Stuart Soroka is Michael W. Traugott Collegiate Professor of Communication Studies and Political Science. He is also a Faculty Associate in the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on political communication, the sources and/or structure of public preferences for policy, and the relationships between public policy, public opinion, and mass media.
Communication Studies: Tell us about your research. Can you also give us an overview of your February 10th lecture – “Bad News Good Democracy”?
Stuart Soroka: I’ve just been in Chile running an experiment in which we monitor heart rate and skin conductance while participants watch television news. This is the seventh country in which we’ve run these experiments, and our aim is eighteen countries in total, over the next three years. The end goal is a cross-national study of the human tendency to react more strongly to negative news than to positive news. There already is evidence of ‘negativity biases’ in economics and psychology, but not very much work in communications and political science. And there is very little work outside the US. So we currently understand relatively little about where negativity biases in political communication come from, how they vary across individuals, or whether they vary in interesting ways across cultures.
CS: Can you tell us what you were doing prior to joining the faculty at U of M?
SS: I was awarded my PhD in political science at the University of British Columbia, spent a few years as a postdoc at Nuffield College, Oxford, and then was a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for twelve years before joining the U of M faculty.
CS: What motivated you to pursue research in Communication Studies?
SS: I am interested in how people learn about politics and policy – how they develop, or change, their ideas about the political world around them. This necessarily involves a good deal of information from newspapers, from television, and increasingly from social media as well. So I started with an interest in politics, and that led me to an interest in mass media.
CS: Was there something in particular that was attractive to you about coming to the University of Michigan?
SS: The University of Michigan has been, for many years, a leading center for the study of public opinion, political behavior and political communication. The Communication Studies Department includes a number of scholars working in areas similar to mine. The same is true for the Political Science Department, and the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. So for me, the research community at the University of Michigan is really very extensive. The opportunity to be a part of that played a large role in my decision to join U of M.
CS: How is your research relevant today? What are the implications for today’s society?
SS: There are increasing concerns about negativity in the news, and negativity in politics in particular. The common complaint is that too much negativity turns people off politics – it leads to declining political participation and engagement. I am not sure that this is the case, however. I have an interest, first, in understanding the relative impact of negative versus positive information on our attitudes about politicians, parties, and policies. But I am very interested in the possibility that a focus on negative information in news content reflects the human tendency to be more interested in that kind of information. A steady flow of negative information may be central to political accountability. It might also increase rather decrease attention to politics. Understanding whether this is the case matters for our expectations of news coverage in mass media; it also matters for our objectives in media policy, in political campaigns, and in political journalism. Should we be trying to change the balance of positive versus negative information in news content? Are we well-served by journalism that focuses so strongly on politicians’ errors rather than successes? What is the impact of negative political campaigns on participation? These are all current questions not just in academic work in political communication, but in the public sphere as well. And these are the questions on which my ongoing work is focused.