We’re immersed in a media landscape full of choices. News, information, and entertainment are all at our fingertips. But does this mean that people are better informed about important issues? Is it is possible for people who aren’t interested in seeking out political news to learn about candidates and issues through the information they’re exposed to casually? Brian Weeks, Daniel S. Lane, Lauren B. Potts, and Nojin Kwak conducted two surveys to answer this question.
Motivation and opportunity play a big role in the amount of news we’re exposed to. People who are deeply interested in politics are motivated to seek out information, and as a result, they are better informed about candidates and policies.
The nature of the media environment makes it hard to avoid news and political information; many people consume news without trying. As we have more access to all types of media, we are incidentally exposed to political information. Does increased accidental exposure make up for a lack of motivation to seek out news, or does all of that information rush past us without making us more knowledgeable?
To test whether this incidental exposure to news translates into an increase in political knowledge, Weeks and his co-authors conducted a series of surveys. They collected panel survey data two waves during the 2012 presidential election and conducted another two waves of surveys during the 2016 presidential election. The surveys asked participants about whether they were exposed to political information they didn’t seek out, their level of political interest, and measured their knowledge of candidates’ policy positions.
The surveys showed strong evidence that people who had incidental exposure to news about presidential candidates knew more about the candidates’ policy positions.
The biggest benefit of incidental exposure was seen in the group of people who rated themselves least politically interested, which suggests that greater exposure can make up for a lack of motivation to seek out news.
Knowledge of candidates and their policy positions is still essential for well-informed citizens, and the growth of opportunities to be exposed to news from many sources may reduce gaps in knowledge.
Of 987 individuals killed by police officers’ use of fatal force in 2018, 209 were black, and, of those, 200 were black men. The targeting and killing of unarmed black men has become a point of interest for news cycles and social movement organizations alike and is indicative of a fraught relationship between communities of color and police. With increasing press coverage over the past decade, academics have also begun to focus on the intertwining relationship between police use of force and race, complementing a long-standing literature which links blacks to perceptions of criminality, violence, and hostility. One area that is not well-developed, however, is how news coverage of police shootings influences attitudes towards police and policies related to policing for white Americans.
Building from research on race, media coverage, and policing, new research by Nicole Yadon and Kiela Crabtree examines reactions to police and policing by white people after they read about a police officer shooting a white man, a black man, or a dog. They find that news reports about police shootings change attitudes about police, but the strength of the reaction varies depending on who the victim is.
Specifically, Yadon and Crabtree’s study examines white individuals’ feelings towards police following exposure to news of a fatal police shooting. They designed a survey that presents participants with a fictional but realistic news report about a fatal police shooting. In one version the shooting victim is a black man, another reports that the victim is a white man, and in the third version the victim is a dog. Key information about the shooting remains the same across all three versions. A control story, unrelated to race or police shootings, was given to a control group for purposes of comparison with the three treatment groups. This experiment was conducted via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform, with 802 white participants. After reading one of the news reports, participants were asked a series of questions about their perceptions of the events in the article and about their attitudes towards police more broadly.
When asked whether they agree or disagree that police officers rarely abuse their power, the control group who had not read about a police shooting had a neutral response — about 0.49 on the 0 to 1 scale. Respondents who read about a white man or a dog being shot by police had a markedly different reaction. Participants who read an article about a white man shot by police had a 7 percentage point decrease in belief that police rarely abuse their power while those who read about a dog shot by a police officer had an 8 percentage point decrease. This is equivalent to survey respondents moving from feeling neutral about whether police abuse their power to a slight disagreement that abuse of power is rare after reading about either a White victim or dog victim.
Importantly, when white survey participants read about a black victim of a police shooting, it did not change their perception of abuse of power by police officers. Put differently, those who read about a black victim held views abuse police abuse of power that were indistinguishable from those who read the control story. The evidence suggests, then, that white respondents react more strongly to a police shooting if the victim is a dog than a black man.
A separate set of questions focused on interest in varying forms of political participation following exposure to the news story. Do white people feel moved toward political participation in response to a story about a police shooting? First, the survey asked whether respondents would support a civilian review board to oversee the police department in their community. Those who read about a police officer shooting a black man or a dog were no more likely to support a civilian review board than the control group. However, those who read about the shooting of a white man were more than 7 percentage points likely to support civilian review in their community.
A second question asked about interest in signing a petition urging Congress to take action towards reducing excessive use of force by police. In contrast to the civilian review board question, levels of support for signing a petition were very low across all groups. In fact, white participants do not appear increasingly motivated to urge Congress to take action against excessive police force regardless of the victim’s identity.
Taken together, Yadon and Crabtree’s results suggest that exposure to a news story about a police shooting draws strong reactions from white people. Of concern, however, is that such reactions are largely limited to viewing either a white man or a dog victim. Indeed, across most of the items which measure attitudes towards police, there are no statistically significant differences when comparing the control condition with the black victim treatment. Such connections are increasingly important to study as cities move toward tightening oversight of police forces and many such initiatives are presented to citizens at the ballot box. Thus, the attitudes citizens hold about police are not only their own. The public’s opinion has potentially lasting effects for the future of policing in local communities.
Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Diana Mutz
Foreign trade is a complex issue, but the public still has strong opinions about the issue. Diana Mutz demonstrated that social psychology can help to understand attitudes about trade when she delivered the 2019 Miller Converse lecture. A recording of her talk “Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Attitudes Toward Foreign Trade” is available below.
Most people rely on small-scale social experiences to understand large-scale interactions such as international trade. From this understanding, people tend to embrace beliefs about trade that are not necessarily accurate. For example, folk beliefs suggest that impersonal transactions are more dangerous than personal ones, that trade is zero-sum, and that trade “deficits” mean that a country is losing more jobs as a result of imports than it gains due to exports. These beliefs are inaccurate, yet understandable, generalizations from the world of face-to-face social exchange.
Contrary to popular wisdom, trade preferences do not reflect people’s economic self-interest. Mutz demonstrates that, surprisingly, these attitudes are not influenced by a person’s occupation, industry of employment, community job loss, geographic location, or individual job loss. Instead, perceptions of what is in the collective economic interest determine attitudes toward trade. Coverage of trade in the media has a large influence on these perceptions. Media coverage of foreign trade was mostly negative until 2016. As media coverage of trade has become more balanced since 2016, support for trade has also increased.
Politicians from all parties have been unwilling to champion trade when running for office because foreign trade is seen as a political liability in the United States. As the world economy changes, Mutz asserts that leaders will need to advocate for trade and for safeguards against its negative effects. She cautions that it’s unhelpful to leave the public out of that conversation altogether as has been common in the past.
For an additional perspective, Mutz compares attitudes about trade in the United States and Canada. She finds that attitudes about trade in the two countries are different due to differing attitudes toward competition. Americans value competition more, and believe in the fairness of unequal outcomes. In the U.S., nationalism reduces support for foreign trade, but in Canada the opposite is true. Canadians who hold the strongest beliefs about national superiority want to promote more trade and immigration.
Differing perspectives on trade in these countries can be explained by variation in two different types of ingroup favoritism. First, Americans in Mutz’s studies systematically preferred trade agreements in which their fellow Americans benefited more than trading partners. In fact, there was no level of job benefits to foreign countries that would justify the loss of even a single American job. This was not the case among Canadians. In addition, Americans demonstrated their competitive attitudes toward trade by demonstrating greater support for trade agreements that not only benefit their country but also disadvantage the trading partner. Canadians, in contrast, preferred the kind of “win-win” trade agreement that economists suggest benefits all countries involved.
Attitudes about race drive attitudes about trade and Mutz finds that the reverse may also be true. In a study that asked respondents to select which students should be admitted to college, participants who had just watched an ad against foreign trade were less supportive of admitting Asian-American students, as well as students from Asia.
Mutz concludes that, while many of these results are distressing, attitudes remain malleable. Efforts to change opinions toward trade that emphasize similarity and shared values are more effective than efforts emphasizing pocketbook gains. Since 2016, her data shows that there has been an increase in support for foreign trade and a realization that it comes with benefits as well as negative consequences.
The cultural and political divide in America receives considerable media and scholarly attention. Republicans and Democrats have different preferences for everyday things like cars and drinks – most people are familiar with stereotypes of latte-drinking liberals or truck-loving conservatives. These differences even extend to their children’s names, the places they live, and the amount they give to charity.
The authors of this paper took a closer look at the extent to which non-political objects, activities, and places are associated with partisanship and ideology. Participants in the study were first prompted to list objects and activities they associate with either liberalism or conservatism. Following this open-ended question, respondents were asked to rate a list of 26 objects and activities based on ideology or partisanship.
The results of the open-ended question are illustrated in the figure below, which shows the words most strongly associated with Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red). The figure makes clear the ease which which respondents name objects and activities often associated with the two partisan groups.
Hiaeshutter-Rice, D., Neuner, F., Soroka, S. 2019, “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, paper presented to the 77th Annual MPSA Conference, Chicago, IL, April 4-7, 2019.
In subsequent studies, the authors examined respondents’ reactions to a series of photos of political candidates standing in front of different backgrounds, including a NASCAR race, an organic food store, and a shooting range. Not all treatments made a difference, but the shooting range (and another image of a gun shop) in particular affected the way that respondents perceived the candidates’ ideology and policy proposal.
As more politicians use social media to share images of their campaigns, it is essential to be aware of the ways in which voters evaluate candidates. Nonverbal political communication conveys information that can help shape public opinion and political behavior. Will voters be manipulated by objects and scenery in political messages? The authors suggest that even as respondents can attach partisanship to wide range of non-political activities, their candidate-photo experiment finds only limited effects of hypothetical press-conference backgrounds. They conclude on a comforting note: “The fact that voters are readily able to attach partisanship to objects and activities, but yet barely take this information into account when rating candidates and policies, may be good news for representative democracy.”
White conservatives who not only have racial animus but are also knowledgeable about politics were the most likely group to believe that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study.
Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina
The study, published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, teased out motivations of white voters for believing the so-called birther rumor. It found that white conservatives who ranked as having a high amount of knowledge were most likely to support the idea that Obama was not born in the U.S.
“This is a piece of social science research about biased perceptions in the political world and what their consequences might be,” said the study’s co-author Michael Traugott, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies at ISR. “It’s relevant because the whole concept of fake news is about devaluing information that doesn’t conform to either what you believe or what you want other people to believe, therefore suggesting a basis upon which it can be discounted or thrown away.”
Traugott and co-author Ashley Jardina, a former U-M doctoral student and now an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, say politically knowledgeable conservatives may be more likely to believe the rumor because they may follow what’s called a “motivated reasoning model.”
“One of the most interesting things about the motivated reasoning model is that the more resources the person has—which could be political information—the better they are able to argue against new information that doesn’t fit their worldview,” said Traugott.
Traugott and Jardina explored a portrait of a birther among white Americans using data from the 2012 American National Election Study. The ANES, conducted in person among a nationally representative sample of respondents, asked several questions assessing belief in contemporary conspiracy theories.
As recently as 2017, nearly a third of U.S. adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the U.S., according to the researchers.
The survey also assessed participants’ knowledge by asking them to identify the office held by several political figures. A respondent’s score on the scale was the proportion of correctly answered questions.
The researchers found that 62 percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 89 percent of very strong Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was probably born in another country, while 11 percent of very strong Democrats reported the same.
To estimate the impact of racial attitudes on the birther rumor, the researchers compared two conspiracy theories detailed in the 2012 ANES survey: the Obama birther rumor and the existence of the Affordable Care Act “death panels,” or, the idea that the ACA authorized government panels to make end-of-life decisions for people on Medicare.
Additionally, the researchers found:
Strong Republicans with higher levels of racial animus are more inclined to believe the birther rumor, but not the death panel rumor.
Republicans both low on resentment and low on knowledge are also more inclined to believe the birther rumor.
Democrats with higher levels of racial resentment are not significantly inclined to adopt either rumor.
Democrats low on knowledge and high on resentment are more likely to adopt birther beliefs.
High-knowledge Democrats with high levels of racial resentment are less likely to believe the rumor.
“Until recently, the relationship of party identification to things like voting behavior had weakened, but it has strengthened again,” Traugott said. “We expected partisanship would play a role in attitudes about Barack Obama, and because he was an African American, racial attitudes would play a role as well. These things are now increasingly important because of this kind of tribalism that’s infecting contemporary politics.”
Since its establishment in 2013, a total of 146 posts have appeared on the Center for Political Studies (CPS) Blog. As we approach the new year, we look back at 2018’s most-viewed recent posts. Listed below are the recent posts that you found most interesting on the blog this year.
Debate persists inside and outside of Sweden regarding the relationship between immigrants and crime in Sweden. But what can the data actually tell us? Shouldn’t it be able to identify the pattern between the number of crimes committed in Sweden and the proportion of those crimes committed by immigrants? The answer is complicated by the manner in which the information about crime is collected and catalogued. This is not just an issue for Sweden but any country interested in providing security to its citizens. Ultimately though, there is no information that supports the claim that Sweden is experiencing an “epidemic.”
By undergraduate students Megan Bayagich, Laura Cohen, Lauren Farfel, Andrew Krowitz, Emily Kuchman, Sarah Lindenberg, Natalie Sochacki, and Hannah Suh, and their professor Stuart Soroka, all from the University of Michigan. (2017)
The 2016 election campaign seems to many to have been one of the most negative campaigns in recent history. The authors explore negativity in the campaign – focused on debate transcripts and Facebook-distributed news content – and share their observations.
In almost half of two-parent households in the United States, both parents work full-time. Yet when a baby is born, it is still new moms who take the most time off work. On average, new mothers take 11 weeks off work while new dads take just one week, according to a 2016 survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. In part, that is because many new fathers in the U.S. don’t have access to paid paternity leave. Paid maternity leave is rare, too: in fact, the U.S. is the only developed nation that does not provide a national paid family leave program to new parents.
By closely investigating all known cases of state-backed cross-sector surveillance collaborations, the authors’ findings demonstrate that the deployment of mass surveillance systems by states has been globally increasing throughout the last twenty years. More importantly, from 2006-2010 to present, states have uniformly doubled their surveillance investments compared with the previous decade.
“Gerrymandering”— when legislative maps are drawn to the advantage of one party over the other during redistricting—received its name in 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed off on a misshapen district that was said to resemble a salamander, which a newspaper dubbed a “gerrymander.”
But although the idea of gerrymandering has been around for a while, proving that a state’s legislature has deliberately skewed district lines to benefit one political party remains challenging.
Since 1948, the ANES- a collaborative project between the University of Michigan and Stanford University- has conducted benchmark election surveys on voting, public opinion, and political participation. To learn more about the study, we asked Ted Brader (University of Michigan professor of political science and one of the project’s principal investigators) a few questions about the anticipated release.
The American National Election Studies (ANES) has surveyed American citizens before and after every presidential election since 1948. The survey provides the public with a rigorous, non-partisan scientific basis for studying change over time in American politics.
The interactive graphs in this post illustrate the changing American electorate and some of the factors that may motivate voters’ choices at the ballot box.
Election forensics is the field devoted to using statistical methods to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors. Problems in elections that are not due to fraud may stem from legal or administrative decisions. Some examples of concerns that may distort turnout or vote choice data are long wait times, crowded polling place conditions, bad ballot design and location of polling stations relative to population.
In a paper presented at the 2017 APSA meeting, Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan, and Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania, explore the effectiveness of deliberative democracy by examining the foundational communicative acts that take place during deliberation.
Dr. William Elliott contends that we need a revolution in the way we finance college education. His new book Making Education Work for the Poor, written with Melinda Lewis, takes a hard look at the inequalities in access to education, and how these inequalities are threatening the American dream. Elliott and Lewis present data and analyses outlining problems plaguing the system of student loans, while also proposing children’s savings accounts as a robust solution to rising college costs, skyrocketing debt burdens, and growing wealth inequality. In a presentation at the University of Michigan on October 3, 2018, Elliott presented new research supporting the case for children’s savings accounts and rewards card programs.