I study relationships between the mass public, the news media, and concentric circles of political elites. This includes assessing journalistic norms and practices, measuring changes in digital news content, and exploring how both citizens and officials navigate a shifting landscape of political information.
My research focuses on two primary areas. I am currently working on a book manuscript, entitled The Blind Scorekeepers, which examines the role of public opinion data in news coverage of American politics. It is based in part on my dissertation, a recipient of the Thomas E. Patterson Award, the American Political Science Association’s annual award for the best dissertation in political communication. Additionally, building on work I completed during my time as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I am investigating “news avoidance” and infrequent news use, or why some people rarely follow the news.
Many of the articles below are behind paywalls. Free free to reach out if you’d like me to send you a copy.
Toff, Benjamin, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (In Press). “‘I Just Google It’: Folk Theories of Distributed Discovery.” Journal of Communication. Forthcoming.
Most people turn to news media for information about public affairs, but a significant minority do not follow news regularly and a growing number rely on distributed discovery (especially social media and search engines) to stay informed. Here, we analyze folk theories that inform how people do so. On the basis of an inductive analysis of 43 in-depth interviews with infrequent users of conventional news, we identify three complementary folk theories (“news-finds-me”, “the-information-is-out-there”, and “I-don’t-know-what-to-believe”) that most draw on when making sense of their information environment. We show that the notion of folk theories help unpack the different, complimentary, sometimes contradictory cultural resources people rely on as they navigate digital media and public affairs and argue that studying those who rarely engage directly with news media but do access information via social media and search provides a critical case study of the dynamics of an environment increasingly defined by platforms.
Toff, Benjamin, and Elizabeth Suhay. (In Press). “Partisan Conformity, Social Identity, and the Formation of Policy Preferences.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Forthcoming.
While much is known about the influence of partisan elites on mass opinion, relatively little is known about peer-to-peer influence within parties. We test the impact of messages signaling political parties’ issue stances on citizens’ own professed policy preferences, comparing the influence of party elites to that of co-partisan peers. Using an online experiment conducted with a quasi-representative sample of Americans, we demonstrate across two policy domains (education and international trade) that the opinions of co-partisan peers are just as influential on citizens’ policy preferences as the opinions of party elites. Further, the mechanisms underlying elite and peer influence appear to differ, with conformity to peers—but not elites—driven almost exclusively by strength of social identification with the party.
Toff, Benjamin. (In Press). “The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ on Political Journalism: Gatecrashers, Gatekeepers, and Changing Newsroom Practices Around Coverage of Public Opinion Polls.” Journalism. Forthcoming in print, published online.
This article presents findings from 41 in-depth interviews with political journalists, media analysts, and public opinion pollsters in the United States. These interviews document several trends in how journalists assess and cover public opinion. The article shows (1) a growing interest in and reliance on polling aggregator websites fueled by demands for precise predictions, (2) the erosion of news organizations’ abilities to assert independent gatekeeping standards around individual poll results, (3) concerns about the level of in-house expertise within newsrooms to adjudicate between surveys, and (4) changing attitudes about the importance of gatekeeping around public opinion data. These findings reflect an increasingly complex landscape of opinion data, which conventional news organizations appear ill-equipped to navigate.
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Cramer, Katherine J., and Benjamin Toff. (2017). “The Fact of Experience: Rethinking Political Knowledge and Civic Competence.” Perspectives on Politics 15(3): 754-770.
In the study of political knowledge, the emphasis on facts is misplaced. Evidence has grown that predispositions and social contexts shape how individuals are exposed to and interpret facts about politics, and the ready availability of information in the contemporary media environment may exacerbate these biases. We reexamine political knowledge from the bottom up. We look at what citizens themselves treat as relevant to the task of understanding public affairs and how they use this information. We draw upon our research in three different projects involving observation of political talk and elite interviews to do so. We observe that people across a range of levels of political engagement process political information through the lens of their personal experience. Failing to acknowledge this aspect of the act of using political information presents an incomplete empirical understanding of political knowledge. We propose an Expanded Model of Civic Competence that presents an alternative interpretation for what it means to be an informed citizen in a democracy. In this model, the competence of listening to and understanding the different lived experiences of others cannot be considered separately from levels of factual knowledge.
Toff, Benjamin. (2018). “Rethinking the Debate of Recent Polling Failures.” Political Communication, The Forum.
Toff, Benjamin. (2017). “The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ Is Changing Journalism. Is That Good?” Politico Magazine. Oct. 5.
Toff, Benjamin. (2016). “Polls may be making voters worse at predicting elections.” Washington Post, Monkey Cage blog. Nov. 18.