Tag Archives: Activism

How to talk about science & the environment, based on survey results

It’s easy to think of science communication as imparting facts the audience doesn’t have yet. Think of what we do in the classroom. We know that we know things students don’t know yet. Students are responsible for absorbing this material if they want an A in the class. On the other hand, we don’t test voters about their factual knowledge before we let them vote. That’s probably a good thing – several southern states used to deploy impossible voter “literacy” tests as a way to disenfranchise black voters. These tests were banned as part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the conservative Roberts Supreme Court overturned this section of the law. Today, the biggest thing stopping a fact-based pop quiz before people vote may be a political party that likes to make up it’s own facts!

Whenever I read about scientific debates being put in to policy, it feels like I always see people taking the tone that “if only the other side knew the facts, they would join us.” For example, if only people knew how harmful it was to the entire school when a parent avoids vaccinating their kids. If only people knew the risks of climate change. Over at Slate, Dr. Tim Requarth has an excellent article summarizing how this “deficit” model is a poor way to communicate science to the broader public. Providing more knowledge actually tends to backfire in lab experiments. So why does the “fill a deficit in people’s knowledge” style of communication persist?

“The deficit model perfectly explains how a scientist learns science. But the obstacles faced by science communicators are not epistemological but cultural. The skills required are not those of a university lecturer but a rhetorician.”

Maybe it’s because I was trained in the social sciences and not neuroscience, but I don’t fully buy this. I have sent scientific manuscripts off to journals where my peer reviewers and/or the editors have had very different assumptions of what good research should be. Any social scientist who tries to publish for long enough will run in to hostile reviewers. I’ve always tried to avoid being this kind of reviewer and focused on the internal consistency of analysis. However, I have seen reviewers ignore serious methods issues that I caught. I think they hated the framing of an article so much that they didn’t bother to keep reading!

Even when we think of ourselves as scientists, we need to learn something about being a “rhetorician” to overcome hostile peer reviewers. Early on in my career, I assumed reviewers would take statistical results at roughly face value. My first quant manuscript showed that, among other things, prime time presidential press conferences received unusual coverage. One of my initial peer reviewers didn’t buy the result. After all, cable news can broadcast breaking news at 2:30 AM if they need to, so why should the time of day matter at all? I was a bit surprised by this comment. First of all, I wasn’t studying cable news!

Looking back on it, this peer reviewer and I had different assumptions. I had written “late runs” for evening stories and rushed against a tight deadline. I spent one evening with the overnight crew at a local TV station and that’s when I started looking at grad school as a less painful option. I knew that just because reporters have the technical capacity to cover stories at 2:30 AM doesn’t mean they want to sacrifice their entire routine to work the graveyard shift. However, I wrote this earlier draft of my article focusing on how these traditions persist even as technological barriers fade. I never really did a good job explaining why these barriers might persist.

When I first got this review I was outraged. Reviewer #2 had invented incorrect facts to justify a rejection. The next time I sent the paper off, a reviewer was furious I didn’t describe a big post 9/11 spike in how George W. Bush’s press conferences were covered. I tested for it and it wasn’t there, after controlling for specific things Bush did differently than his predecessors.

Eventually I learned that even my quantitative articles have to have more storytelling. I can’t just point to the evening press conference variable and rely on common sense. I had to explain that it took Congressional Democrats six years (and a major scandal) to realize they might get a better chance to respond to Ronald Reagan’s prime time press conferences if they stayed in their office to answer a reporter’s phone call! I had to explain what Bush did differently in his press conferences, and that presidents doing things could influence journalists. If my narrative has gaps, people will fill in the gaps with their own assumptions, even though those assumptions are normally wrong.

Assumptions About How the Public Views Science

With this in mind, I wanted to delve in to some assumptions we may have about how the public views science. Donald Trump wants to slash the EPA’s budget. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican chairman of the House Science committee, insists that scientists are manipulating data to over-emphasize the effects of climate change. His has a long history of using subpoenas to go after federal scientists publishing results he doesn’t like. He also just happens to get more campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry than any other industry. Smith wants all federal grant recipients to pledge they are acting in “the national interest” and accused climate scientists of abandoning the scientific method during a recent hearing. If Lamar Smith is the Republican Party’s main legislator on science and the environment, how much is he speaking for the interests of Republican voters?

To try and answer this question, I looked at data from the American National Election Survey. The full survey asked the same panelists a series of questions before and after the election. One of the things they asked respondents to do was answer, on a 0-100 scale, how do you feel about the following people or groups. 0 is feeling very cold, 50 is average or indifferent, and 100 is warmth. One of the groups they asked about was scientists. Let’s see how they compare to other groups:

Overall Trump vote Other vote
Scientists 76.7 71.71 81.93
Clinton 43.81 12.99 68.88
Trump 42.09 76.29 15.65
Christian Fundamentalists 50.27 62 39.73
Tea Party 44.53 59.46 30.9
Gays & Lesbians 60.73 49.66 71.57
Police 75.48 85.33 70.38

On average, respondents felt more warmth towards scientists than any other person or group in the post-election survey! There is a bit of a partisan split, but warmth towards scientists is fairly bipartisan. At the time of this survey, scientists were not seen as a distinctly liberal interest group. One of the long-standing concerns about today’s March For Science is that marchers would play in to the hands of someone like Lamar Smith, making scientists a more partisan football.

The best analogy may be how people feel about police. Some progressives have strong negative feelings towards police officers, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. However, most Democrats feel at least some warmth to police. Some Trump voters have strong negative feelings towards scientists. However, most Trump voters felt at least some warmth to scientists. The regression results were dull enough (statistical significance but small effects) that I put them as a footnote only.

Next, let’s take a look at government funding for “science and technology.” In the abstract, this polls very well in the ANES. 58.35 percent of respondents said the government should spend more money on science and technology. Only 7.52 percent of respondents say the government should spend less money. When people critique spending, they tend to say they dislike particular projects, not the abstract idea. Even Lamar Smith wrote an op-ed in USA Today suggesting more funding in science and technology would be good, even though he spent most of the op-ed attacking scientists he dislikes.

To test where people stand on this issue I ran an ordered logit model. The ologit is used when we have three or more categories that we can put in a rank order, like spend less on science and technology, spend the same amount, or spend more. It assumes each independent variable will have a certain effect pushing people to one end of the spectrum or the other. In other words, having a college degree would either push people to spending more or spending less. It wouldn’t split respondents like a wishbone.

I put this together fairly quickly, so I used the following independent variables:

  • College graduate
  • Age (range 18-90)
  • Male
  • Race (white = omitted; multi-racial respondents are coded as “other” in the quick ANES aggregation)
  • Trump voter
  • Ideology on 7 point liberal/conservative scale, where 1 is very liberal. I use results from the post-election survey.
  • A question on how respondents interpret the Bible. All respondents got this question regardless of their faith.
    • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word
    • The Bible is the word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally
    • The Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.
    • Sometimes I just separated the more secular response from the other two.
  • Income is currently restricted in the ANES because it could be used to identify respondents. The survey used two different questions in a split-panel designed for self-identified class, which I don’t want to tangle with today. So there’s no good control there.

Here are the results:


* Note: Categories are ranked less spending, equal spending, more spending. Positive coefficients indicate a group of respondents who wants the government to spend more.

As we might expect, increased government spending is a partisan issue. The more conservative someone is, the less they support additional government spending on science and technology. Even after controlling for ideology, Trump voters are somewhat less supportive, but p = 0.056. Interpret that however you see fit; I’m going to just move on. College graduates were not significantly more likely to support additional government funding for science. However, people who said the Bible is not the word of God were significantly more in favor of increased government funding.

I’m a bit uneasy about how to interpret the large difference between Hispanic respondents and non-Hispanic Whites. The ANES asked respondents about Hispanic ethnicity and race as separate questions. If I read the codebook correctly, at least 20 percent of Hispanic respondents checked other: Hispanic for race instead of checking a box for white, black, native American, Asian or pacific islander.

Anyway, it’s a bit difficult to interpret ologit results since we need to rely on the cut points to get more tangible estimates of how many respondents are in each category. I used Stata’s margins command to make two different predictions. First, here is the prediction for White males who voted for Trump, lack a college degree, and did not say the Bible is written by men:

Ideology Less Funding Equal Funding More Funding
1 (very liberal) 5.26% 27.06% 67.68%
2 6.20% 30.05% 63.75%
3 7.30% 33.08% 59.62%
4 8.58% 36.07% 55.35%
5 10.05% 38.95% 51.00%
6 11.74% 41.62% 46.64%
7 (very conservative) 13.68% 44.00% 42.32%

Now here are White females who did not vote for Trump, have a college degree, and said the Bible is written by men:

Ideology Less Funding Equal Funding More Funding
1 (very liberal) 2.69% 16.52% 80.79%
2 3.19% 18.88% 77.94%
3 3.77% 21.45% 74.78%
4 4.46% 24.19% 71.35%
5 5.27% 27.09% 67.64%
6 6.21% 30.08% 63.70%
7 (very conservative) 7.31% 33.11% 59.57%

There are definitely some differences based on political ideology and other variables. However, more funding for science and technology has pretty strong support in the abstract.

If people marching today talk about scientific method or process in abstract terms, they should remember that this has fairly broad support. Even conservative Trump voters have relatively warm feelings towards scientists and funding science. Marchers can build off these positive associations. It’s worth noting that even Lamar Smith is trying to draft off the positive associations people have with science. He’s trying to portray himself as a defender of “good science” even as he conducts political witch hunts. (I’ve seen progressives use similar framing to attack conservative scholarship, but they lack subpoena power.)

If marchers accuse Republican voters of being broadly anti-science, they risk alienating voters and making scientists look like a liberal interest group. Right now, most Republican voters do not associate science with liberal interest groups. They may associate a few disciplines with liberal interest groups. I think most sociologists want to strengthen that association. But portraying all Republicans as being anti-science could easily backfire, since this is not how many Republicans see themselves.

Science In the Abstract vs. Environmental Policy

The elephant in the room is that partisans tend to see specific science-related policy choices differently than they see science in the abstract. For example, Lamar Smith can write an op-ed declaring his support for more science funding, then spend most of his time in Congress attacking climate researchers. Voters could feel warmly towards scientists, but still resist vaccination. Prior studies have shown that conservatives with a high amount of scientific knowledge know what the scientific consensus is on climate change, but they refuse to accept it. We may be better off thinking of hostile audiences outside academic like we think of hostile peer reviewers, instead of treating them like people who just need to be informed about science.

With that in mind, I decided to test how much having a college degree and warm feelings towards scientists affect respondents’ views on climate change, after controlling for ideology. For now let’s start with the question “is global warming happening?” 80.8 percent of respondents said global warming has probably been happening, while 19.2 percent said it probably hasn’t been happening. Those were the only options in the ANES. Respondents couldn’t choose a definitive yes or no. Given how pessimistic some of my friends are, I expected to see more “it’s probably not happening” responses. I ran a logit regression to see what predicts a yes. (I know, it’s weird when most people say yes, but I think this makes the direction of coefficients easier to keep straight.)


Reminder: positive regression coefficients here mean support for the more environmentalist position that global warming is probably happening.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that college graduates were not significantly more likely to say global warming is probably happening. One of the biggest surprises here is that there isn’t a straight line between how literally someone takes the Bible and whether they think global warming is happening. People who took a moderate stance on this question of faith were the most likely to say global warming is probably happening, controlling for other variables. It’s easy to think of rational, atheistic science on one side of environmental debates and evangelical faith as the other side. It may be worth thinking more about how to talk to people who are in the middle, trying to balance the warnings of modern science with the teachings of their religious faith.

As we might expect, political ideology is the biggest predictor of whether someone says global warming is probably happening. Even after controlling for some variables that predict political ideology and whether someone voted for Trump, political identity and behavior appear to have a strong correlation with someone’s belief in whether global warming is a real phenomenon. (Full disclosure: this is a bit of a statistical dodge in the causal argument since “do you think global warming is happening?” came from the pre-election wave of the ANES.) Here are predicted probabilities for saying global warming is real, based on who someone voted for and their political ideologies:

Ideology Trump Voter Other Voter
1 (very liberal) 91.34% 97.46%
2 87.96% 96.35%
3 83.52% 94.78%
4 77.91% 92.62%
5 71.09% 89.66%
6 63.20% 85.74%
7 (very conservative) 54.56% 80.68%

What Causes Global Warming?

Finally, let’s take a look at the follow-up question: “do you think a rise in the world’s temperatures would be caused mostly by human activity, natural causes, or about equally human activity and natural causes?” People who had said they don’t believe the earth is warming were asked to assume it is for this follow-up question. (They were overwhelmingly willing to give an answer instead of refusing to answer.) 38.8 percent said mostly human activity, 18.2 percent said mostly natural causes, and 43 percent said the two were roughly equal.

I re-ordered the responses for an ordered logit model. In this model, positive regression coefficients mean a respondent moves closer to saying climate change is mostly caused by human activity.


There is a whole lot to talk about here. Let’s start with the biggest coefficient. People who said global warming is probably happening were much more likely to say human activity is causing global warming. It may seem so obvious that these go together that treating one variable as a cause and the other as an effect is a bit weird. Normally I would agree. However, these questions come one after the other. This gives us a good transition to talk about how to persuade people. Scholars tend to agree that it’s hard to change someone’s mind once they are dead set on an issue. It’s easier to get someone to form new associations about an issue than directly countering their position. It’s even easier to prompt people by reminding them of something they know. Most people know the Earth is getting warmer. Reminding them of this may make it easier to associate certain human activity with rising temperatures.

Most of the other variables operate like we’d expect. Older respondents, males and African Americans were all closer to the “mostly natural causes” side. People who gave the secular answer “the Bible was written by men” were a bit more likely to say humans are also responsible for climate change. However, college graduates were not significantly more likely to say this, after controlling for other variables. Respondents’ feelings of warmth towards scientists barely made a dent in what they thought about climate change.

In many ways, positions on climate change appear to be a way that respondents express their political identity. I think this actually makes a lot of sense. Let’s assume we all want to secure freedom, prosperity and happiness for ourselves and our children. That’s a really big goal. It’s also a really hard goal. How do we get there? If the world provided one clear answer that stood head and shoulders above the rest, we’d all flock to it. However, human behavior is far too complex and unpredictable. When people have broad goals and don’t really know how to achieve them, they tend to adopt various rituals.

Moving away from fossil fuels could have a major impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Large sections of America take commuting by car for granted. Cutting back on cars could mean massive changes in when people work and how much time we can spend with loved ones. Some people would lose jobs. Others would find better jobs. Cutting back on things like air conditioning could have a serious impact on Americans’ quality of life. Of course, so could rising oceans and unpredictable freakish weather.

When I look at these results, I can’t help but wonder if people say the climate is not changing or human activity doesn’t cause climate change because they are terrified of having to change their daily routines. I can sympathize with that. Change is hard. All of us who have had to make some change in our personal or professional lives know how hard change can be. It’s not surprising that people who don’t want to change their behavior on the environment would flock towards conservatism, particularly the nostalgic sloganeering of “Make America Great Again.”

I understand why people get so angry at climate change deniers, but I can’t quite tap in to that anger myself. The stakes are too high. If talking to people about their fears gets them to understand how anxiety leads to poor decisions, that’s better for the environment than any yelling or screaming we are capable of.


Why Shoot the Objective Messenger?

Donald Trump continues to frustrate progressives. His latest offense is tweeting out a meme over the weekend calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Trump’s graphic appears to have been copied from a white supremacist message board. Mic.com has consistently pursued the links between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups since November, when Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistics Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most whites and most blacks are killed by blacks. A wide range of news organizations criticized Trump’s November tweet, pointing out that there is no “Crime Statistics Bureau” and that most homicides with a white victim also have a white killer. Many pundits on the left expect a more vigorous media response to Trump’s latest tweets:

Carlos Meza is a research fellow at Media Matters for America, the largest think tank specializing in progressive media criticism. This type of argument dates back to the Vietnam War. Anti-war protesters wanted to get in the news in the first place (initial coverage excluded them). Then they wanted the media to avoid “taking both sides” and take an explicit anti-war stance. For 50 years there have been progressives who want media organizations to take an explicit moral stand with the left. I read a lot of these critiques in graduate school, dating back to Todd Gitlin’s relatively sympathetic take on Students for a Democratic Society. The argument hasn’t really changed over the years. Progressive critics always say news organizations care too much about money when they should be using their platforms to take moral stands.

Critics like Meza don’t spend as much time thinking about what would happen if mainstream media organizations all embraced progressive moral stances when reporting the news. What would happen if the media emphasized “combatting open bigotry” instead of “impartiality and balance”? How much could media organizations actually do here? Meza argued any media organization that takes both sides instead of taking a moral stance against Trump is “aiding and abetting evil.” Ironically, I was already working on a post explaining why it doesn’t make sense for most mainstream media organizations to take these stances before this weekend. The short answer is people don’t know why media organizations make particular choices, so they apply their political bias to interpret any news report. A media organization’s claiming that “TRUMP IS A BIGOT” won’t convince people who don’t already believe Trump is a bigot. It will only label the media organization as left-wing and make the accusation of bigotry more ideological. The full answer is much longer and explains why Trump can get so much media attention in the first place.

Connecting the Dots

Before getting in to the weeds of how media organizations work, it helps to review the research of former UCLA sociologist Harold Garfinkel. He wanted to see how people made sense and maintained order in everyday life. He intentionally provoked unsuspecting people in order to see how people made sense of things and what they took for granted. He would erase your circle and draw an X through it in tic-tac-toe. He had students try to barter for the price of their groceries and interrogate bus drivers about how we could be absolutely sure the bus was going where the driver said it was going. Tic-tac-toe makes for a funny game in the classroom, but most of these experiments outraged people. (I’m obligated to warn you not to try this at home…unless you want to mess with a telemarketer.)

My favorite of Garfinkel’s “breaching” experiments actually took place in a laboratory. Participants were allowed to ask 10 yes or no questions and get replies from a social psychology professor (presumably Garfinkel) in the next room. All the participant had to do is write down what they thought about each response before asking the next question. One after another, people asked deeply personal questions and explained how the answers made sense. However, the “expert” in the next room was just someone flipping a coin and then saying “yes” or “no” in to the microphone. The answer was completely random, but the research subjects accepted the validity of the answers. More importantly, they wrote elaborate stories to justify the response.

Sports fans know that people tend to tell bad stories when they start with an end result and then work back to discuss process, despite all the data available in sports. Let’s imagine every time Derek Jeter bats is like rolling a 20 sided die, and he gets a hit on 1-6. Random coincidence could lead him to keep rolling low numbers in big at bats – and a 30 percent chance of success isn’t that rare. However, luck and coincidence make for terribly unsatisfying stories. Sports fans are like the people in Garfinkel’s experiment. Did this team win? It’s a yes or no question. Most fans start with the final answer, then have to come up with a story of why this happened. That’s how some athletes get labeled as “clutch” and others as “chokers.” The label is usually based on winning and losing, not direct knowledge of the athlete’s decision-making and whether he made good decisions.

Why Can’t We See How Journalists Make Decisions?

I started with sports because we can objectively measure athletes’ performance, look at how many championships they won, and still tell awful stories connecting the process to the result. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t see every play that went in to the progress of the playoffs or the regular season. That’s what it is usually like when we try to explain news coverage. Most social scientists don’t even try to compare the starting point of news events to the final story (or lack of a story). You can get published in the top sociology journal just by looking at a collection of final news stories and then proposing a story about why those news stories would have one set of themes instead of another. Why is it so hard to study the process of writing news more directly and systematically? Once we understand this, it will be much easier to understand why news organizations may not want to take explicitly moral stances against Trump or anyone else.

1) What counts as “news”?

When I taught undergraduates about the newsgathering process, I always started by asking them what counts as news. You may not be a journalist, but you can easily play along. What kinds of things would you post on social media? What do you want to read? Even when I taught a small class of under 20 people this fall, we quickly realized that no one would have identical rankings of potential news stories. Every newsroom I have worked at could get in to the same arguments. When Gaye Tuchman wrote one of the classic ethnographic studies of newsrooms in the 1970s, she found newsworthiness was the hardest thing for journalists to define. Even professionals use a “know it when I see it” philosophy to assess newsworthiness.

2) Content producers need heuristics

Let’s imagine you were working at a newspaper. Maybe it would be more appropriate to imagine you are writing your own blog like I am right now. You want to make sure you keep producing the best stories for your audience, so you keep searching for new stories and eliminating possibilities. How much do you write? The answer is nothing! The rate of new things happening in the world is faster than the rate at which we can eliminate possibilities. Even if we are writing our own blogs and don’t have to argue with anyone, deliberation takes time. The only way to get anything written is to limit your search and say “I’m going to write about the most interesting thing I can find by a certain time.”

Journalists use a wide number of heuristics to manage the influx of potential stories – and most partisan sites seem to use similar heuristics. One of the main heuristics is to sit down and write a list of who is most likely to provide news stories, then assign reporters to check in with these sources on a regular basis. Planning events in advance lets journalists know “if I show up at a particular place and time, I can produce a story.” Reporters may not be able to verify if a source is telling the truth, so they default to trusting officials because they should have legitimate knowledge to information (Fishman 1980 holds up surprisingly well).

3) Everyone has incentives to hide the process

When we read a final news story, we don’t know if the reporter spoke to any press flacks to arrange an interview. We don’t know if anything was said off the record to explain the goals of the story, limit the scope of questions, or ensure a story is published at a particular time. When reporters selectively quote from interviews, we don’t know what was left on the cutting room floor. If reporters summarize what someone said and what they meant, we don’t know if the reporter understood correctly. (Most complaints about misquoting are really complaints about misunderstanding the intent of a statement.)

It’s probably easiest to understand why journalists don’t want to show the full process. They appear to have a lot of freedom. When reporters really have a lot of options, they don’t want to be second-guessed. Remember that Meza works full time at Media Matters, a think tank founded to second-guess journalists. When reporters have limited ability to search for stories before deadline or can’t get access to desirable stories, they want to hide their failure. When in doubt, reporters rely on official sources, but they want to hide an overly cozy relationship. The news organization that opens itself up to second-guessing may lose its audience to a tight-lipped competitor.

Everyone else involved in the news process also has incentives to hide the process and just focus on the final result. Audience members don’t want to sift through the reject pile every day – we have other things to do with our lives! If a source spoke off the record to attract news coverage or coordinate an interview, they would want to hide the friendly relationship. It looks better if the politician’s event is really the most important news of the day instead of merely being the easiest story to find. (Donald Trump’s media deluge is going to be much easier to understand by the time we’re done.) Sources who don’t know how to catch journalists’ attention or who say really embarrassing things in their interview may not want to explain how they were stupid.

News Stories Aren’t Enough

We know that news stories do not emerge from some alternative dimension. When we only see the final story in the newspaper, on television or online, it may not be completely satisfying. We want to be able to tell our own story of how reporters did their job. Trump coverage is a great example. If a news organization doesn’t call Trump a bigot, many progressives will be outraged. Meza and the thousands who liked or retweeted him need a story of why the media covered Trump neutrally.

Since reporters don’t want to tell us how they make decisions, we need to construct a myth from somewhere. We know people have likes and dislikes. We know news coverage emphasizes certain things more than others. Therefore, it is very simple to infer that reporters emphasize the things they like and ignore the things they dislike. Meza engaged in a very simple form of this, asserting that journalists inherently like objectivity and neutrality. Tuchman argued objectivity is more strategic. It’s a way to minimize the number of people who are outraged like Meza is.

When I studied press conferences I found the president got three out of every four quoted words in the New York Times the next day. Shorter stories about press conferences only had one source: the president. When journalists told longer stories they added more sources to give reactions. You probably didn’t realize that. I didn’t realize it until I did the study. A certain kind of news story can be mathematically unbalanced for decades and people won’t notice. When I presented these findings most audiences were stunned. Then they got angry. It helped me realize that people aren’t used to thinking about balance or imbalance in the news as some formal mathematical property. My audience mainly thought about how news gets produced when they see a story they don’t like! This is when people need to create some sort of myth to explain why the media isn’t giving what they want.

Let’s Trust the…Politicians?

The only people with a real incentive to talk about how reporters search for and write up news stories are the people who feel screwed over by the process. Let’s say someone was left out of the news. They could complain about censorship and say the press was playing favorites. Reporters don’t want to share “here are the sources who are in my top tier, second tier, etc.” Now let’s say someone is getting negative coverage. Pick any presidential candidate from 2016. They have all made mistakes and gotten negative coverage as a result. Why is the press focusing on this one negative story instead of other positive stories? Candidates have complained about an overly negative press for 50 years. It’s a claim that news organizations have never really been able to deflect. We know reporters choose a few stories from a wider set of potential stories. Reporters want to hide the process and their own political preferences. Now that I am no longer a news reporter I can say there was little correlation between whether someone was a good source and whether I personally agreed with their politics.

There’s something very unusual in how we think about political bias in the news. Politicians sell a myth that the media is biased and there are always better stories (about them) for reporters to focus on. We believe the politicians! After all, what possible reason could someone have to lie when asking for our vote? It’s absurd to think about how many people buy in to politicians’ myth of how news gets created by biased reporters. This shows how unsatisfying reporters’ claims of expert news judgment are. We want to tell some myth or origin story of how those news stories are created and why they favor some people or topics instead of others. Politicians may be extraordinarily self-serving, but they are the main group offering an explanation. Activists like Meza – who want to fundamentally change media organizations – are the other group offering explanations.

How Does This Help Us Explain the Trump Show?

Donald Trump announced he was running for president a year ago. He has dominated the airwaves since. We probably haven’t seen such a dramatic imbalance in how much coverage one candidate got relative to others in his party’s primary. A few months before Trump announced, I predicted someone who ran a campaign based on social identity would get considerable media attention. However, Trump’s media strategy has gone beyond what I predicted. He emphasizes getting a large volume of coverage like no candidate before him. He speaks almost entirely in feelings, often subverting the entire premise of a “fact check.” I think Trump’s strategy takes full advantage of an audience that needs to manufacture coherent stories to explain patterns in news coverage and a press that refuses to tell this story themselves.

Conventional Wisdom: Avoid Gaffes

Before going in to Trump’s strategy in more detail, it is important to know how over the last 35 years political communication has gotten more professional and strategic. One of the main lessons for these strategists is to minimize gaffes. Politicians hold a lot of choreographed media events and photo ops. They may try to answer the question they wish they were asked instead of the question they were actually asked. Strategists probably don’t think they can completely bowl reporters over with these strategies. Any veteran reporter will recognize the manipulation at work. But they can’t stop it. The goal of these strategies isn’t to make a big impression. It is to limit the number of things a reporter has to choose from.

A good metaphor is a college football team that schedules Directional State University and Small School Tech to try and inflate its won-loss record. Large college football teams can essentially buy wins. Some teams also play in much more challenging leagues than others. A good team with a weak schedule may only have 2 or 3 games out of 12 that they have any real risk of losing. When most fans saw 13-0 Florida State in the first year of the college football playoff, they saw a great champion instead of a team that barely beat a number of teams in on a weak schedule. Florida State lost badly once they faced high quality competition in the playoff. Last year people were fooled again, this time by Big 10 champion Michigan State and runner up Iowa in the Rose Bowl. People saw college football teams that won a lot of games and told themselves a story that these teams were among the best in the country. They didn’t bother to check how these teams won and whether the process was solid.

Most politicians try to win our confidence with the same principle. They want to accumulate positive story after positive story mainly by limiting the pool of information that reporters have to pick from so there are only positive stories left. They try to avoid unscripted events that may give genuine moments that could inspire the audience, because these events could go badly. College football fans look the other way when a team from their conference benefits from an easy schedule. Partisan audiences do the same thing in politics. We want to see the other candidates go through the ringer and get beat up, but we assume our favorite candidate went through a much tougher schedule than they actually did. Clinton and Sanders were actually fairly nice to each other, compared to Obama v. Clinton in 2008.

Trump’s Casino Approach

Donald Trump doesn’t exactly come across as someone following the “avoid gaffes” conventional wisdom. He’s using a different strategy: try to be the lead story every day and accept some negative headlines rather than go a news cycle without being the top story. Flooding the airwaves is also a kind of gaffe deflection strategy. Most candidates try to avoid gaffes because they think one critical mistake could fester and sink a campaign. Trump tries to keep one gaffe from defining him by creating a new headline. Changing the story is an old public relations strategy. Most politicians try to use it to prevent negative stories, while businesses tend to use it after a scandal has happened. Trump is more than willing to give a new story about his campaign to distract from a gaffe, even if the new story is also negative.

If news organizations give media coverage based on whether a politicians has said something that will help the readers decide whether or not to vote for that candidate, then Trump has certainly earned the media attention he is getting. We expect certain things out of a generic Republican or generic Democrat. If a Republican says “Obama did a bad job” is that news? Republicans have been saying that non-stop for eight years. Regulation bad, free markets good is another very generic Republican position. Trump attracted attention by saying things that were well outside the Republican mainstream. He was more strident in disparaging Mexican immigrants. Trump also attacked mainstream Republicans, claiming they were too dependent on the Koch brothers and other big money Republican donors. Any member of a political party who criticizes their own party gets considerably more media attention (Groeling 2010). Sanders also got attention for attacking the Democratic National Committee. What makes Trump unique is his near exclusive reliance on a large number of news media appearances and social media messages instead of a balanced strategy including on-the-ground campaign staff or advertising.

Casinos tilt the odds so after enough games the house always wins. Trump has stacked the deck too. Whether it is intuition or calculation, Trump has a tremendous sense of what people will consider newsworthy. This doesn’t mean people agree with what Trump has to say. All it means is Trump can monopolize media attention. If people like Trump’s message, all the free media brings voters. If people don’t like Trump’s message, they may act like Meza and blame the media for giving Trump so much attention. People who don’t want to be subjected to the Trump show need some explanation for why so many media organizations pursue it. Maybe the media is politically biased. Maybe they emphasize Trump because Trump brings ratings and pageviews. The more voters question news organizations’ judgment, the more it helps Trump. Either way, Trump can get an advantage from dominating the headlines every day.

The other unusual thing about Trump’s campaign is his willingness to invent or ignore facts. Most politicians are afraid of saying something factually untrue. Reporters could run a “fact check” and embarrass the politician. Trump makes so many things up that the Associated Press used 10 fact checkers to review a speech on June 22. I don’t think Trump cares about fact checks because he is not trying to combine rational facts with emotional appeals. Trump’s campaign is entirely emotional. To borrow from Stephen Colbert, truth simply doesn’t appear to be a part of Trump’s message; Trump’s message is all about truthiness.

Truthiness Meets Hidden Journalistic Practices

Because journalists do not share every step of how they choose one news story and one angle over another, they have always required the audience to fill in gaps about who is credible. Everything a reporter shares about how they establish priorities is a gap people could use to undermine a reporter’s credibility. That’s why reporters use facts as supporting evidence as much as possible. When they don’t have facts, they use quotes and put someone’s claims in quotation marks. Most politicians and interest groups give some evidence to back their claims. We take it for granted that people will use some evidence. Trump doesn’t use facts as supporting evidence. There’s nothing to “fact check.” Audiences have to decide for themselves if Trump’s claims about America and policy proscriptions feel true, racist or fascist. Meza is the latest in a long line of progressive activists who do not trust the audience to reach the “right” conclusion without a massive shove from the media. Bigotry must be actively combatted. Journalists cannot be neutral. In his view, presenting both sides helps a bigot so much that it is “aiding and abetting evil.” (Has Meza linked to supporting evidence himself since I wrote this?)

Veteran reporters know it doesn’t matter how much you try to shove the audience to a particular position, they are still going to create myths to explain why a journalist took a particular stance or covered a particular story. When reporters actually offer an explanation it is often fuel for these hostile myths. That’s why reporters don’t accuse someone of lying without documented evidence. The accusation doesn’t make someone any less credible without proof. Let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper stood up and screamed “You are a racist!” when interviewing Trump a few weeks ago about the judge in the Trump University case. (In case you forgot, Trump cited the judge’s “Mexican heritage” as the reason for not dismissing the lawsuit.) I assume this would make a critic like Meza happy. I think this is what he wants Tapper and other journalists to do. But Meza already agrees with the assertion that Trump is a racist.

If people weren’t convinced Trump is a racist after that interview, there’s nothing that Tapper can say to change this. People tell myths about reporters’ ideologies and biases even when they have nothing to go on besides the final news story. These myths are mainly ways to discount news stories that don’t fit our political preferences. If Tapper took an explicit anti-Trump stance, he would just make it much easier for people to discount him as an ideologue. Just think about partisan media organizations for a moment. How much are they trying to actively persuade neutrals or the other side? Most of the content is giving true believers hot takes that make them feel good. If you really want to persuade people, you have to give them enough rope so then they can decide for themselves that they want to change their mind.

Ironically, the fear that media organizations are “legitimizing” Trump appear to be unfounded. Every public opinion poll has found many more Americans disapprove of Trump than approve of him. Trump’s favorability hit a record low of 29 percent in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll and has hovered in the low 30s in other polls. More than half of those polled in both the ABC/WaPo poll and a separate Bloomberg poll have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump. People can decide for themselves how they feel about Donald Trump without objective media organizations explicitly calling Trump a bigot or a fascist or something else. A wise progressive may conclude it’s better to present Trump in his own words and let the audience conclude he is a bigot than to add explicit condemnation, which could make it seem like a biased media is out to get Trump.

If you ask people “is the news media doing a good job?” most of them will say no. They read news stories, but most news stories just don’t give readers what they want to feel. Objective media is defined by stoic attempts to distance reporters’ feelings from their narratives. Partisan media is defined by outrage. If you want something else from the media, you are probably out of luck. We need some narrative to explain why the media doesn’t give us what we want. These narratives always ascribe motivations and preferences to the media while leaving out sources. People blame the news organizations for covering Trump so much. It doesn’t matter that objective, “both sides” media coverage is leading a majority of Americans to have a strongly negative view of Trump.

What Is News?

I went to grad school to research what counts as news. How do people make these decisions? I never set out to do a breaching experiment. But when I proposed that sources may have power over journalists – and this could be quantified – I broke several of sociology’s norms. I didn’t automatically buy in to any of the common myths that ascribed motivations or bias to journalists. I wanted to empirically test these theories, to the degree that these theories were testable and a regression analysis can test any theory.

After my fourth year of graduate school I was mocked for being the only person at the media sociology panel who wanted panelists to say something about their methods instead of skipping to the data. Each panelist described a different role for sources in their study. I asked them to speak more directly about the role of sources during the Q&A. I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone – I only ask questions at talks that I think the speaker can reasonable answer. Three of the panelists froze and the fourth tried to hide under the table! I made the mistake of emphasizing sources and strategy at a time when my peers turned to critics like Meza to fuel their echo chamber.

Like I said earlier, veteran reporters know at a certain point they have to trust their audience because there is nothing more they can say to sway their audience. I think I’ve reached that point with my blog. Unfortunately, offering factual information to support claims of how journalists make decisions is harder than finding factual information on nearly any other topic. One of the things I taught my students when teaching research methods is that people can always find a way to discount research if they want to – and some people are highly motivated to discount research about news.

I’m not going to delete this blog. I could always bring it back at some point. But after a decade of banging my head against the wall I need a break.

#NAACPBombing is A Better Story for Twitter

Two days ago, a homemade explosive blew up outside the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Fortunately, no one was reported injured and the building only suffered minor damage. Unfortunately, the story has received relatively little attention in traditional media outlets. Within a day, many online activists noticed the discrepancy between mainstream media coverage and their own Twitter feeds:

At a time when many activists rally around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter, it is easy to see the lack of mainstream media attention as another large, establishment institution that does not care about black lives or black institutions quite as much as other potential victims of violence and oppression. I would expect race to play a subtle role in how the bombing is portrayed in news coverage, since profound biases in the portrayal of minority criminal suspects may carry over. For example, The Daily Dot argued the following:

“The FBI’s primary suspect is a balding white male who looks about 40 years old. Curiously, major outlets like CNN neglect to mention the suspect’s race despite police providing that information.” (Editor’s note: CNN has subsequently undated their story and now provides more of a description than The Daily Dot.)

However, it is unlikely that race would lead to a decrease in news coverage of this event. Race and race relations are highly salient as national issues. Would you expect the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado to get more attention now, or in January 2014? I’d expect more attention now, after months of protesting around the country and the continued salience of #BlackLivesMatter. What are some other explanations for why this story would spread more quickly through activists’ networks on Twitter than mainstream media organizations?

1) No injuries, no deaths. There’s a long standing mantra for news organizations that “it bleeds, it leads.” Of course, this is an over-simplification. When I worked in local television news, the only story explicitly pushed to the beginning of the newscast for ratings potential was a major storm. The general principle still applies here. Injury and death is even more of a shock than a bombing with no injuries. Shock draws attention. For some people, the bombing of an NAACP office will be very shocking, even without injuries. Twitter may be a better place for people to share these emotions than traditional media organizations.

2) Official sources did not immediately or loudly declare the bombing an attempt to blow up the NAACP office. As far as I can tell, neither the NAACP chapter or the FBI held a press conference to get every national reporter who may want to cover the story on the same page. Newsweek reported that NAACP chapter president Henry Allen Jr. was initially “hesitant” to call the bombing a hate crime. Meanwhile, CNN published the quote that Allen Jr. gave to local CBS station CNDC:

“We don’t give up the struggle. Apparently, we’re doing something correct. Apparently, we have gotten someone’s attention that we are working toward civil rights for all. That is making some people uncomfortable.”

While he is still waiting for the FBI to confirm that his office was the intended target of the blast, the Denver office of the NAACP wasted no time in calling the attack a hate crime. They issued the following statement: “This is proof that racism is still alive and reared its ugly head in the form of this cowardly act. Regardless of the actions of others, we will continue to fight for the equality of all people.”

There are two separate issues here. First, notice how people at the scene were more restrained about saying what happened. They did not immediately declare the attack a hate crime. Second, every news organization has a slightly different account of what happened. If you want every news organization to start telling the same story, get everyone in a room or on a conference call. Tell every reporter the same story at the same time. Make it easy for national reporters to write about what happened, instead of having to rely on interviews with local TV stations.

3) Traditional news organizations may not have as much to say right away. If you wanted to describe the basic facts of what happened to someone who didn’t know what happened you could tweet, “Bombing outside NAACP office in Colorado” That is as long as a basic tweet of what happened should be. It’s only 42 characters. Even with Twitter’s constraint of 140 characters, anyone could add additional facts, feelings and reactions to their tweet. People would have even more space once basic awareness of the bombing and a hashtag #NAACPBombing emerges. Let’s look at what traditional news organizations could add in updates:

  • Was the NAACP the intended target? Maybe. Probably. But if a traditional reporter publishes this as fact before the FBI confirms it, the reporter has broken professional ethics and could be in trouble.
  • Motive of the bomber? Well, no one has identified the bomber. Even if the reporter is thinking “duh, this is a racist hate crime” he or she can’t put that in print without a specific statement or written manifesto to use as evidence.
  • Victimization? Reporters can quote people in the NAACP chapter, but the chapter president was relatively restrained.
  • Witnesses? Yes, if you can find them. This will be more challenging than it seems, since Colorado Springs is somewhat remote geographically.
  • Outrage? Not for a “mainstream” news organization. Even if the reporter is personally outraged by the bombing, mainstream news organizations operate under a strong principle of distancing themselves from any opinion presented in their stories.
  • Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.

There’s deceptively little for mainstream journalists to add to the story while working in the format of mainstream journalism. News organizations probably do not want to cover the story unless they could add something to the 42 characters I wrote earlier. With nothing new to add, it is better to rely on republishing the Associated Press wire than to show limited journalism.

4) The constraints on traditional reporters are not applicable to other Twitter users

As I just said, traditional reporters are penalized if they don’t have anything to add to the 42 characters explaining the bombing of the NAACP office. Twitter rewards users for repeating the same phrase, particularly when it gets shortened to a single hashtag #NAACPBombing. Now let’s look at the things Twitter users could add:

  • Was the NAACP the intended target? Twitter users can more easily rely on common sense to conclude yes. The standard of proof is much lower, since Twitter users suffer few if any consequences if it turns out they were wrong. This makes it easier for people to tweet about #NAACPBombing, but it also enables much of the abusive behavior we see on Twitter.
  • Motive of the bomber? Again, Twitter users can use common sense and their life experiences to draw inferences and publish them, without waiting on official sources.
  • Victimization? Twitter users can directly sympathize with an attack against an office of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, in their own words.
  • Witnesses? A few tweeted themselves.
  • Outrage? YES! Hashtags are ideal for uniting people in solidarity and collective outrage.
  • Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.

In situations like this, activists are quick to argue that the media has dropped the ball. To a certain degree this is true. At the same time, it is important for all of us as media consumers to think about what kinds of content we want to read and produce after events like the #NAACPBombing. How much do we want someone to provide us with the facts and only the facts? How much do we want additional emotions of shock, solidarity and shared outrage?

I imagine different people reading this post will want different things. Some people will want heavily fact-based reporting, so they can form their own reactions. Some people will want more of an emotional first-person narrative to help put their reactions in to words. One advantage of the massive increase in online publications is that audiences can increasingly pick and choose how much emotion they want in the description of current events. Some stories will spread more quickly through restrained professional journalists, while others are better suited to spread via the emotional valence that readers identify with.

Three Dimensional Election Coverage

It shouldn’t be a surprise that my postings have dropped off recently, given the demands of my work schedule, but I wanted to write a special pre-election post to discuss a few trends in people writing about campaigns.

A recent article by Thomas Gilbert and Andrew Loveridge questions the increasing trend to try and predict the upcoming election. While quantitative analysts like Nate Silver may make better predictions than other pundits, Gilbert and Loveridge argue the very act of making predictions is the wrong goal for journalism:

“The real problem with our media wasn’t that it was bad at predicting elections (although it was)—it’s that it spends so much time on predicting elections at all, as opposed to moderating and shaping a national debate on what is at stake at the ballot box. Statisticians like Silver have helped eliminate bias when it comes to election prognostication, but there hasn’t been a similar commitment to eliminating the bias of spurious political narratives peddled by major media outlets. This leaves data journalism in the unfortunate position of helping to predict our electoral choices without evaluating their significance and pointing to alternatives.” (emphasis added)

This criticism of Silver is not new or surprising. Silver himself told New York Magazine “we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.” When Silver reintroduced FiveThirtyEight under ESPN, he provided the following template for mapping different forms of journalism:


You will notice that “advocacy” is not a part of Silver’s 2×2 table. It is out of bounds, completely separate from journalism. Gilbert and Loveridge argue that this is a problem with “big data.” While “big data” is an increasingly common boogeyman, it is not the quantitative approach of data journalism that causes a problem. Traditional punditry isn’t their answer. Neither is ethnography or some other rigorous qualitative approach to studying voter behavior. Instead, Gilbert and Loveridge are part of a long line of scholars who argue against the goals of most American political journalism:

“Nate Silver should not be lumped together with Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck as an enemy of civic engagement; he lives and operates in a social reality very close to our own. But he does have one thing in common with them: persuading people into perceiving politics through the aesthetic coherence of his models at the expense of their own political imaginations. This is the danger inherent in Big Data qua ideology, rather than a tool in the service of inquiry.”

I would argue that Nate Silver’s 2×2 table needs a third axis: analytic vs. advocacy. Silver and many other data-intensive analytic approaches are dedicated first and foremost to trying to understand what people do and why they do it. Prediction is on an extreme end of the analytic spectrum, because it assumes prior behavior will help us to understand future behavior to some degree. But there is another extreme to data journalism and many forms of academic scholarship: it is non-judgmental. Nate Silver has political preferences, but he tries to keep them out of his analyses.

The advocacy axis has grown by leaps and bounds in an era of digital publication. There are plenty of websites you could go to that will outline the stakes of an election, who to vote for, and the dire consequences if you even think about voting the wrong way. Some of these sites provide valuable inquiry and allow for a broader range of political opinions than we would see in any form of journalism, whether it is data journalism or traditional punditry. Of course, there are a large number of problems with these sites, particularly if people rely on them as their main source of information.

Big data may be new, but picking on journalists for being too far on the “analytic/descriptive” axis instead of the “advocacy/take a stand” axis is not. Progressive academics have critiqued mainstream media for being “empty” or “inadequate” without some form of advocacy since the Vietnam War, when critical scholars wanted news organizations to take an active anti-war stance instead of describing policymakers’ positions on war. Gilbert and Loveridge’s ideal would seem to be a combination of advocacy, rigor and either quantitative or mixed methods. It’s certainly an intriguing box. It seems preferable to other advocacy-based political writing, which is ad hoc and full of ad hominem attacks.

Unfortunately, the box seems impossible to fill. Trying to explain what people do and why they do it is the main goal for an analytic writer. Whether the writing is quantitative or qualitative, descriptive or causal, the goal is to understand what others are doing instead of judging those decisions. In most forms of advocacy writing, the goal is ultimately to sway people to do something else. These pieces can have a comparative advantage in introducing new ideas to a political debate, something that more analytic political writing is particularly bad at. More thoughtful forms of political advocacy that do not quickly devolve in to tribal allegiances could be a tremendously valuable part of political participation. However, it doesn’t make sense to try and push data journalism (or social scientific big data) into this advocacy box, because the goals and strengths do not overlap.

#Ferguson on Twitter and Facebook

Following the events unfolding in Ferguson last night was surreal for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we do not expect to see police forces in the United States using tear gas to break up a peaceful protest or imprisoning journalists. We don’t expect to see American police killing a member of the community and then failing to provide an adequate explanation. (Unfortunately, Michael Brown is not the only person killed by police this week. We normally think of security forces killing innocent people and repressing any member of the community who demands an explanation as something that happens in the Middle East, not in the middle of the United States.

Outrage filled my Twitter feed last night, in a way that it had not over the past weekend. I follow a mixture of political journalists, academics and sports writers. It’s a clear sign that an event has crossed over from one group to the broader consciousness of people who follow current events when all three of these groups are tweeting about the same thing. All the eyes of my Twitter feed were on #Ferguson last night, and I was too. However, many of us who followed the story via Twitter were shocked to go on Facebook. No one else seemed to be posting about Ferguson! I can only speak to what I saw on my News Feed, but a lot of people have the same impression. We know that the number of tweets tagged with #Ferguson spiked last night.


However, we don’t know what Facebook users were doing as an aggregate group. Facebook keeps that information proprietary. All we know is that we did not personally see a large volume of Ferguson posts on our personal Facebook “News Feed,” even though we saw a large volume of tweets about Ferguson.

Why is it worrying that Ferguson didn’t spike on Facebook?

When I started writing this post, I was solely thinking of the question of why news about #Ferguson and last night’s protests would spread differently on Twitter as opposed to Facebook. However, I want to highlight an article Zeynep Tufecki posted on Medium earlier today. Tufecki reminds us that our ability to discuss the events in Ferguson and have some clue about what’s going on there is dependent on having considerable freedoms of net neutrality. Many of us focus on net neutrality as either direct censorship (as seen in other parts of the world) or the idea of having an Internet “fast lane” (which would end up discriminating against a wide swath of ideas and innovative startups who cannot buy their way in to the fast lane.) Tufecki argues the use of various algorithms to determine content is another layer separating users from a truly neutral internet experience:

Algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.

Tufecki relies on a comparison between Twitter and Facebook to explain the concept of “algorithmic filtering” and why it could be particularly threatening in this case. Twitter does not filter individual posts. It provides them all, in chronological order. However, Twitter’s list of what’s “trending” rewards spikes, which would penalize #Ferguson as a trending hashtag. Tufecki points out how this was absurd given what people were tweeting about, but Twitter’s algorithms are not as concerning as Facebook:

“No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed.

This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.

But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”

Tufecki’s argument could be rejected by looking at our “News Feeds,” but it cannot be definitively “proven” by this method. If we see a large volume of posts on Ferguson, we can probably conclude that Facebook was not censoring them in some way. If we see a low volume of posts on Ferguson at a particular point in time, we cannot definitively say that some form of Facebook censorship is at play. We would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of Facebook censorship, given that Facebook routinely hides around 80 percent of what people post from our “News Feeds.”

Alternatively, if Facebook just wants to attract users and get them to stay engaged by liking or comments on posts, we would expect them to over-emphasize posts on a highly emotional issue like Ferguson. Emotional posts attract more participation. Remember how Facebook experimented on our News Feeds to test this theory? Regardless of whether Facebook looked to specifically alter the frequency at which posts on Ferguson would appear in users News Feeds, it seems foolish to rely on Facebook for sharing information about breaking news. Friends don’t let friends get all their news from an organization that hides 80 percent of posts. We should encourage people to try and rely on as few algorithms as possible when searching for news, particularly when none of us can fully explain how those algorithms work.

So why didn’t #Ferguson show up much on my Facebook feed last night?

As much as we should be concerned about Facebook – even if they don’t have any specific bad intentions here – Facebook’s algorithm may not be the best explanation for why we didn’t see many Facebook posts about Ferguson last night. I cross-posted most of my messages so they would appear on both Twitter and Facebook. I have relatively low overlap between by contacts on the two platforms. I know a lot of my friends who I would interact with face-to-face on a regular basis use Facebook but do not use Twitter. As we might expect, friends on Twitter (or Twitter and Facebook) re-tweeted me before friends on Facebook hit the like or comment button.

On the other hand, most of my cross-posted messages got one or two likes/comments on Facebook last night. This gives me some anecdotal evidence to reject the theory that Facebook was de-emphasizing #Ferguson. Instead, I noticed a different trend. People who interacted with my Facebook posts only did so briefly yesterday, but they were more active this morning. A number of other people who were silent about #Ferguson last night were posting links on Facebook today. While we can’t know for sure how much of a role Facebook’s algorithm played, there is a much simpler explanation for why #Ferguson spiked on Twitter before it showed up much on Facebook.

Twitter is the platform of choice for following breaking news, and the people who primarily use Facebook may also be opting out of following the news closely.

Opting out of following the news closely is easier with today’s media fragmentation, but it is hardly a new concept. Almost 60 years ago, Katz and Lazarsfeld found that most people heard about current events through friends, family and co-workers instead of directly consuming the news. People who watched the news closely and then spread it with others were dubbed “opinion leaders.” For most people, the way they learned about news went something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8.56.44 PM

My current research focuses on who might count as an “opinion leader” in a digital age. There are two primary traits that separate today’s opinion leadership from what Katz and Lazarsfeld found 60 years ago:

  1. Opinion leadership is often done through computer-mediated communication instead of face-to-face personal communication. If someone has vaguely heard a few things about Ferguson or “the black kid who got shot,” then looks at your social media posting and follows it a bit, then congratulations! You are acting like an opinion leader. Most of us have certain people who we know who tend to act as opinion leaders, particularly in a social media service like Facebook where many users do not focus on current events.
  2. Opinion leadership can be a full time position, independent of original news reporting. While sites like The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, leading liberal and conservative blogs do a little original reporting, they could rely on copying other reporters for most of their content.

Once you realize that many people do not want to make the commitment to keep up with breaking news, it is no surprise that Facebook would be a bad place to search for people posting about #Ferguson. The people who want to follow these events closely are all on Twitter. In many ways, the more interesting question is when people do decide to copy political ideas and phrases, who do they decide to copy? Are they copying the New York Times? The Huffington Post? Other bloggers? At the risk of shameless self promotion, I am presenting two different works in progress as a part of the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meetings.

  • Tomorrow (Friday) I am presenting at the Media Sociology Pre-Conference, discussing some of the largely self-created barriers that traditional media elites face when trying to spread political ideas, and why bloggers may prefer copying professional opinion leaders instead.
  • On Monday, I will be presenting at the Computational Social Science and Studying Social Behavior panel during the ASA meetings, with what looks to be an outstanding panel. This talk will focus on how the diffusion of phrases specifically related to social identity (such as the prominence of race running throughout any discussion of #Ferguson) spread differently than phrases focused on other aspects of electoral politics or the military.

Covering the Ambiguity of Police Violence

A police officer gives some sort of instruction to someone who was not a criminal suspect. Maybe he was telling someone to move out of the way or get on the ground. Accounts differ about what happens next. However, everyone acknowledges that the encounter ended when a police officer used physical force. The other person in the incident is either seriously wounded or killed by police.

The shooting of Michael Brown shows how difficult these incidents are for journalists to cover. Witnesses say that Brown had raised his hands over his head to show he was not holding a weapon before he was shot and killed by a police officer in in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. A day later, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that Brown “physically assaulted the police officer.” Since journalists weren’t there, they have to try and assess the credibility of each source. Even if an objective journalist is going to cover both sides, she has to decide which position will be presented first, knowing that this will favor one side or the other. Most journalists started with the one aspect of the incident that is not under debate: Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot to death by a police officer.

Numerous studies have shown that crime coverage is biased against blacks at nearly every stage of a criminal case, so it may seem unusual that Brown would get sympathetic headlines. (See link at the end for teaching tools on racial bias.) However, communication scholar Regina Lawrence argues that the use of force often disrupts the normally cozy relationships between metro news reporters and their police informants. Most news events are planned in advance, which helps the event planner control the story. Breaking crime news is not planned in advance, but police departments keep careful control over what information is shared with the news media. Maintaining control is easy, because criminal suspects do not want to tell journalists their side of the story before availing themselves of the legal system.

Officer-involved violence is different, because police departments trying to portray the use of force as “justified” may have to compete with a wide range of community leaders and activists challenging the police’s use of force as “brutality.” Inner city residents, particularly black and Hispanic residents, may have to live in fear of police violence on a daily basis. After cases of police violence, journalists may become more interested in the experiences of the disenfranchised as a way to represent “both sides” of the issue. Protests like the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter can get widespread attention as a specific protest to the Ferguson shooting, even if they would otherwise be ignored. (More abstractly, journalists deciding an event is newsworthy may create opportunities for additional sources to get in the news, as I found in the case of presidential press conferences.)

It may be natural to look at the proliferation of specialized online media sites and social media and conclude that the balance of power has shifted even more toward activists protesting against police brutality since Lawrence published her book in 2000. However, it is important to remember that the Internet is just a tool. It is up to people to use the Internet to publicize incidents, just as people need to actively solicit attention from traditional media organizations. If we look back to the Trayvon Martin case, it took over a week for that case to get any national media attention. Martin’s family hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump to help publicize the case – and explain the civil rights issues to a national audience – as he pursued a civil case against George Zimmerman. (Crump was retained by the Brown family on Sunday night.)

The biggest difference in media between the Michael Brown shooting, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the various cases Lawrence describes is the presence of several witnesses who argued the shooting was not justified a day before any police agency offered an official justification. Witnesses immediately defined the incident as the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Unlike most incidents, the police had to respond to a dominant narrative told by members of the community. In the last 24 hours, the police response appears to have created enough doubt that CNN posted a story with the headline “What we know about Michael Brown’s shooting” that began with a focus on what reporters do not know:

It’s a case of he said, he said. The accounts of why a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, this weekend couldn’t be more disparate.

One side says the teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.

The trajectory of media coverage regarding this police shooting may be the opposite of other police shootings, where the official statements from police come first and then get called in to question. In this case, it appears to be the accounts of local witnesses and other residents of Ferguson who started the narrative and are now being called in to question. Coverage of community protests has focused on violence, disruption and looting (by people who may not be connected to the protests) instead of the message of the protesters. This is fairly typical of protest coverage.

It will be interesting to see whether this case stays at the forefront of the public consciousness, given the wide range of international crises and yesterday’s shocking death of Robin Williams attracting a large share of audience attention. Activists will need to push nationally, not just locally, to keep this civil rights case in the public eye. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown may be a powerful way to make the case for civil rights and equal treatment, because it also holds journalists accountable for pervasive biases in the images they choose to represent racial minorities who get caught up in the American criminal justice system.

* In my teaching, I found students got a lot out of Travis Dixon’s book chapter “Teaching you to love fear: Television news and racial stereotypes in a punishing democracy. In S. J. Hartnett (Ed.), Challenging the prison Industrial complex: Activism, arts & educational alternatives (pp. 106-123). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.” Dixon summarizes many studies on racial bias in reporting on the news, similar to a review article, but targeted more directly for an undergraduate audience.

Writing Your Own Bad Headlines

On Martin Luther King Day, students at the University of Michigan held a rally to demand various changes at the university, to promote racial diversity and inclusion on campus. First, the demands of the Black Student Union, which organized Monday’s rally:


I initially heard about this story from a few friends with ties to the University of Michigan, but I don’t know enough about student life there to speak about students’ experiences. What struck me, even more than the demands, was the way that this rally and the BSU’s demands were represented in news coverage. Here is the beginning of MLive.com’s coverage (MLive is one of the larger news organizations in Michigan).


The threat of “physical action” is emphasized in both the headline and lead paragraph, while activists’ demands are put later in the story. This type of coverage is entirely predictable. I don’t mean to single out MLive here, since I believe most news organizations would make a similar decision if they decided to cover the BSU rally. For comparison, here is Al Jazeera America’s coverage:

Some members of the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union issued a list of seven demands to college administrators Monday calling for improved racial diversity and inclusion on campus. The participants gave the university seven days to meet their requests before they consider a ‘physical’ form of activism to spur reforms.

In each case, the word “physical” is in quotes. None of the news coverage specifies what “physical action” may entail. Neither does the BSU Twitter feed. Given the way that news organizations tend to cover protests, a vague threat of physical activism may be the worst way to attract attention. Journalists are more likely to cover “disruptive” protests that include some physical destruction of property (Oliver and Maney 2000), but they cover the violence more than the underlying issues being protested. At Michigan, physical action is placed in the lead paragraph, before any activist is quoted to elaborate on their views.

Most of the social movement organization leaders I have met, either as a reporter or in my time as a graduate student, are keenly aware of how protests may be covered. They take great pains to avoid ambiguity and discipline members about what types of “physical action” are counter productive. Monday’s rally at the University of Michigan helps show why. There was no violence. There was no disruption. And yet the threat of disruption is emphasized.

A recurring theme of this blog, so far, has been that word choices matter a great deal in news coverage. The BSU can say what they want at their rally. They can choose to engage with a wide variety of audiences across the world, drawing more attention to the problems on their campus. It’s a tremendous opportunity to control the story. But seizing this opportunity requires thinking critically about the core message and how it will be perceived by others. How do you perceive a student group threatening “physical action” if their demands aren’t met?

It’s an ambiguous phrase, so each of us probably fill in the gaps based on our own experience. I think of UCLA student protesters’ tendency to physically occupy buildings as a symbolic protest. Other student activists may think “by any means necessary.” Journalists usually think disruption is the story, more than the activists’ ideas. A few people may react very negatively to any vague threat of “physical action” on a college campus this week if they are still thinking about the shooting yesterday on Purdue’s campus. Obviously this last connection may be a stretch – and it also falls in to racial stereotypes – but people don’t always form these connections in a rational way.

To change people’s perceptions, you need to first consider how they think about the world and how they will respond to different kinds of ideas. How will people outside the movement will perceive the movement’s rhetoric and actions? I know that some of my friends who read this will see it as “selling out.” Maybe members of the BCU would agree with this sentiment, maybe they wouldn’t. Like I said earlier, activists holding a rally have an opportunity to craft their own message, and they are free to do so as they see fit. It is important to think strategically about who to target, then say what will best reach out to them, since rallying core supporters often requires different media strategies than building widespread public support or putting pressure on established elites.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the BSU would have been more successful specifying exactly what they will do if their demands aren’t met. Regular protests in a major campus gathering area? Camping out day and night? Student activists have been “occupying space” on campus long before the Occupy Wall Street movement popularized the protest tactic. Clearly specifying the next step would change the headline. Instead of being vaguely scary, a headline promising more protests at a specific time and place could be a useful rallying cry to attract additional followers. It’s also a great beacon for reporters, who can plan a week in advance. @THEBSU did a great job tweeting out their message on Monday, making it easy for reporters to insert their demands. I’m shocked that they haven’t gone back on Twitter to correct their one major strategic mistake.