Research

Overview

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University of Minnesota’s campus overlooking downtown Minneapolis.

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 developing a book project, entitled The Blind Scorekeepers, which examines the role of public opinion data in news coverage of American politics.

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.

Refereed Articles

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.

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.

Download the Supplementary Online Appendix.

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.

Dissertation

The Blind Scorekeepers: Journalism, Polling, and the Battle to Define Public Opinion in American Politics. PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Political Science. Committee: Katherine Cramer (chair), Barry Burden, Young Mie Kim, Dhavan Shah, Michael W. Wagner, Charles Franklin (Marquette University Law School)

Thomas E. Patterson Best Dissertation Award, American Political Science Association Political Communication section (2017)
Best Dissertation Award (honorable mention), International Communication Association Political Communication division (2017)

Survey research has been touted as an important tool for measuring citizens’ attitudes, facilitating deliberation, and ultimately achieving more responsive government. Yet the reality of how polling data is used in American politics falls short of these goals. While political scientists have studied elite use of opinion data for message-testing and position-taking, little evidence has been gathered about the quantity and quality of survey data in the news or how these aggregated snapshots of mass opinion shape and reshape our understanding of collective preferences. This dissertation offers new clarity on these dynamics and explores why poll results in the news rarely fulfill their function as a “public utility.” Instead of helping the public hear each other’s perspectives better or empowering citizens’ voices in policymaking, most references to survey data in the news end at tracking the standing of politicians in the partisan “score,” with advocacy groups actually sponsoring a growing share of data that assesses support for policies and other attitudes. Audience demand may only be partly responsible. Vast changes in both the news and opinion research industries are undermining journalists’ abilities to adjudicate between competing opinion claims while a mismatch between journalistic norms and the constraints of conventional research practices limit the usefulness of many surveys as effective reporting tools. By averaging across all Americans, polls may obscure the full spectrum of citizens’ attitudes, resulting in the marginalization of public opinion except in cases with clear electoral implications. Additionally, the dissertation presents results from two survey experiments that indicate 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. Rather than informing the public about itself, coverage of polls may enflame existing identities, induce conformity, and engender less accurate perceptions of others’ opinions. The dissertation employs a range of methodological approaches including large-scale content analysis and 41 in-depth interviews with prominent journalists and practitioners.

Other Publications

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.

 

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