Category Archives: This Just In

So Trump Had a Press Conference…

I’ve mainly been working on non-politics projects lately, so I haven’t seen any of the Donald Trump press conference yet. I’m not going to try and assess his performance or the news coverage of that event specifically until I watch the film. On the other hand, I have published on presidential press conferences, so I wanted to cover a few broad rules of the setting that should translate to this week’s press conference or any future press conference:

1) Subsequent news coverage will focus on what Trump said, as opposed to getting a wide balance of opinion, unless a news organization dedicates a lot of space to the press conference

One of the main things I wanted to study in my dissertation was whether politicians could do things that affects the balance of opinion found in news coverage. I looked at press conferences from 1891-2009 since we can compare what was said to the subsequent news coverage, which is rare in news interviews. I measured balance of opinion as a proportion of quoted words from the president to all quoted words in news coverage of an event. The New York Times‘ average proportion was 0.757. In other words, nearly 76 percent of the quoted words came from the president versus 24 percent for everyone else. ABC Nightly News’ proportion was 0.695.

I found surprisingly few variables affect this ratio. As we might imagine, if a president has a joint press conference with another foreign leader they tend to get some quotes in the news as well. However, there was no significant partisan difference after controlling for different ways that presidents set up their press conferences. Approval ratings have tiny, insignificant effects. One peer reviewer was convinced that presidents who had been in the news a lot wouldn’t have as much control. After weeks of gathering additional data I found this had literally 0 impact.

The main thing that leads to more balance of opinion is whether news organizations leave enough space to quote people other than the president. When the Times or ABC only published one short story, that story would only try to summarize the main things the president said. The single most common outcome is a completely one-sided story. More important conferences will get multiple stories, each focused on a different issue or incident. This is when we get more sources.

2) The questions and the subsequent writeup are two different things

Press conferences are a performance. Since presidential press conferences are on TV, there’s more room for journalists to perform, not just presidents. Many journalists want to brand themselves as tough interrogators, holding presidents accountable. With the rise of partisan news, the image of holding people accountable has become less about “I’d grill everyone, even my own mother!” and more about partisan allegiances.

Working journalists know that they need to produce some story at the end. If they keep pressing the president on one topic, he may cancel the press conference or simply not say anything interesting. Since one press conference could lead to five stories on five different topics, there is pressure to move on instead of harping on a particular topic. The more a president opens up about a topic, the more there is for a journalist to write about. Aggressive flashes during the press conference can turn to deference afterwards. On the other hand, exchanges that seem innocuous as they happen may attract much more attention after the conference, when people can review the tapes.

3) The performance is news

Journalists have written about how people conducted themselves in on-the-record presidential press conferences for as long as presidents have held them on the record. I looked at these stories dating back to the Times’ very first story about Eisenhower doing one press conference for print media then inviting news cameras in for a second, shorter conference that repeated most of the same questions. Day-to-day news reporting in the Times and other objective news organizations follows a strict rule of avoiding judgments about a source’s moral character. Press conferences are an exception. Someone’s performance and character is fair game. One of the more common strategies is to have some reporters focus on the literal facts while one reporter focuses on the conference as a performance.

I assume a lot of people are writing about Trump’s performance as we speak. You may think journalists focusing on theatre is another one of those unusual Trump things. It isn’t. Journalists only gave a few years before hammering away at Eisenhower for poor performances in front of the camera:

“One purpose of today’s Presidential news conference was to promote acceptance of the Administration’s new Middle East security policy, but two incidents occurred there that are likely to have the opposite effect.”

Throughout the article the reporter focused on Eisenhower’s communication style: “casual remarks…that implied that the United States might well have to use small atomic weapons” and his “extemporaneous” answer to another question. Five months later, Eisenhower’s “casual dismissal” of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s appearance on CBS was used to imply “the tendency of the Administration to continue regarding propaganda as a nuisance rather than as an opportunity.”

4) Public opinion doesn’t affect journalists

My adviser Steve Clayman – along with several colleagues – studied whether unpopular presidents face more aggressive questioning. He found no relationship between approval ratings and any form of journalistic aggressiveness. I found no relationship between approval ratings and how much attention a press conference gets or the balance of opinion in those stories. It’s probably a good thing that the press will not be more deferential to a popular president. On the other hand, this means Trump will not get additional scrutiny just because he is deeply unpopular.

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Glad I’m Not Covering Clinton

In the last day or so I have seen a number of contacts retweet the following:

It’s a provocative claim! Since I spent years working on how to count news coverage in different ways, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the methodology used here. Boehlert and his colleagues at Media Matters didn’t do the counting themselves. They picked up on “recent tabulations from Tyndall Report, which for decades has tracked the flagship nightly news programs.” I’ve never heard of Tyndall Report before. (The about page is extremely cryptic.) That not a good sign, but it could also be a good way to learn new things.

Boehlert wrote up this report as something groundbreaking, but he didn’t notice obvious red flags. He copies the Tyndall finding that 2008 was a high water mark for “issues” coverage with 220 minutes. Does 220 minutes for a year’s worth of news seem odd to you? Let’s do a little math. If we are looking at nightly news programs that only broadcast 5 days a week, that is approximately 220 weekdays from Jan 1, 2008 through election day. Which is more plausible: networks haven’t combined for more than one minute per day of “issues” coverage since 1980, or someone is using an awfully narrow definition of issues coverage.

Media Matters only offered the analysis, but I was able to quickly trace the link back to see the author(s) define their methodology:

Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.

The amount of time spent on issues coverage represents the attempt by television news to establish a political agenda that is driven by the perceived problems that the country faces rather than those talking points that the candidates select to promote their own causes.

This looks like an incredibly strict definition of “issues” coverage. The author(s) only include stories where the anchors sat down and said “we want to cover issue X” in detail. Bernie Sanders spent a lot of his campaign going from city to city, giving his stump speech. He talked about a lot of issues in his stump speech, like health care and the minimum wage. Certainly the progressives at Media Matters and their core audience remember this. But any media coverage of Bernie Sanders speeches or interviews with him talking about issues would be excluded from this count. Anything candidates say in a debate would be excluded.

The Tyndall Report isn’t counting how much time TV network news spends on issues. It is counting how much time TV networks spend on a very specific “where do candidates stand on the issues” type of feature. I’m not surprised TV networks have moved away from this feature. It works much better online. People can point and click to compare candidates or take interactive quizzes to see how their views line up with candidates.

I think people buy in to this report because it feels true. A study with more methodological rigor would probably find a decrease in time spent on issues. However, one of the main reasons for this is Donald Trump doesn’t spend as much time talking about issues. Hillary Clinton has responded by campaigning about Trump’s negative personality traits. As Boehlert notes, Clinton has 38 issues on her website and 112,735 words of policy fact sheets (he gives AP credit for these facts, which were published on Aug 29). This doesn’t mean Clinton has talked about each issue in detail or emphasized it on the campaign trail.

I could keep blasting “biased” media coverage if I wanted to – it’s an easy bell to ring. But I want to end on a different question. Let’s assume that out of the things coming from the Clinton camp, reporters currently consider her email server to be the most newsworthy. Could Clinton have done something different to change the narrative? Now I’ll explain why I think the answer is yes. When I studied the 2008 general election I found TV networks interest in a topic was somewhat contingent on candidates bringing up that topic. The national elite media organizations that had access to candidates followed the candidates’ agenda, while sites that lacked access were more independent.

Paradoxically, all the coverage of Clinton’s e-mails and the Wikileaks is an unintended consequence of how she chose to present herself for the general election. Clinton’s policies come off as technical, well-polished versions of fairly standard Democratic ideas for the most part. There isn’t much in terms of new thinking to capture people’s imagination. Instead, the way that Clinton has tried to capture hearts and minds is to emphasize personality traits: her experience versus Trump’s poor temperament. If both candidates want the race to primarily be about judgment, any “scandal” about Clinton will stick more.

When I was a reporter I liked writing the kind of stories that the author(s) of the Tyndall Report crave. But I would be bored out of my mind trying to write these stories in 2016. It’s not because Trump is vague on policy. I loved the challenge of trying to show when officials didn’t understand what they were talking about while still conforming to the norms of objectivity. What would bore me is writing about Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. It feels like a long list of ideas I have heard before. Don’t get me wrong – most of these policy proposals need to be repeated because they never got a fair hearing in Congress. I’m just saying as a former newsman I recognize the lack of new. I’d rather write in detail about a new Clinton policy proposal that shakes up the Democratic status quo, but it isn’t there. New policy ideas and policy differences would be a better topic for Clinton, they would benefit the audience, and they would give reporters a more well rounded diet of things to write about. It would have been to everyone’s advantage. But contrary to the assumptions of the Tyndall report, the only way to get coverage of new policy ideas is if a candidate emphasizes their new policy ideas.

As a national reporter I might be forced to write more about Clinton’s email as the least bad option for Clinton coverage. Then I’d cry and ask for a new beat. I’d rather do features on the voters or ballot propositions than be on the Clinton plane. Ideally I’d get to use Simpsons quotes! For all the attention being paid to the Presidential race, there isn’t a whole lot of actual news, particularly from Clinton.


Bernie Sanders’ Mystery Address?

Did you know Bernie Sanders was going to have a major video address tonight? You probably won’t find any news coverage with headlines like “Sanders to Make Big Announcement Tonight.” The only way I found out was by talking to a Sanders canvasser last night. Here’s what Sanders is saying on his campaign Twitter page:

Sanders has pinned similar tweets for the last few days. You’ll notice there is no link directly to the live stream in the tweet. What happens if you click on Sanders tweet?

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 4.08.24 PM

I got to the following landing page. In case you are reading on a phone and can’t clearly see the text in the photo, Sanders is only giving the video link to people who fill out an online form with their e-mail, zip code and mobile phone number:

The political revolution continues. Submit the form below to receive the link via text message for the Bernie national live stream before it begins on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.m. PT.

[form to fill out, then in smaller print]

By submitting this form, you are subscribing to mobile alerts from Bernie 2016. Periodic messages. Msg & data rates may apply. Text STOP to 82623 to stop receiving messages. Text HELP to 82623 for more information.Terms & Conditions

Modern political candidates are always looking to build the size of their e-mail lists. The Sanders camp likes text messages too. I got an unsolicited text the week before the California primary with my name and polling place! (I try to avoid all these lists and hate the spam messages.)

Sanders restricting his video to people who join his e-mail and texting list is emblematic of his media strategy. He is creating an event for core supporters and creating a barrier to entry. Other candidates would probably go on cable news to maximize their audience size. The Sanders campaign could always post a link for everyone to watch, whether or not they want to make a broader commitment to his political revolution. I don’t think any of these decisions is inherently better or worse than other decisions.

One of the main things I studied in graduate school is how decisions like Sanders’ restricting his live stream to subscribers could affect subsequent news coverage. How can news organizations like CNN or the Los Angeles Times cover Sanders’ live stream? Well, someone has to tell them about it. Smart communications staffers don’t just say “we’re having a live stream” if they want a lot of attention. If the Sanders camp told CNN “we’re going to have a big announcement so go to us live” they may cut to Sanders at 8:30 ET. If the Sanders camp leaked something like “Sanders will / will not concede. See full announcement at 8:30” then news organizations would have written preview stories. Print and online organizations could publish any hour of the day but need to make sure writers and editors are available.

With an hour before Sanders’ live stream, there are no preview stories. One possibility is that Sanders doesn’t have anything groundbreaking to day – despite days of promotion on his Twitter account – so news organizations deliberated a possible preview story and rejected it. The other possibility is the Sanders camp hasn’t given reporters a preview of what he is going to say. Preview stories tend to rely on advance leaks to set the context for the main event. No leaks mean no previews and a more concentrated audience. Sanders is speaking after the nightly network news for most of the country, which gives even more evidence that Sanders is following a narrowcasting strategy. Selecting your ideal audience instead of maximizing the total audience is often a good strategy.

[edit: I added this around half an hour before Sanders’ live stream since it needed more detail]:

I imagine Sanders supporters will complain about a lack of media coverage, but getting a small amount of coverage isn’t always a bad thing. Sanders is designing his event in a way that makes it harder for other politicians to respond before East Coast reporters’ deadlines. The most likely situation is a small amount of coverage focused solely on what Sanders says, unless he says something dramatic enough that other politicians choose to respond immediately. One of my core research findings is that drawing more attention to a planned news event generates more coverage, but it also leads reporters to seek out additional sources. Ronald Reagan used prime time press conferences to monopolize the next day’s newspaper coverage for six years before House Democrats learned to wait by the telephone and call reporters to respond to Reagan that night. Rapid response is much easier today, but there’s still going to be a tendency for Washington reporters to write stories quickly and then go home for the night. Sanders may be looking to exploit this opportunity even if fewer words are written about him.

Edit #2: 

This was posted maybe 5 minutes after my first edit:

Thanks to @GeorgWebb on Twitter for pointing this out!

We also have a preview from ABC. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver e-mailed the following to Sanders supporters:

“Our political revolution is not just about what happens in Philadelphia, or even at the election in November.” Weaver said they would work to keep Donald Trump from being president, but added, “In order for the work that we have begun to be long-lasting for years to come, we must continue our political revolution.”

I imagine ABC would be quoting Weaver from an interview if he agreed to give one beforehand. Right or wrong I’m going to lock this post down (if I can) and own it even if I am completely off base.


Is Trump Biting the Hand that Feeds His Campaign?

Yesterday Donald Trump made the following announcement on his Facebook page:

Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.

The Post joins Politico, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Univision and Fusion (both targeting Latino audiences) and leading newspapers in Iowa and New Hampshire as some of the media organizations banned by Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee didn’t single out a specific story he thought was inaccurate. I pasted in Trump’s entire explanation above. Josh Voorhees at Slate guessed that Trump took particular offense at a story “Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting”. Trump was quoted saying the following:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said in a lengthy interview on Fox News early Monday morning. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

A few minutes before I heard about Trump’s outrage at the Washington Post, I was listening to an “On The Media” podcast segment where Paul Waldman of The American Prospect was interviewing Jake Tapper (look for the 6/9 episode). In case you missed it, Tapper got attention last week for asking Donald Trump whether or not his comments about the judge handling the Trump University case were racist:

Waldman argued that Tapper didn’t go far enough. For all his persistence, Tapper didn’t directly confront Trump and call him a racist. Waldman said journalists need to step up and morally condemn Trump. Tapper responded that’s not his job. He needs to get Trump and Clinton on his show as much as possible and try to get them to answer questions so the viewers can see what candidates are saying. Tapper wanted the focus to be on Trump (and Clinton). He feared taking a more aggressive stance would make him the story. Waldman countered that Tapper was too concerned with protecting his access…a few days before Trump reminded every journalist just how willing he is to deny access.

For journalists in today’s media environment, getting access is a strange strategic calculation. Barring a news organization isn’t going to stop them from covering a campaign. A wide range of bloggers and online only media organizations have been able to cover news and develop their audience without any direct access to newsmakers. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, posted this response on Twitter.

Strategic decisions about how to get access from presidents and campaigns is fundamentally different from most sources. Reporters normally want to develop sources because they never know when they could benefit from having more access in the future. Campaigns and administrations have a specific end point. I There’s a reason why we see stories like anonymous Sanders staffers blaming Sanders for the nastiness towards the end of the Democratic primaries near the end of the primary campaign, not the beginning. If staffers throw Sanders under the bus, what can Sanders really do to retaliate?

Game theorists argue this is a common problem with games that have a clear ending point that is specified in advance. People know they can defect at the end of the game, because there will not be any repercussions. In a related story, candidates who win an election tend to start off with a honeymoon period from the press. Reporters know that president will be around for 4 or 8 years and do not want to lose access early. But towards the end of a president’s second term, news coverage falls off and/or becomes increasingly negative. In games where both parties have a reasonable chance of interacting again and they have no idea how long the game will go on, there are more incentives for cooperation.

I imagine most readers wouldn’t think of applying game theory to relations between campaigns and the media. The most common game is the “prisoners’ dilemma” – will one criminal cut a deal testify against their partner even though the police lack concrete evidence? The prisoners’ dilemma gives two options and no middle ground. It’s a simple game because each of the prisoners only makes one decision. Campaign coverage can have a “game” every day: will a certain story get in the news today? Journalists like Jake Tapper cooperate by going to campaign events and publishing an account of what happened. They defect by refusing to cover an event or pursuing stories the administration tries to bury. Waldman of The American Prospect tried to argue defection means directly criticizing Trump – partisans have different definitions of “cooperation” and “defection” because they are playing a different game than objective journalists.

Presidents cooperate by offering a journalist as much or more access than they offer any other news organization. Cooperation doesn’t have to be giving one group special treatment. Giving everyone a media credential is an example of cooperation. Presidents defect by offering one journalist less access than others. Good examples are Barack Obama going on the View and a wide range of local television stations instead of having long sit down interviews with leading news organizations.

I don’t think a politician criticizing the media, in and of itself, counts as defection. Let’s say a president got angry about a question at a press conference and attacked the reporter:

George W. Bush cut off NBC News’ David Gregory, but he offered some response to the question first. You can decide for yourself how well he answered the question. In this case, a confrontation and refusal to keep discussing the issue was still newsworthy. This was one of four press conferences I looked at for my master’s thesis. The main way presidents “defect” during a press conference is by ignoring the topic of a question and moving to something else that reporters don’t want to write about. This strategy creates a shortage of news. Refusals to answer can still give reporters a story.

Most presidential candidates in 2016 have tried to emphasize their independence from the Washington media. News organizations need to emphasize their independence from politicians in order to maintain credibility. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate who has not railed against the media, so some progressive pundits think she is colluding with the Beltway media. I think the tone of Ryan’s critique of the Associated Press is ridiculous, but he did stumble towards truth. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is as close as we have come to a presidential candidate who refuses to cooperate with the media. He wanted no part of the Clinton e-mail story. He routinely blasted corporate media in his stump speech. More importantly, Sanders campaigned by giving his stump speech across the country instead of relying on photo ops and interviews. Trump used the machine instead. He fed the media and got rewarded with far more news coverage than Sanders.

Since the 1950s most leading politicians have realized they need the news media to reach the largest possible audience, and the news media needs politicians to keep generating stories. It’s not a perfectly symmetrical game. Scandal-ridden politicians are better off hiding everything from the press then leaving enough breadcrumbs for a scandal to explode. But as long as journalists are looking for routine news stories to fill their pages, a politician has every reason to fulfill this need. Most of the time mutual cooperation is an optimal strategy. Both politicians and reporters want to set the terms of cooperation. They push each other back and forth all the time.

But there’s a reason Nixon didn’t pull the Washington Post’s credentials during Watergate. Once the story was out there, completely cutting off the media wouldn’t help him. Trump told the Washington Post he intends to defect for the rest of the campaign. It’s a credible signal; none of the other news organizations on Trump’s banned list have gotten off the list. Trump appears to be betting that the only way news organizations can “defect” is by refusing to give him attention, and no news organization would do that. However, there is nothing more Trump can do to try and negotiate the terms of cooperation with the Post or the other news organizations he has banned. They are now free to dig up every skeleton without fear of losing more access to the campaign. Trump’s core supporters may not care what the Post uncovers.

However, Trump has played games with the media every day, trying to maximize attention. As much as Trump criticized and insulted reporters during his rallies, his campaign has been the most cooperative with the press. He was always giving access new stories – the biggest thing reporters want. Now Trump is saying he will not be giving as much access. He’s not cooperating with everyone. This may give Hillary Clinton an opportunity to get more attention and take away Trump’s biggest advantage from the primary.


Why Does the LA Times Know they Can’t Rally Readers?

There was a shooting two days ago in the same building at UCLA that I taught a few classes in. Over the last year I met a number of engineering, computer science and biology students looking to add statistics to their skill set. I couldn’t work on Wednesday. I was too busy texting friends to see if they were on campus and safe. Thankfully all of my friends are safe, but I know there are people in the UCLA community who cannot say the same. After any mass shooting we see various editorials and thinkpieces. To quote a Los Angeles Times staff editorial posted an hour after police gave the all clear sign:

“In this case, it was only two dead. Murder-suicide in a small office. And so America shrugs. Just another violent incident in the daily parade of gun violence that defines contemporary America.”

This shooting was much closer to home. It turns out the shooter was a former graduate student with a grievance against his professor. Teach enough students and you will run in to someone who is neurotic and absolutely refuses to take responsibility for their failures. Six months ago a student told me she turned in a homework assignment but got a zero because my teaching assistant missed it. I grabbed my phone, emailed my TA, and said I would get back to the student. Problem not solved. This student kept insisting she did the assignment. It didn’t matter how many times I said “we’ll check.” This student followed me out of the office and through the quad, continuing to insist she did that assignment. I think the only reason she stopped following me was because she recognized we were walking to the main administration building! She never did that homework, of course. Her final had explicitly racist answers. Good thing she was unarmed.

I wouldn’t say I am completely back to normal after the shooting. On the other hand, most of the performances around the shooting feel very familiar. Newspapers have played the LA Times’ role condemning gun violence before. Progressives have criticized the National Rifle Association before. If everyone fills their part of the script, we will see he main spokesman for the NRA come out in a few days and say this tragedy could be prevented if more people were carrying guns (as if that would pre-empt the initial shooting.) The LA Times editorial staff concedes that the nation accepts gun violence as “commonplace” and “that society will just shrug this off is tragic in its own way.” How did we get to the point where a leading newspaper would openly concede that their editorials are unlikely to sway the public?

The last time I remember so many people asking “why can’t the media blow the whistle about something outrageous” was in November. Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistic Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most White murder victims were killed by Blacks. However, the “Crime Statistic Bureau” does not exist. FBI statistics show most Whites are killed by other Whites. Reporters traced the graphic back to a self-identified neo-Nazi. Could reporters call Trump a liar? A racist? What would it take for reporters to “blow the whistle” and get people’s attention? I changed my lecture last minute to try and address this question, and tried addressing it in more detail the next week. After the shooting at UCLA, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my notes and try to explain why it is so hard to shake people in to believing something is serious and needs attention.

Media Setting Priorities?

A generation ago Walter Cronkite famously turned against the Vietnam War. (Cronkite’s own short retrospective on this is also worth watching.) Many historians think that Cronkite – a journalist – took the single most important step to sway public opinion on the war. Cronkite was famously stoic and detached as an anchor, even when describing how President Kennedy was shot and killed. I showed this clip in class once, then asked my students if they could or would take the same tone if they had to announce President Obama had been shot. Most said no. I imagine if we go back 50 years, most people would say no as well. Cronkite’s stoic detachment was part of what made him so trusted. He came off like a neutral arbitrator of what is important. Cronkite breaking character when condemning the Vietnam War showed an intensity and importance that went beyond day-to-day news coverage.

Walter Cronkite was famous and well-respected, but his journalistic standards weren’t that different from other journalists of his era. Nightly network news was seen as a public service. It was a requirement to keep a broadcast license. Edward Epstein wrote in his 1793 book News From Nowhere that the NBC executives he studied didn’t think about maximizing the audience or potential profits – they incorrectly assumed broadcast news could never turn a profit. Since national journalists of the 1960s and early 70s thought their job was entirely about public service, they didn’t care too much about audience preferences. Journalists thought it was up to them to educate the public and tell them what they should be caring about. If the nightly news could only contain 15 stories, then journalists would give you a list of the 15 most important stories they found that day. Major events like California’s upcoming primary election could get multiple slots in the top 15 to show even greater importance than just getting the #1 slot.

Media organizations play some of this filtering role today. Every media organization looks through a huge set of events happening in the world and pulls out a smaller set of things to write about. I go through that process myself as a small time blogger. We need this specialization and division of labor because we only have so much memory and so much time. It is impossible for us to be fully aware of everything that is going on in the world. Everyone produces their top 15 stories of the day, or top 30, or maybe their single story of the week if they write part-time.

The difference is today we have a much wider range of top 15 story lists to choose from. Audiences can comparison shop. If you want someone who feels as outraged as you about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, some partisan media site will fill the “ragehole” for you. If you want minute details about state-by-state primary rules and how they affected the election, there is a site for you. If you want a little update on the presidential election but don’t want it to gobble up 5 of the top 15 story slots, local newspapers and local television broadcasts will screen out the obligatory daily campaign updates.

Walter Cronkite didn’t have to think about creating a brand specializing in national news. Newspapers were regional. There were only three television networks, and they all broadcast similar types of news at similar times. Nightly news could ignore the audience’s preferences because there was minimal competition. Cronkite’s successors at CBS, along with reporters at national newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to cater to a specific audience. People who want to read about national politics on a regular basis tend to have strong political opinions. One of the main ways that older media organizations have tried to keep this audience is by treating single statements as enough for a full news story – as long as what the politician said would outrage part of the audience. These stories are very easy to write. It’s a cost-effective way to give the core group of politics readers the feeling of being immersed in a campaign.

Sharing Is Caring…too Much?

How did you reach this blog post? Did you type the name of my website in to your browser? Set up an RSS feed? Chances are you came across a link via Facebook or Twitter, or maybe a Google search. That’s more and more common these days. One recent study indicated a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook instead of directly visiting media websites or watching / reading offline content. Of course not everyone is on Facebook, and many Facebook users have no interest in politics. Think about your friends and family who are the most actively posting about politics on Facebook. Are they a little…different than the other people in your feed?

yellatmonitor

I’m blocking this guy. Wouldn’t you?

If you can’t imagine one of your friends or family members constantly yelling at the computer screen as they click “share link” you are lucky. Most of us have a range of anger. Some things don’t bother us at all, some are just a little annoying. There are only a few things that would get me screaming – like seeing the news that a UCLA student shot their former professor. You won’t see me post the minor squabbles I have. I make the conscious decision that many things are not worth writing a short Facebook post about. It’s definitely not worth your time to read me talking about minor annoyances. Most of us have some kind of filter. But we also know people who will post every grievance they have about the political process or one of the candidates in this election. When I see someone who posts how they are angry about something in politics or culture most days of the week, it makes me think of one of my favorite lines from TV’s Justified:

Raylan Givens: It’s all somebody else’s fault. You ever hear the saying “you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran in to an asshole. You run in to assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Social media caters to people who want to spend their time confirming their political views and demonizing the opposition. How could you search for people who feel the same way you do about Donald Trump without social media? It’s going to be a lot harder. Any in-person rally or protest will be limited by geography. Sites like Facebook and Twitter quickly realized their biggest comparative advantage is the ability to let users find other users who share a common interest, even if they have nothing else in common. Hashtags, suggested friends and search features made this possible for the first time. These sites also use algorithms to promote posts that have already gotten a large number of likes and comments. Facebook is very proactive in hiding posts that do not get engagement. And Facebook’s experiments have shown people engage more with emotional posts than neutral ones. When we put this all together, angry Facebook posts will get more visibility and engagement than anyone inspired by Walter Cronkite.

Because sites that produce some kind of political media content are increasingly dependent on Facebook users sharing links, they are increasingly dependent on the emotional content that elicits engagement on Facebook. Sharing drives web traffic. This media ecosystem is great at signaling who is angry about what. Even traditional media sites are embracing “who is angry about what” as a common story trope for national politics. It’s not an entirely flawed system. People who would get ignored in Cronkite’s generation have an opportunity to share their views now.

The main problem is every company involved in political media has an incentive to cater to the people who cry “wolf” over every offense, regardless of its seriousness. Every post playing up how offensive something is will attract some of the audience that is looking for something to yell about today. It’s a great way to maximize your page views among the core audience for day-to-day political stories. But this media ecosystem is what enables someone like Donald Trump to get a record amount of media attention. Even before Trump ran I predicted that a candidate could monopolize media attention by filling the “ragehole” – the core political audience’s demand for daily outrage.

Most people want to reserve the media’s outrage alarm for something serious like Wednesday’s shootings at UCLA. (Remember that for all the attention Trump is getting, most Americans do not vote in presidential primaries.) When I read the LA Times staff editorial, I saw the voice of a media organization that knew what most people needed…and that they could never fulfill this need. After a decade of giving the niche politics audience what they want to maximize page views, they knew their opinion wouldn’t stand out from just another hot take on gun control once it gets to our Facebook feed.

 

There is one important silver lining in my analysis. It’s something that my students taught me. We don’t need to rely on media organizations to change in order to solve this quagmire. We don’t need Facebook to tinker with their algorithms again or get off Facebook altogether because algorithms are evil. All we need to do is stop liking and commenting on everything that gets us a little riled up about politics. Watching those friends and family members who do nothing but rant about politics is a lot like watching a car crash. I know we all tend to stop and stare at accidents – and that causes a traffic jam on the other side of the highway. People who use social media to wage a daily battle are getting in accidents. They are causing a traffic jam for the rest of us who want a different kind of media coverage. We can all do our part to avoid these accidents by showing some restraint. My 19-23 year old students had already learned this.


Facebook Dives Into the Echo Chamber

Earlier today, several in house researchers at Facebook published a study in Science regarding how much users engage with links that cut against their ideological beliefs. There are already a lot of thoughtful posts on this article, since there’s a lot to chew on. The basic finding isn’t too surprising: people are less likely to “engage” with links that do not correspond to their stated political beliefs. The authors argue there is a three-step process:

  1. We only see links posted by friends and other pages we follow, and they are not a random group. People tend to congregate on Facebook based on their political ideology.
  2. Facebook’s algorithm does not place all possible stories on our “News Feed” when we log in. It favors posts shared, liked and commended on by friends. The authors do not fully disclose how the algorithm works, but they do find it cuts down on how much people see stories that cross ideological boundaries. 5% of stories were screened out for self-identified liberals, and 8% for self-identified conservatives.
  3. Facebook users don’t click on every link. As I’ll discuss later, Facebook users ignore the vast majority of links to political stories. After controlling for things like the position of the link (people are much more likely to click on the first link when they log in), liberals were 6% less likely to click on a link mainly shared by conservatives. conservatives were 17% less likely to click on a link mainly shared by liberals.

This process makes sense for an individual story, but it’s a troubling model for studying months’ worth of Facebook user behavior. As Christian Sandvig points out, Facebook’s algorithm is based on what users engage with. In other words, if I tend to click on all of the fantasy baseball links I see in May, I will be more likely to see fantasy baseball links that people share in June. I’ll probably see some fantasy football links too, even though I want no part of fantasy football.

Separating step 3 from step 2 is problematic, but it appears to be the authors’ main goal in interpreting their results: “We conclusively establish that on average in the context of Facebook, individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” To continue with the sports reference, this is where sociologists start throwing penalty flags. The interpretation found in the scholarly journal just happens to be the same argument that Andy Mitchell, the director of news and media partnerships for Facebook, gave when facing criticism last month. (See Jay Rosen’s criticism here.) As I argued weeks ago, Facebook isn’t in a position to get the benefit of the doubt. We’ll get back to the problems of how to interpret the article’s findings in a minute. First, it is important to understand how the group that the authors claim to study and the group they actually study are very different.

As Eszter Hargittai and other sociologists have pointed out, 91 percent of Facebook users were excluded from this study because they did not explicitly disclose their political ideology on their Facebook biography. Users were excluded for providing ideologies that weren’t explicitly liberal or conservative – a user who said their politics “are none of your damn business” would be dropped. It is unclear how self-identified “independents” were treated in this study (none of the posts I have seen mentioned this). My political scientist friends would like me to point out that self-identified independents are often treated as “moderates” when they are actually covert partisans. Users who did not log on at least four times a week were dropped as well.

Once Hargittai added all the exclusions, just under three percent of Facebook users were included in the study. As she argues, the 3% figure is far more important than the 10 million observations:

“Can publications and researchers please stop being mesmerized by large numbers and go back to taking the fundamentals of social science seriously? In related news, I recently published a paper asking “Is Bigger Always Better? Potential Biases of Big Data Derived from Social Network Sites” that I recommend to folks working through and with big data in the social sciences.”

The 3% of Facebook users who are included in the study are probably different from the 97% who are not.At this point, it would probably be helpful to separate the two groups

What Happens for People in the Sample?

One of the hardest things for a scholar to do is publish findings that aren’t surprising. We already know that people tend to have social networks with disproportionately like-minded people. The biggest effect that the Facebook researchers found is homophily. We don’t see a random selection of stories when we log on to Facebook because our friends aren’t a random group of humans. We see stories from people who we are friends with – assuming we haven’t muted those friends because of their postings – and from pages we follow. Most media scholars have found some degree of self-selection, and found it is most prominent online. Neither the study’s authors or critics want to emphasize this point, but the results seem pretty clear in the graphic below (reproduced from the article):

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 6.30.17 PM

Critics focus on the role of the algorithm (the “exposed” line in this graphic) versus the role of users choosing to ignore stories. When I first read the term, I thought “users’ choice” included choice of friends (the big drop for “potential from network” in the graphic). Apparently this only refers to whether users choose to click on a story or not (the last line of the graphic). It does not refer to whether users choose to unfriend or block a user because of their political beliefs. Maybe I’m thinking of this differently because I recently talked with someone who chose to unfriend everyone who didn’t share her political views. If we include adding and dropping friends to the big ledger of “user decisions” and Facebook’s friend suggestion algorithm to the big ledger of “algorithmic influence,” it is much easier to see why the authors would argue user behavior is so important, but I may be giving them more credit than they deserve.

The “News Feed” algorithm picks favorites, and we don’t fully know how, which is very troubling. On the other hand, it is only picking from the narrow subset of stories our friends have posted, and that may be a very narrow ideological range. As I wrote weeks ago, Facebook clearly has its thumb on the scale by not showing everything on a user’s “News Feed” when they log in. Facebook’s in-house researchers acknowledge some degree of algorithmic censorship of stories that are mainly shared by the other side instead of the user’s side. The effect is 5% for liberals and 8% for conservatives. This looks like Facebook has its thumb on the scale. However, the weight comes from who we are friends with.

Click-throughs as the End Measure? Really?

The emphasis on people clicking links was surprising to me, because “clickthroughs” are relatively rare. This study only included people who provide their political ideology on their Facebook pages. These users are likely to be more engaged with politics. We would expect them to be more likely to click on political links than other users. But the overall click-through rate reported in this article was only 6.53 percent. As many scholars and writers are finding, social media “engagement” often has a very low correlation with reading the link. In many cases, the low correlation is driven by posts that get a lot of likes and comments, even though people don’t read the story that gets linked to.

Imagine someone linked to a story about Hillary Clinton’s speech where she advocated for more pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, imagine the person sharing the story is a conservative, arguing against Clinton’s “pro-amnesty” position. Other conservatives may rally around the Facebook post, seeing it as an opportunity to voice their complaints about Clinton instead of new information to be consumed to make more informed decisions in the democratic process. This behavior happens on both sides of the aisle. Progressives may post a link about Rand Paul’s avoiding a campaign stop in Baltimore for the same reason.

What About People Excluded from the Study?

 97% of Facebook users were excluded from the study. Some of these users will be just as partisan and ideological as the people who were included in the study; they just declined to put their ideology in their bio page. Other users may be less ideological or less interested in politics. Because most people interested in Facebook’s effect on the news are interested in political news, it is easy to overlook the fact that a lot of people who write online may not be all that interested in politics. (In my dissertation, I found a strong preference for bloggers publishing non-political phrases instead of political phrases during the time period of the 2008 election, but there are critical methodological differences between repeating phrases and showing holistic interest.)

If people do not engage in posting political stories or reading most political links on Facebook, would we expect them to learn anything about politics when they log on? I’m not sure if any research has been published specifically on this question yet, but studies of television “infotainment” suggest the answer is yes. Matthew Baum and Angela Jamison found that people who avoided the news but regularly watched shows like Oprah and David Letterman were better informed about politics than people who avoided the news and Oprah or Letterman. (Full disclosure, I worked as an RA for years on a project with Tim Groeling and Matt Baum.) Watching the news or reading the newspaper provides more information than “soft news,” but soft news can be surprisingly effective in communicating the broad strokes of current events.

Skimming Facebook may also give people the broad strokes of current events. People who have read their Facebook wall in the last two weeks may know there was a riot or uprising in Baltimore, even if they do not regularly watch the news or click on links to news stories. The difference in Facebook is exposure to political information is largely contingent on who your friends are, and your friends are more likely than not to congregate on the same side of the political spectrum. Thus, some people may have heard about the Baltimore riot while others heard about the Baltimore uprising.

Ironically, it is Mitchell, the Facebook executive, who offers the best advice on how to treat Facebook as a potential news source:

“We have to create a great experience for people on Facebook and give them the content they’re interested in. And like I said earlier, Facebook should be a complimentary news source.”

The problem with this is skimming Facebook could make it easy for people to feel like they are getting informed without actually being informed.


A Thumb on the Scale or Adding Weight?

Facebook has once again publicly announced a change to it’s “News Feed” algorithm. The changes seem relatively minor as Facebook’s changes go.

However, the timing of the announcement is particularly awkward. Last week, Andy Mitchell, the director of news and media partnerships for Facebook, gave a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Journalists are increasingly concerned with the role Facebook plays in sending traffic to media organizations. (Every organization pays close attention to the other organizations they depend on.) Facebook may start hosting news content produced by large media organizations.

The problem is professional journalists, Facebook users, and Facebook executives looking to make a profit from their site may all have at least slightly different preferences for what kind of content they want emphasized on the social media platform. Journalists often separate stories in to categories of things people “need to know” and things people “want to know.” As someone who reported almost exclusively on the “need to know” side when I was in news, I sympathize with concerns that Facebook’s algorithms could punish these stories while emphasizing “want to know” links. George Brock, a journalism professor at City College in London, brought up this dilemma at the end of Mitchell’s talk last week

(Link should be queued to the question, otherwise go to 50:13)

Mitchell replied “We have to create a great experience for people on Facebook and give them the content they’re interested in. And like I said earlier, Facebook should be a complimentary news source.” Brock was not exactly thrilled with this short response, as he wrote on his own site:

For the senior news guy with such gatekeeper and distribution power to evade these questions is condescending and dishonest. Facebook is not, and knows quite well it is not, a neutral machine passing on news. Its algorithm chooses what people see, it has “community standards” that material must meet and it has to operate within the laws of many countries.

Brock’s post received more attention earlier today, when it was picked up by noted NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen. Rosen, like many media scholars, is wary that Facebook’s interests may be different than ours. Rosen’s entire response is worth reading, but the core issue comes at the end:

We do want to know: what are you optimizing for, along with user interest? How do you see your role within a news ecosystem where you are more and more the dominant player? In news, you have power now. It is growing. Help us understand how you intend to use it. What kind of filter do you intend to be? What kind of player… playing for what?

Facebook’s official position has consistently been that they are only emphasizing user interest. Mitchell repeated this position last week. Critical media scholars like Brock and Rosen argue Facebook’s claims are deflections. They emphasize the “News Feed” algorithm is not neutral. Facebook just reminded us of that today with their latest tweak of the algorithm. Of course, as Rosen himself acknowledges in his post, true “neutrality” is impossible. There is too much news and information out there. News organizations hire professionals to sort through potential stories, while Facebook relies on its users.

Many critics of the News Feed algorithm seem to forget that Facebook, like all social network platforms, relies on users to create and share content. The range of posts I see on Facebook has a lot more to do with who I am friends with on Facebook than the algorithm. Yes, Facebook often has its thumb on the scale, but it is the users who add the weight every day.

Instead of focusing on Facebook as a big corporate bogeyman that needs to be held accountable, maybe it is more appropriate to hold people accountable for their own media consumption habits?