Expert Commentary

Journalists’ public views about incivility in political news discourse

2015 Georgetown study in the International Journal of Press/Politics that explores journalists’ attitudes about the level of civility in political discourse as reflected in their published work.

Written by Kimberly Meltzer, Georgetown University


In his January 2015 State of the Union address President Obama said to members of Congress, “many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows,” and stated that “a better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.”

In addition to the President, many academics, politicians and journalists have written or spoken about civility in political news discourse and what they think should be done about it. While it has been established that journalists are interested in issues of audience civility, particularly in regard to comment sections on their sites, it has not previously been systematically established that journalists have also expressed concern about other journalists’ (some of their peers’) uncivil and opinionated discourse. The causes that journalists have attributed for the increase in opinionated and uncivil mediated political discourse have also not previously been established.

Some argue that incivility in public discourse, and the concern about it, has always been around. Other researchers have pointed out that there is no single definition of civility, or incivility, and that journalists and audiences have been found to have different ideas of what constitutes being uncivil. While many scholars assert that civility is necessary for productive deliberation, there are scholars and others who justify incivility and argue its merits. But uncivil speech today has more outlets, can be highly public, and travels and spreads faster; its impact can be greater, and strategies for dealing with it are still being tested.

What journalists have written about civility

In a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, “Responsibility, Credibility and Academic Influence: Journalistic Concern about Uncivil Political Talk in Digital News Media,” I explore journalists’ attitudes about the level of civility in political discourse. Ten years’ worth of content in the American Journalism Review, the Columbia Journalism Review,, Nieman Lab and other news websites was searched for the terms “civility” and “incivility,” followed by qualitative textual analysis to identify themes present across all of the retrieved items. Of the journalists who have written about civility over the past decade, the majority expressed a concern about uncivil mediated discourse, and believe that journalists should act to improve the state of things.

Additionally, the journalists’ writing indicated that:

  • Journalists or their organizations are responsible for keeping things civil on their own sites.
  • They think incivility affects society, the public, political culture and their own organizations.
  • They attribute the increase in uncivil opinionated discourse to anonymity enabled by the Internet, campaign rhetoric, the audience’s lack of ability, journalists and media partisans, and journalists’ insecurity about their own future.
  • Journalists were interested in academic research about civility, and some of the many ways journalists are dealing with incivility online were based on academic research.
  • Those who did not express a concern for civility often wrote that it has been “fetishized,” cited the First Amendment or equated calls for civility with attempts to censor certain viewpoints.

Why it matters what journalists think

Evidence also suggests that journalists share in the concern about uncivil mediated discourse in most cases, which may strengthen the arguments put forth by advocates for policy and other types of interventions to improve the quality of public political discourse. However, the findings of this study pose several new questions: are journalists more concerned about audience civility than civility on the part of journalists themselves? If so, should they be? There continue to be academic studies about the effects of incivility in reader comment sections, but there are also studies about the effects of incivility in news on the part of journalists and commentators.

Are journalists really just jumping on the civility bandwagon in expressing a concern about civility? Is their concern sincere or feigned? There have been several examples found of apparent hypocrisy on the part of some journalists who have publicly advocated for civility and then committed uncivil acts in discourse themselves.

While this study provided evidence that some journalists are aware of academic research about opinion and civility in mediated discourse, academic research in this area is quickly expanding, and journalistic knowledge is not likely to keep pace with the latest findings. Equally, academic research should continue to consider it important to take into account the perceptions and practices of journalists. Several resources are trying to bridge these different communities, such as the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which has already held sessions with journalists and plans more. A third community that belongs to this conversation is that of educators and media literacy proponents. Going forward, it makes sense to consider the different conversations about civility taking place and to endeavor to bring them together. Future work can also envision and plan steps toward action.


Related research: Read more in Kimberly Meltzer, “Responsibility, Credibility and Academic Influence: Journalistic Concern about Uncivil Political Talk in Digital News Media,” published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, January 2015, Vol. 20, No. 1; and Kimberly Meltzer and Judith D. Hoover, “Civility in News Discourse: The Case of PBS’ Brooks and Shields,” published in Electronic News, September 2014, Vol. 8, No. 3.


Keywords: polarization, incivility, journalism, public discourse