Research

Overview

A shaft of late afternoon sunlight falls on the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol and row of residential homes along the lakeshore of Monona Bay near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during autumn on Nov. 18, 2010. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 11/10 File#: NIKON D3 digital frame 1989

The Madison skyline with the Wisconsin State Capitol at the center (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

I study relationships between the mass public, the news media, and concentric circles of political elites. This set of topics includes assessing journalistic norms and practices, measuring changes in forms of digital news content, and exploring how both citizens and officials navigate a shifting landscape of political information.

My current research focuses on two primary areas, with some additional projects referenced on my CV here. As a Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I am investigating “news avoidance,” or why some people do not use any news at all—either by choice or by circumstance. This new research project originated as part of the Institute’s Digital News Report and aims to be international in scope.

Additionally, I am engaged in a long-term book project examining news coverage of public opinion in American politics. Through investigating journalists’ use of polls, changes in the supply of available data, and how citizens process reports about public attitudes, I demonstrate shortcomings in the media’s use of public opinion data, which results in a biased and incomplete portrait of citizens’ concerns—with implications for responsive governance.

The Blind Scorekeepers:

Journalism, Polling, and the Battle to Define Public Opinion in American Politics

This project explores how and why media coverage of political attitudes often falls short of its potential to improve democratic responsiveness. While political scientists have studied elite use of polling for message-testing and position-taking, little empirical evidence has been collected about the quantity and quality of polling in the news or how these aggregated snapshots of mass opinion shape and reshape our understanding of collective preferences. Using a combination of online survey experiments, computational text-as-data tools and more than 40 in-depth interviews with prominent journalists and practitioners, I examine how a mismatch between the constraints of conventional research practices and journalistic norms—each groaning under the weight of monumental industry changes—limits the utility of polls as a reporting tool for revealing the full spectrum of citizens’ attitudes. Instead, polls are used predominantly to track which politicians are ahead and behind in the partisan “score,” with advocacy groups and others sponsoring a growing share of attitudinal polling information in the news. I further demonstrate how perceptions of collective opinions, and poll reporting in particular, exert powerful (if conditional) effects on attitudes, synthesizing theories of impersonal and elite cueing—with significant implications for the study of micro and mass opinion.

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