in the Forthright Study, the magnitude of these effects is often similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology.
Why does this matter?
These results should encourage researchers to think differently about the role of disability in shaping political behavior. More than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, disability remains an important dimension of socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage. People with disabilities are roughly twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be unemployed and living in poverty, and are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime. Addressing these inequalities is likely to require political engagement and collective action. While existing work has emphasized the role of disability in curbing political participation, these results suggest that for many disabled Americans, a shared social identity as members of the disability community may be an important source of political cohesion and empowerment.
Joshua Thorp is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on political psychology in the United States and other developed democracies, with a particular focus on the politics of disability. Thorp’s dissertation examines disability as a dimension of political identity in the United States. He is an Institute for Social Research Next Generation scholar at the Center for Political Studies, and was the recipient of the 2022 Converse-Miller fellowship in American political behavior.
The Forthright survey was generously funded by the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and the Rapoport Family Foundation. The CES data was collected as part of the University of Michigan team module of the Cooperative Election Study at CPS, led by Donald Kinder.
Tevah Platt and Julia Lippman contributed to the development of this post.
This post was developed by Ken Kollman and Tevah Platt, based on the talk, “When People Change Their Partisanship, is it Bottom-Up or Top-Down?” that Ken Kollman presented for the Research Center for Group Dynamics Winter Seminar Series on Political Polarization (2023) at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Ken Kollman is the Director of the Center for Political Studies.
Partisanship is sticky. People tend to vote like their parents and to maintain their partisan leanings over time. But to understand partisanship, we need a model that can explain why people change party loyalties when they do. This is what Ken Kollman and John E. Jackson of the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies (CPS) provide in Dynamic Partisanship: How and Why Voter Loyalties Change. The following summarizes their overarching argument.
What is partisanship?
Partisanship is a group-based, shared identity. A classic work from 1960, The American Voter, also out of ISR, describes partisan identity as a long-term, affective, psychological attachment to a political party. According to this famous “Michigan model,” the socially-informed attitudes and values we form early in life durably influence the way we identify with political parties and how we vote.
Kollman and Jackson argue that partisanship has similarities to brand loyalty. It’s relatively stable and habitual, but it’s also evaluative and cognitive. Parties compete for votes and, importantly, for voter loyalty among “consumers” who are considering and comparing candidates and party ideas. Voters “experience” parties in office and in campaigns, and evaluate parties like consumers with products. Yet voting over time for the same party can also become habitual until voters become dissatisfied with what they chose.
What drives partisanship change?
Ronald Reagan often said that he didn’t leave the Democratic party, but the Democratic party left him. The quip encapsulates what Kollman and Jackson find to be the primary answer to the question of what moves partisanship. Two other processes do influence partisan dynamics– changes in people’s political attitudes and their evaluations of the performance of politicians in office – but it’s the behaviors of parties that they find are the greatest contributors to changing partisanship.
- At the micro-level, partisanship is driven by evaluations of parties and politicians who are themselves changing for strategic reasons to try to win office.
- At the macro-level, party polarization is a consequence of elite-level competition for voters, mostly at a national scale– for example, in response to national policies and movements.
In the broader debates about polarization, the stake they claim is that polarization is driven by elite-level competition for power, and not by ordinary people changing their minds about their ideologies or issue positions. It’s top-down, driven by what politicians and their parties do.
How parties compete
A canonical model of party competition came out of the mid-century work of Anthony Downs, who developed a theory of party competition in ideological space. This theory drew a picture of the Democratic and Republican parties converging on the “median voter” the way that ice cream trucks would converge at the middle of a beach to attract the most customers. More complex models admit that political ideology and conflict takes place in multiple dimensions; on the ground, for example, a candidate or party that is moving right on social issues could be moving left on economic policy, perhaps testing out impacts on voters.
A case in point: the language of industrial protectionism (saving factories) was an economically leftward move of the Trump-guided GOP that effectively turned Ohio from purple to red by attracting whites in Northeastern Ohio to the Republicans. Dynamic Partisanship tracks such patterns across the US, the UK, Canada and Australia over more than a half-century, but the overarching trend is that parties are the moving gear in dynamic partisanship. Voters don’t need to be moved, but partisanship can change because voters are reacting to parties that move– and that’s the underlying dynamic.
Partisan trends in the US
This figure, from Dynamic Partisanship, plots partisanship among three groups of the U.S. electorate– northern whites, southern whites, and African Americans– from 1956 to 2016, with Democratic partisanship increasing on the y axis. There are three distinct patterns:
- Northern white partisanship is the most stable, coming closest to the traditional view of party identification as an unchanging personal attribute;
- The 1964 election, on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, is a critical turning point in African American partisanship, making a full-point leap and remaining consistently high on the Democratic scale from that time;
- Southern white partisanship shows a strong, gradual trend shifting from moderately Democratic to weakly Republican over 61 years.
The twin phenomena of southern Black voters becoming more Democratic since the 1960s and southern whites becoming slowly more Republican over time represent two of the major tectonic shifts in American society and politics that have occurred in the last half century.
The innovation is that the model used in Dynamic Partisanship can accommodate these divergent patterns– relative stasis, abrupt changes, and gradual changes. For the details and the myriad examples, check out the book.
The following work was presented at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the American Political Association (APSA). The presentation entitled “Building Bipartisan Trust in Fact-Checking Sites: The Effects of Asymmetric Coverage on Source Credibility” by Hwayong Shin was a part of the session “Trust and Distrust toward News” on Saturday, September 17, 2022. This research was supported by the 2022 Garth Taylor Fellowship in Public Opinion. The post was developed by Hwayong Shin and edited by CPS staff.
A major challenge confronting our society is the intensity of partisan disagreements, even about what constitutes fact. To address this challenge, fact-checking was initiated by organizations such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact in the 2000s to assess the accuracy of political claims. For fact-checking journalism to be helpful, there should be widespread public trust in such websites. Yet about half of Americans believe fact-checkers are biased.
Two decades after its emergence, why has fact-checking failed to get traction among the public? What changes can help fact-checking sites earn greater trust?
Research shows that FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and Washington Post Fact Checker in recent years often corrected Republicans at a greater rate than Democrats. These asymmetries indicate a specific way in which fact-checkers pursue objectivity. Unlike traditional journalism that in principle seeks objectivity by covering all sides equally, fact-checking’s coverage decisions are guided by what is consistent with the best available evidence. Thus, fact-checking sites at times disproportionally critique one party more often than the other as guided by evidence. However, this approach poses a dilemma. Their asymmetric coverage may reflect genuine imbalances in reality, but it can also undermine trust in fact-checking sites among partisans.
To examine how asymmetric coverage affects partisans’ source credibility perceptions, I conducted a survey experiment in 2020. Participants were asked to assess a news source based on a set of headlines where the majority of headlines challenged 1) Republicans, 2) Democrats, or 3) both parties equally (baseline condition). The condition where most headlines challenged Republicans was considered as uncongenial to Republicans and congenial to Democrats (vice versa for the condition in which most headlines challenged Democrats).
The results indicate that partisans perceive a source to be less credible when its coverage corrects their own party more often than the other (uncongenial asymmetry, i.e., most headlines challenge in-group), compared to when the source corrects each party at a similar rate. Contrary to popular belief that Republicans tend to be more resistant to uncongenial news and facts, Democrats reacted more negatively to uncongenial asymmetric coverage than Republicans. Even when a source challenged the opposite party more often (congenial asymmetry, i.e., most headlines challenge out-group), partisans found the source to be less credible than symmetric coverage. In fact, the results show that partisans found congenial asymmetry to be particularly less credible when a portion of coverage challenged their own party on a highly polarized topic such as immigration, which is the type of issue that fact-checking sites often cover.
This study highlights a difficult dilemma that fact-checkers face in their coverage decisions. While asymmetric coverage of political parties is at times needed in response to evidence, it can alienate partisans from both sides. We might believe that balance for its own sake should be avoided, but more symmetric coverage of political parties and further efforts to signal nonpartisanship can help build broader public trust in fact-checking sites.
Hwayong Shin is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. Her research investigates ways to mitigate the partisan divide and build common ground by increasing the credibility of evidence-based information and by invoking shared emotions and experiences. Shin is a Next Generation scholar at ISR’s Center for Political Studies and was awarded the 2022 Garth Taylor Fellowship in Public Opinion.