HOSTILE POLITICAL TV LEADS TO NEGATIVE ATTITUDES ABOUT POLITICS
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Political talk shows in which guests yell, scream and
interrupt each other may attract more viewers - but a new study suggests it may
be bad for our political system.
Viewers who watched a supposedly real talk show where two political candidates
engaged in a hostile, rude debate showed more negative attitudes toward
Congress, politicians - and even the American political system -- than did
viewers who watched a more courteous debate.
People who viewed the uncivil debates also remembered fewer of the arguments
supporting the viewpoint they opposed - and were more likely to say the
opposing arguments were not legitimate.
"Television depends on conflict to make politics seem less boring to the public
and attract declining audiences, but that conflict comes with a price," said
Diana Mutz, co-author of the study and professor of political science at Ohio
"Hostile political talk shows such as Hardball, Meet the
Press and the like affect not just attitudes toward candidates, but also have a
negative impact on how viewers feel about politicians in general and the whole
political system. Political programs that are interesting to watch may end up
damaging public attitudes in a significant way," she said.
Mutz conducted the study with Justin Taylor, an Ohio State graduate student,
and Byron Reeves, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
They presented their results this month in San Francisco at the annual meeting
of the American Political Science Association.
For the study, the researchers taped a fictional version of a political talk
show called "Indiana Week in Review." Two actors played candidates for the 5th
District seat in Indiana. In this show, the "candidates" debated several
controversial issues, such as taxing sales on Internet purchases, government
regulation of tobacco and free trade. Two versions of each exchange were taped.
Although the candidates expressed exactly the same issue positions in each case
and used exactly the same arguments, the tone of each exchange was very
In the "civil" version, the candidates bent over backward to be polite to the
opposition, used persistently calm voices, waited patiently while the other
person answered and paid respectful attention while the opponent was speaking.
In the "uncivil" version, the candidates used the same script, but inserted
asides that suggested their lack of respect and frustration with the
opposition. The candidates raised their voices, interrupted each other and used
nonverbal cues such as rolling their eyes to show a lack of respect for what
the other candidate was saying.
These tapes were then shown to 100 study volunteers who were led to believe
they were watching real candidates on a real talk show.
Before the show, participants filled out questionnaires that asked them about
their political background and their positions on some of the issues they would
They then watched twenty minutes of the talk show in which the candidates
debated issues in either a civil or uncivil manner. Participants then filled
out a questionnaire about their attitudes toward the candidates and various
government institutions, the perceived positions of the two candidates on the
issues, and whether they thought each candidate presented a strong or weak
argument. Each person watched four issue exchanges.
The results showed that people who viewed the uncivil exchanges were much more
negative toward Congress than those who viewed the civil debates.
"It was surprising that people were more negative toward Congress after the
uncivil exchange, even though we made clear that neither candidate was now or
had ever been a member of Congress," Mutz said. "And it is still more
surprising that attitudes toward the American political system were influenced
negatively by the civility of this one political talk show."
Mutz said the results also showed how civility effects the way people perceive
their favorite candidates and the opposition.
Those who watched a civil debate did well at remembering the arguments made by
both candidates. However, people who watched the uncivil exchanges remembered
primarily arguments on their own side of the issue.
Moreover, people who watched the uncivil exchange judged the oppositions'
arguments to be weaker and less legitimate reasons for disagreement than did
people who watched the civil exchange.
This has important implications for our political system, she said.
"We all have to tolerate differences of opinion in the political world and, in
order to do that, we have to understand that there are real reasons for why
people hold opposing opinions, even though we may not think the reasons are the
most compelling," Mutz said. "But these hostile exchanges led people to
de-legitimize the opposition."
Mutz said the study showed that people understand that conflict is an important
part of politics in this country - but they want conflict handled responsibly.
For example, the researchers asked participants whether they agreed with the
statement "It's very important that politicians air their differences of
opinion publicly." Results showed people responded equally positively to this
statement, whether they saw the civil or uncivil debate.
"People were able to differentiate between the importance of conflict in
politics, and the civility of that conflict," she said. "People still value
conflict in politics, but they don't like it when politicians express conflict
in a nasty and hostile manner."
The only positive aspect of the uncivil debate was that viewers were slightly
more likely to remember who stood where on each of the issues. More intense
conflict led to greater recall of who stood where, even though it suppressed
recall of the arguments behind those positions.
The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and
the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Contact: Diana Mutz, (614) 688-3041; Mutz.1@...
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@...