The instability of incivility : how news frames and citizen perceptions shape conflict in American politics



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Politicians and media elites have been calling for a return to civility in United States politics, and the vast majority of citizens agree that civility is necessary for a strong democracy. Yet incivility is an ever-present and misunderstood part of politics. In my dissertation, I focus on news, politics, and incivility by asking three questions. First, to what extent does news coverage portray political conflict as uncivil? Second, what political behaviors do citizens perceive as uncivil? Finally, how does news that portrays politics as uncivil affect citizens?

I used a mixed method approach to answer these questions. I, first, conducted a content analysis of news surrounding four high-conflict political events to determine whether two conflict frames (interpersonal-level and public-level conflict) emerged. Second, I conducted two experiments and drew from social judgment theory to determine whether citizens perceived multiple types of incivility and whether their partisanship influenced how acceptable they found political behaviors to be. In a final experiment, I tested whether exposure to mediated conflict frames prompted perceptions of incivility from citizens and affected their reactions to politics.

This project makes clear that news coverage of conflict emphasizes incivility and negatively affects citizens. Media elites shape political conflict using interpersonal-level and public-level conflict frames. Citizens perceive both types of conflict, as well, and tend to think that likeminded partisans are behaving appropriately while counter-attitudinal partisans are behaving badly. Finally, and importantly, the coverage of political conflict affects citizens in troublesome ways. Particularly when both types of conflict frames are present in the news, citizens feel more anxiety and aversion, have decreased levels of favorability toward political institutions, and think of political arguments in partisan ways.

Overall, I conclude that incivility is not stable. Instead, incivility is a two-dimensional concept that is shaped by the media, perceived by citizens, and advanced by partisans. By recognizing these dimensions of incivility, researchers may find new and important effects of incivility, and people interested in ridding politics of incivility may be more successful by beginning with the recognition that what is uncivil to one person is not always uncivil to another.