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The European Union and Beyond

Uncivil Attacks, One-Liners, and Distrust towards Politics: Investigating the Impact of Post-Debate Media Coverage

Experimental Design
Ine Goovaerts
University of Leuven
Ine Goovaerts
University of Leuven

Concerns have been raised repeatedly about a decline in quality of post-debate media coverage and the harmful effects it might have for politics and democracy. One of the main reasons for concern is the media’s tendency to rather focus on politicians’ use of simplified one-liners and uncivil attacks on their opponents than to substantively cover the content of politicians’ messages. As incivility and simplification in politicians’ communication fits the logic by which the media operate well, the media are inclined to cover these type of messages to satisfy the appetite of the public (Esser & Strömbäck, 2014). Yet there are indications that citizens become more alienated and show more distrust towards politics when exposed to media coverage that more heavily focuses on these controversial one-liners and uncivil attacks than on the substance of political issues (Cho et al., 2009). Surprisingly, however, these effects remain largely underexplored today. This study contributes to this gap in the literature by investigating the following research question: How does post-debate media coverage focusing mainly on uncivil and simplified political messages affect citizens’ level of trust in politics?

In order to tackle this vital question, a between-subjects experimental design is developed in which post-debate media coverage is manipulated. In particular, participants are first asked to watch a 5-minute fragment from a televised election debate. The topic discussed in the debate is safety, i.e. giving more competences to security services. In the debate the issue is substantively discussed, and the debate fragment is rich in terms of communication styles used. While both politicians are, overall, explaining and justifying their policy positions well in a neutrally respectful way, both politicians also express an uncivil personal attack and a couple of simplified one-liners. Following the debate, participants are randomly exposed to one of three conditions: 400-word fictional newspaper stories 1) substantively covering the debate in terms of candidates’ policy stances (policy-focused coverage condition), 2) heavily covering the uncivil attacks and one-liners expressed in the debate (style-focused coverage condition), or 3) covering a non-related issue (placebo group condition). Political trust is measured after treatment. The experiment is conducted in Belgium (N=900).

To conclude, conducting this experiment allows us to gain insights into the effect of the media’s tendency to focus on stylistic and performance-related debate aspects instead of the substantive content of the debate. This tendency is expected to erode citizens’ level of trust in politics. These insights are important, not least because a large part of the citizenry relies on the media to get politically informed and to shape their political attitudes.

Cho, J., Shah, D., Nah, S. & Brossard, D. (2009). “Split Screens” and “Spin Rooms”: Debate Modality, Post-Debate Coverage and the New Videomalaise. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 53(2), 242-61.
Esser, F., & Strömbäck, J. (2014). Mediatization of Politics: Understanding the Transformation of Western Democracies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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