Contentious stories and clickbait headlines are more than just annoying. They’re a barrier to a civil discussion of facts, they tend to increase partisanship, and they can impact the level of trust in media and other institutions. But are “civil” stories that focus on solutions interesting enough to attract readers?

For her new research, University of Kansas professor Ashley Muddiman gave study participants four types of stories to read: civil, uncivil, traditional and entertainment — and found a few surprising results. For one thing, she notes, “civility can be powerful enough to draw clicks away from uncivil news.”

Muddiman, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas-Austin and works with the Center for Media Engagement there, answered some questions from the American Press Institute about the impact of civility in media.

You’ve studied the issue of civility in journalism in the past. What captured your interest in this topic?

Ashley Muddiman

I was working on my Master’s degree during the 2008 presidential election and studying campaign-related links generated by search engines. Although most of the content generated by search engines was controlled by the campaigns themselves (e.g. campaign websites, Facebook pages), I noticed that there were a minority of sites that were quite vile. These sites used name-calling, hyperbole, falsehoods, and emotional language and images to sway people away from voting for Barack Obama or John McCain.

The claims many of the websites made against Obama (e.g. a Muslim family, radical church) are well-known now, though sites were making extreme, vitriolic, and false attacks against McCain as well. A page titled “Vietnam Vets against John McCain,” for instance, called him a liar and argued that he was a “Manchurian Candidate” due to the long-term mental health consequences of his time as a prisoner of war.

Seeing information like this made me start thinking. How widespread are uncivil political attacks? What are the effects of incivility? What is the role of mainstream journalism in countering or amplifying the effects of incivility? I’ve been studying these types of messages ever since.

How is “civil” and “uncivil” journalism different  from “good” news and “bad” news — labels that journalists generally like to avoid?

Great question! Civil headlines, in my study, were those that emphasized respect, willingness to solve problems, and even bipartisan approaches to political problems, rather than the nonpolitical, upbeat topics often selected to end a news broadcast. I still focused on politics and even political disagreement, but compared instances in which politicians were willing to work together to solve community problems (civility) to instances in which politicians disrespected each other and refused to work together (incivility).

I’ll note, too, that even though it seems impossible that civility of this kind exists in our current political environment, it is possible to find. I drew from real news articles about Kansas lawmakers who worked across the aisle to change the state’s tax structure and increase public school funding.

You found that civil stories “drew clicks away” from uncivil stories. But you also found that “when more entertainment stories were present, people gravitated toward incivility more often.”  So that seems a little confusing.  Could you explain a little more about the process, and what that result might mean?

Often, when researchers study news selection patterns, we compare one type of political news article with a different type of political news article. For instance, when studying partisan news, we might see whether people are likely to choose a news article supportive of Democrats or one supportive of Republicans. However, people come across a lot of different information online – not just political news. Scholars like Markus Prior have shown that, when entertainment options are available, people’s news preferences often change.

So, in this study, I was interested in whether the context mattered. When news highlighting civility was available, people gravitated toward it. However, when entertainment was available, incivility was more appealing. This surprised me. There are a few reasons why this may have happened. On one hand, it may be that uncivil politics is entertaining. When political news is posted alongside entertainment news, people may want to click on uncivil news because it is more interesting and entertaining than the political news they typically see. On the other hand, the entertainment news story I used, which was about Jane Austen, simply may not have been entertaining enough to attract the attention of participants. I plan on repeating this study to better understand this result.

Could you give us a real-life example of an “uncivil” headline and how you’d rewrite it to be more engaging?

I’ll use Kansas’ tax policy debates again here. In 2017, moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Kansas state legislature overturned Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s conservative tax experiment that had been in place since 2011. Headlines about this story were written in a few ways.

On one hand, news sites framed the reversal on taxes as a failure for Republicans; for instance, “The Great Kansas Tax Cut Experiment Crashes And Burns.”

On the other hand, some news sites covered the event as promising, for instance, “Spirit of legislative compromise provides hope for the future.”

My study suggests that the more hopeful, civil headline could increase engagement from readers.

You also suggest that this kind of writing could increase trust in media and decrease partisanship. Do you think your findings might have implications for improving the impact of factual journalism — and decreasing the popularity of misleading or  completely fake news?

I hope so, though I can’t say for sure based on the current study. One element of misleading news and especially completely fake news is its divisiveness. If, as my study suggests, people want to engage with stories about politicians coming together, respecting one another, and solving community problems, then hopefully they may also avoid misleading and divisive news. I would want to test this more before drawing any strong conclusions.

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