In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, cable TV, talk radio and blogs often use sensational and controversial tactics in the fierce battle for audiences. Such widespread incivility in public discourse is seen by some as potentially damaging American democracy — from eroding trust in government to decreasing voter turnout — but research has produced mixed findings.
In a 2011 study published in Political Communication, “From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio and Cable News,” Tufts University social scientists analyzed an ideologically diverse group of news sources to better understand understand the use of “outrage discourse” — political speech designed to provoke visceral responses.
In their work, the researchers examined 10 weeks of content from 2009 of talk radio shows, cable news programs, blogs and syndicated columnists. In them, the researchers identified 13 common forms of “outrage discourse,” including insulting language, character assassination, exaggeration, and mockery.
The study’s findings include:
- “Outrage discourse” was found in 100% of cable TV episodes, 98.8% of talk radio programs, and 82.8% of blog posts. On average, examples occurred once during every 90 to 100 seconds of political programming on TV and even more often on radio.
- The form of outrage discourse used most often was mockery, followed by misrepresentative exaggeration, insulting language and name calling.
- While the tactics used by liberal and conservative commentators are largely the same, incidents of outrage were 50% more common in right-leaning media than in left-leaning media.
- Direct confrontation (“sparring”) was rare, most likely due to the lack of opposing voices within individual programs.
- Syndicated newspaper columnists used outrage discourse much less frequently than other media analyzed, but more frequently compared to columns from 1955 and 1975.
“Partisanship, as measured by the voting behavior of legislators, is up quite sharply in the past few decades,” the researchers write in their conclusion. “It strains credulity to believe that the new and expanded ideological media has had nothing to do with this trend.” Their hope is that with a clearer understanding of the nuances of incivility, future research can better address the unanswered question of “whether outrage is corrosive or constructive (or both for different groups in different ways) to the health of democracy.”
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