Veronica: Hi, we're here with Professor Grabe! Professor Grabe, how are you doing today?
Dr. Grabe: I'm doing just fine. Thank you for inviting me to this.
Veronica: Yeah, Thank you for joining us for this interview. For context, I was lucky enough to have Professor Grabe as my professor for my first class in the media school here at IU, and she was absolutely wonderful and incredibly engaging. I'm really excited for this interview and to hear a little bit more about what you study outside of the realm of your teaching and outside of the realm of undergraduate courses.
So yeah, we're just gonna dive right in. So we’ve done some reading about what you study—could you just briefly summarize your scholarship on people's perception of news media, depending on how it is packaged for the public?
Dr. Grabe: Yeah, I could do that, for sure. But let me just start this conversation by saying that I have collaborated with many faculty and graduate student colleagues, most of the work I've done over the years, cannot be conducted, in a kind of a solo pursuit. You know, the design of the studies— their execution, is just inherently collaborative.
And, so, over the years, I thought of these collaborations, as kind of the academic version of playing in a band together. You know, there's a certain magic that happens— reminds me of ideas and research designs and problem-solving. So, with that in mind, I, of course, can give you a bit of a summary on this scholarship of how the packaging of messages can affect people's perceptions of news.
And, so, most of that work that I've done departs from the idea that informed citizenship is a cornerstone of democracy. And, so, that made me interested in identifying ways to make information acquisition more accessible beyond a small elite of people who are already informed.
And, so, there are two ways to think about the subtle differences in message packaging that can have very large consequences for how these messages are being received by media users. One is the form. So, literally, how it’s packaged; with bells and whistles, slow-motion music, flashing edit flashy editing, or is it packaged in a pretty standard or dry unobtrusive way, right?
So, the other way to think about packaging and its ramifications relates to message content, the way the content is being framed by the reporter; the level of emotionality that's included in the message, the level of negativity, even variations on the physical appearance of the same anchor can affect the attention, the credibility of the message, how people comprehend the information, and their memory for it for this information.
Yeah, so let me give a few examples. In terms of the form of packaging, we've done so many studies, and what we found is that when the content is kind of boring, adding a bit of the bell and whistles of packaging can make news more memorable. At the same time, when you add these bells and whistles, you know, to already compelling content, it creates a type of cognitive overload that works against comprehension and memory.
And then in terms of content, we've done a bunch of studies on knowledge gaps between different demographic groups, in particular, people with lower and higher levels of education, and also between men and women.
And in terms of education, we have found that if stories include emotional personalization, in other words, if stories include not only the cold hard facts, but also feature ordinary citizens who give their accounts of the social issue— the knowledge acquisition gaps close considerably. So, in short, putting a human face on social issues really helps people with lower levels of education to gain information and become informed citizens.
And then in terms of gender, yeah, there are quite a few interesting studies, some of the results were quite surprising to us. And, you know, around the world women have been responding in surveys, saying that they do not like the way news is presented, they find it too negative. And well, historically, the news was created by men and for men. Perhaps because men have a stronger negativity bias than women. And perhaps that's why the news has always been, by definition, negative. Think about it, hundreds of airplanes take off thousands, millions perhaps across the world every day, but we only hear reports of those that do not complete their flight or have some emergency.
And, so, evolutionary psychologists explain this phenomenon —this phenomenon of negativity bias from the perspective of parental investment. This might sound wow, this is way off the point when we think about news but it's actually quite relevant here. The survival rates of Homo sapiens offspring are more closely tied to mothers than fathers, and the parental investment roles diverged also in inconsiderable ways.
Mothers traditionally provide the inner circle of care, fathers cover the outer periphery of safety and sustenance. And, so, women have an avoidance response to negatively compelling stimuli including news and men have more curiosity when facing that same stimulus. And, so, in a way, it quite literally explains why news, designed by men for men, have traditionally had this highly negative nature and why women do not like to consume news.
And, so, long story, but we wondered if the news would be framed, a little more positively— if that would affect women's interest in consuming news. We produced a number of news stories and all negative, by nature. So, for example, a story about US troops in Afghanistan, natural disasters, a wave of teenage obesity—those are some of the stories. And then we also added some positivity to one version of the story, stories for example, in the Afghanistan story we include a reference to a very special relationship that some soldiers developed with Afghan children.
In the disaster stories we added reference to how communities pulled together to help each other overcome the hardships of disasters, and this is often referred to as resolution journalism. It goes beyond reporting the negatively compelling events.
It takes a step beyond it to report on the human condition, behind the story, below it, underneath it. And what we found within this series of experiments, is that women were more likely to self-report higher interest in the positively framed stories. They also remember and comprehend the factual information better in those versions of the stories than the negative ones. And of course, the opposite was true for men.
So, there's clearly a highly robust gender difference in how people respond to the news. We also tested this, it was really just a fun experiment that we didn't expect to find anything, but we tested the impact of female anchor sexualization. We noticed that female anchors on cable news became quite sexualized. There is a lot of makeup and that was a major change I would say over the past 20 years, women anchors used to have appeared quite androgynous and suddenly they became quite sexualized.
So, we wanted to see the impact of just the anchor on how people would comprehend and use information. So, we took the very same anchor and we slightly altered her appearance based on three very subtle cues that have been associated in the evolutionary psychology literature with a woman's sexual attractiveness. And these are hip to waist ratio, adding a bit of red lip color and decoration through jewelry. So, the very same anchor, reading the same stories in two conditions.
One condition, we pulled in our jacket to accentuate her waist, we added a little bit of red lipstick, and we gave her a bit of jewelry. And the other condition had a non-figure-hugging jacket, no makeup, no jewelry, and the results were startling. Overall that female anchor’s fitness for reporting more masculine topics like war politics was significantly diminished when she was sexualized.
And most startling perhaps, is that men had a very tough time remembering the content of what the sexualized version of the anchor who reports it, especially. So, that gives you a long story about some of the work in terms of packaging of information that I've done over the years.
Veronica: Thank you so much! That kind of brings in another question that we had, which is, you know, as time has progressed, you started in journalism in the 1980s when the world of news was considerably smaller than it is today just by virtue of, you know, the invention of social media— Apple products, the internet.
The idea that the way news is packaged can have a significant effect on the viewer’s comprehension is vital in terms of getting views. How has your scholarship changed, as we've moved into the digital age and we've just seen the mediascape explode with more and more information, some of which is, you know, what we know today as fake news?
Dr. Grabe: Excellent question. You know, as I reflect on my work, it feels like the first chunk of my academic career was spent on, yes, understanding how different groups of citizens process the news and how the media can improve on their kind of self-appointed duty to promote informed citizenship.
And then, over the past five years or so, I think my focus has shifted away from that —to understanding the process whereby media produce dis-informed citizenship. So, I have also become, I notice, more open to the options of regulating, the so-called marketplace of ideas, you know, where the media are quite sinful.
This is something that I would have opposed with every fiber of my being 10 years ago. Right, so I do feel an enormous shift in my intellectual academic pursuits and in the way that I teach media classes as well. And, so, my earlier insistence on an unregulated public sphere is perhaps because I was born and raised in South Africa, where I experienced government regulation.
Well, in the form of very serious censorship during the height of apartheid. And that instilled in me a belief in the freedom of expression, and also laws to protect against government intervention in media systems. When I worked as a documentary news producer at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in the 1980s, there was a state of emergency with severe press restrictions and newspapers and TV and radio were all severely censored by the apartheid government.
And, so, working under those conditions was really what made me want to become an American. To be honest, actually, I had very little interest at first, visiting the United States, but after cultural sanctions kicked in against South Africa and I struggled to get access to articles for my master's thesis, I was working full time and studying part-time— I took unpaid leave to come to the United States on a small scholarship and after seeing press freedom work for the first time in full in the United States, I could not go back to working as a journalist, under the conditions of censorship.
So, I returned to South Africa after a few months in the US and then left South Africa again within four months to come back to the United States for graduate work. So, it is with astonishment, that I now recognize that my position on regulation has moved over the past few years, and yes, that shift, I sense, in my thinking is largely due to social media.
At first, we saw the social web as a democratizing platform where citizens could freely participate in debates —share information. We gave social media credit for enabling citizens to mobilize for collective action. I'm thinking back to the uprisings around 2010.—the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter movement— where social media really helped to coordinate and share experiences and that really fueled these movements.
So, yeah, these are valid but perhaps incomplete and somewhat utopian views of social media. With it, also, came very serious threats to the very idea of a marketplace of ideas. It opened the doors to unfiltered information flow, which, you know, sounds great until that reality started to produce really bad outcomes.
Through algorithms, social media acts as a kind of a news aggregator without evaluating the credibility of the sources of information. We are exposed to news that these algorithms have chosen for us based on our behavior on social media. So, the information hose, and it might be helpful to think of social media as a massive garden hose, streaming information, instead of water.
Through that hose, we encounter on social media, information that aligns with our own views, without a filter on the reputation of the original source of that information. And, these algorithms put us into small echo chambers of like-minded people where we do not encounter opposition to our opinions and we get constant confirmation of what we already believe.
It really would require an extraordinary effort to break out of social media echo chambers, to do fact-checking, and the research is showing us that most people do not do that. In addition, news stories flow to us via our friends, people we know. And, along with that, comes some appearance of an endorsement of the story that gets shared, liked, or retweeted.
And, through those recommendations we accept the messages we get through friends more easily. And of course, platforms highlight for us the popularity of certain pieces of information through likes and so forth.
And, at the same time, bots and other coordinated accounts are active on social media to inflate the diffusion and the popularity of stories, moving them right up in attention levels. So yeah, these basic observations that I've made just now, about the integrity of information flow through social media, made me arrive at a point of thinking that the marketplace of ideas is not working as it's being conceived off.
It's not the marketplace of ideas that John Stuart Mill had in mind, any theory on liberty or any musings about that thereafter. And, one can say, well, was it any better before social media? Did we ever have a healthy marketplace of ideas? And, you know, there are few days that I don't think about this. In short, my answer, I think, would just nudge us to look back at long-term political polarization trends in the United States.