Selected Works in Progress

The Unequal Challenge of Learning from Under-Informative News

Author: Andrew Trexler

Abstract: Contemporary news organizations compete for the attention of a shrinking pool of news consumers. Today’s core news consumers are not broadly representative of the public. Instead, they are highly engaged in politics, and are characterized by high levels of both political knowledge and interest in politics. Several common styles of covering political news—conflict framing, prediction/forecasting analysis, the use of specialized political jargon, and attention-grabbing clickbait headlinesare potentially attractive to these highly-invested core consumers, but may make news about politics less accessible for incidental or less-engaged readers. In a preregistered survey experiment (n = 2,233) I show that, relative to placing a story’s democracy- and policy-relevant information front and center, these styles of political news coverage weaken information recall after exposure. Further, the reduction in information recall is especially pronounced among those who are less politically engaged at baseline. This study shows that several common forms of news coverage are under-informative and contribute to disparities in political knowledge among the mass public.

Status: Working Paper

The Minimal Effects of Making Local News Free: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Author: Andrew Trexler

Abstract: The collapse of local newspapers has elicited broad scholarly concern about citizens' knowledge of and engagement with local politics. As newspapers struggle to survive, many have turned to digital subscription revenue, retreating behind online paywalls in the process---which constitute barriers to consuming local political information that is essential for democracy. Does making local news free to access induce the consumption of local news? And, if so, does that consumption produce salutary effects on citizen knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors? I address these questions with evidence from a field experiment that randomly provides a free digital subscription for a major North Carolina paper to a probability-based sample of registered voters for two months around the 2022 general election. I find that the free subscriptions did not meaningfully increase consumption on its own, and further that secondary interventions did not produce meaningful changes in political knowledge or a range of political attitudes and behaviors. These findings suggest that price is but one of several barriers to consuming local political information. Disparities in citizen knowledge and engagement with local politics are unlikely to be addressed by making local journalism free.

Status: Under Review


Outnumbered Online: An Experiment on Partisan Imbalance in a Dynamic Social Media Environment

Authors: Maxwell B. Allamong, Andrew Trexler, Fatima Alqabandi, Tina Tucker, Chris Bail, D. Sunshine Hillygus, and Alexander Volfovsky

Abstract: Research on the impacts of online political discussions have focused on social media “echo chambers,” but less is known about how people respond to online environments dominated by those who are politically dissimilar. We conduct a preregistered experiment using a mobile application we developed to evaluate how being outnumbered by out-partisans impacts comfort with sharing opinions as well as perceptions of the platform and its users. Our app mimics a social media platform but provides researcher control over platform features to experimentally isolate their effects and uses automated chatbots to create a dynamic newsfeed for the participant. We find that engaging on a platform dominated by out-partisans reduces comfort with sharing one’s opinions and lowers evaluations of the platform and its users. These findings shed light on a relatively less explored online environment (i.e., an outnumbered setting) and highlight the utility of LLMs in social science research.

Status: Under Review


Voting Access Reforms and Policy Feedback Effects on Political Efficacy and Trust

Authors: Andrew Trexler, Marayna Martinez, and Mallory SoRelle

Abstract: In 2020, states pursued divergent voting access reforms in an effort to facilitate a safe and secure election in the midst of a global pandemic. For some voters, options like mail-in or no-excuse absentee voting were familiar; for others, they were novel. While scholars have explored how election reforms affect turnout, we know less about how 1) state-level electoral policies influence people’s political efficacy and trust, and 2) political context and voter partisanship condition those effects. Employing a policy feedback framework, our analysis combines original data on state changes to election procedures with ANES survey data to understand the context-specific effects of voting access reforms on people’s political efficacy and trust. Using time-event difference-in-difference analysis, we find little evidence that electoral reforms affect political efficacy and trust in overall; however, partisanship and state political context appear necessary to understand the true relationship between electoral reform and political behavior.

Status: Under Review

An Ideology by Any Other Name

Authors: Andrew Trexler and Christopher Johnston

Abstract: The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are prominent features of political discourse in the United States, and many citizens choose to identify with one of these ideological labels. Yet, many citizens do not fit comfortably in either of these categories, and comparatively little is known about the breadth and importance of other ideological labels in the mass public. We pose a simple but novel survey question to a large sample of survey respondents (n = 4,655) to measure self-identification with up to 14 different ideological labels, and trace the associations of this self-labeling with individual differences and political attitudes. We find that identification with alternative ideological labels is widespread and contains important information about political attitudes that common survey questions on ideology do not capture. Further, the co-occurrence of multiple ideological identities conveys valuable information about both deviations from, and extremity along, the conventional left-right spectrum. Our findings provide a foundation for continued scholarship on ideology beyond the confines of the liberal-conservative framework.

Status: Revise & Resubmit


Local News Reporting and Mass Attitudes on Infrastructure Investment

Authors: Andrew Trexler and Megan Mullin

Abstract: A growing body of research documents how shrinking local newsrooms undermine political accountability and local fiscal and policy performance in the United States. We extend this work to examine political impacts from the level of information content in local news, which has been jeopardized by reductions in newsroom staffing. To understand how information content affects public response to news coverage of a local issue, we focus on the case of preventive spending on infrastructure maintenance and repair. Inefficiently low levels of infrastructure investment are often attributed to low public knowledge about the risk of failure events. In a pre-registered survey experiment, we test how the level and type of information in a news article affect support for infrastructure investment across two different types of infrastructure risk (repeated nuisance versus catastrophic failure). For both types of risk, we find that more information-rich reporting, whether investigative or event-driven, increases public support for preventive spending and imposes accountability penalties on local leaders who fail to invest in prevention.

Status: Conditionally accepted at Political Behavior.

Misleading Polls in the Media: The Social Consequences of Survey Clickbait

Authors: Matthew Graham, D. Sunshine Hillygus, and Andrew Trexler

Abstract: In today's competitive information environment, clicks are the currency of the digital media landscape. Clickbait journalism attempts to entice attention with provocative and sensational headlines, but what are the implications when public opinion polls are the hook? Does the use of survey clickbait---news stories that make misleading claims about public opinion---have implications for perceptions of the public, journalists, or the polling industry? In two survey experiments, we find that exposure to apolitical survey clickbait undermines perceptions of the public's capacity for democratic citizenship. At the same time, we find no evidence that survey clickbait damages the reputations of the media or polling industry, highlighting the perverse incentives for the media to use low quality polls or to misrepresent polling results to drive traffic.

Status: Accepted at Public Opinion Quarterly.


Data: Data and replication materials are available here.

Aimed Emotions in American Presidential Politics

Abstract: Emotional appeals are essential tools for political candidates to motivate supporters, donors, and voters. Prior research has demonstrated the distinct behavioral consequences of discrete emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and enthusiasm. Do political candidates take advantage of these distinctions in their communication strategies? In this paper, I use supervised machine learning to classify emotional content in debate transcripts and contemporaneous tweets of American presidential candidates in the 2016 and 2020 elections, and show that candidates preference different emotional appeals in each communication medium. I argue that this behavior enables candidates to reap strategic benefits from two dissimilar audiences simultaneously.

Citation: Trexler, Andrew. 2023. "Aimed Emotions in American Presidential Politics." Journal of Information Technology & Politics. doi:10.1080/19331681.2023.2248111

Ungated: Author's Manuscript. The published version of record is available here.

Data: Data and replication materials are available here.