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Toxic talk? How online incivility can undermine perceptions of media credibility

Abstract : Online news environments differ from more traditional news environments on a number of dimensions. First, the traditional, standalone news article or TV news broadcast may be a thing of the past. Instead, online news is increasingly contextualized by information coming from other news consumers. This includes comments responding to blog posts, or Facebook "likes" on news articles, as well as user-generated ratings systems for news articles. Second, and related, audience members themselves are actively participating in this changing news environment, with thirty-seven percent of Internet users posting news items or commenting on stories via social media sites (Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 2010). Furthermore, twenty-five percent of Internet users report they have posted comments to a news story (Purcell et al., 2010). The Internet brings together social and mass communication sources in a simultaneous and physically proximate fashion, raising questions about how individuals perceive credibility of both sources (Walther et al., 2011). Research has begun to show people rely on social cues, including group-based tools such as user ratings systems, in order to make decisions about credibility of sources on the Internet (Metzger, Flanagin, & Meddes, 2010). People develop connections with other online users that may be stronger than those they would form in face-to-face communication (Walther, 1996). Thus, it is likely that people respond to the social cues surrounding traditional news media in the online environment. In this study, we explore the influence of audience comments on how people form trust and perceptions of bias in various media sources. We examine these effects in the context of uncivil audience comments, thought to be particularly prevalent in online discussion due to the anonymity the Internet provides. Alongside the increasingly intersecting nature of mass communication and social communication sources in online media, research has examined cohort effects for online media use. Research shows that younger cohorts are turning primarily to online media for their news. Two-thirds of Internet users are under the age of 50, and those under 30 are most likely to use news portals or Facebook for news (Purcell et al., 2010). Those under the age of 44 are more likely to turn to online media or multiple media platforms than traditional news outlets for information and news about science, the topic of this study (Anderson, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2010). Researchers have been concerned with how younger cohorts trust and use digital media sources because those cohorts have grown up with more regular exposure to digital media sources (e.g., Flanagin & Metzger, 2008). Thus, online discussions and their potentially uncivil nature may impact younger people's perceptions of media credibility differently. Therefore, a secondary focus of our study is to examine age as a key explanatory variable in this process due to the fact that younger populations may be more accustomed to online information environments. Social Context Of Online News Online audiences are increasingly turning toward a multiplicity of sources for their news and information needs. However, the online context adds something to news media sources not present in traditional offline sources. It adds the context of perspectives of other media consumers who have read the same article. The question of how this social context of online news plays a role in how people perceive various media sources remains to be fully explored. Research has begun to examine how the social context influences perceptions of media. For instance, Walther and his colleagues (2010) found that people evaluated public service announcement on YouTube more positively when they were accompanied by positive user comments. Relatedly, researchers have found "proximal cues" that often appear in automated news aggregators, such as the number of related articles written by other news organizations or the name of the primary source that published the headline and the lead, influence how users perceive a news item (Sundar, Knoblock-Westerwick, & Hastall, 2007). Thus, the online context adds a number of cues to the online environment that may affect how people perceive media sources. In this study, we examine how one particular element of the social context of online news, the audience comments connected to a newspaper blog post, affects not only perceptions of the item to which it is connected, but also media sources more broadly. People may identify with other anonymous individuals in the online setting, which indicates exposure to audience comments by others may play a role in shaping their perceptions of media sources. Various models in the literature on computer-mediated communication are based on the idea that the absence of visual cues can lead to stronger connections among online users than connections that would form in face-to-face discussions. The social identification model of deindividuation (SIDE) assumes that people access a certain identity within their multiple layers of identity depending on which is most salient (Lea & Spears, 1992; Spears & Lea, 1994). Thus, in the online context, identity cues are even stronger because people cannot access visual cues on which they may typically rely. Furthermore, Walther's (1996) hyperpersonal communication model suggests that online users can form connections with other users in ways that are stronger than face-to-face communication. The approach of these models also implies that incivility embedded in discussions among other people on the Internet will resonate with media users. Therefore, uncivil conversations, which are prolific in online comments, may influence how people perceive that media source. Using an experimental design with a representative sample of the American population, we find that interpretations of the exact same online news item can differ significantly, depending on the nature of comments posted by readers. Specifically, exposure to uncivil discussion increases perceptions of blog post bias and increases trust in news media and online sources for information on science. Implications for news organizations are discussed.
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Contributor : Compte Laboratoire Geriico <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 4:37:20 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, April 4, 2019 - 11:30:04 AM


  • HAL Id : hal-00840606, version 1



Ashley Anderson, Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele, Michael Xenos. Toxic talk? How online incivility can undermine perceptions of media credibility. Communiquer dans un monde de normes. L'information et la communication dans les enjeux contemporains de la " mondialisation "., Mar 2012, France. ⟨hal-00840606⟩



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