The Moral Relevance of News

What if research on morality can shed light into why people choose the news they do?

by John VoiklisJena Barchas-Lichtenstein
Sep 12, 2019

Jena: In a study we did about reactions to news on the opioid epidemic, I kept noticing a lot of moralizing language. A lot of people really distancing themselves from the whole thing: “Nobody I know would ever do something like that.” And on the other hand, a lot of people who described personal experiences with addiction.

John: In general, people who said the coverage was relevant also ranked it more highly along a lot of dimensions. And that moralizing language mostly came from people who said it wasn’t relevant, right? Jena: There was a different kind of moralizing that we saw among people who said it was relevant, but it was a lot less common. Some of those people talked about a general moral imperative to follow news. (Quick aside: there’s a bunch of research about this. For example, Pew talks about a ‘civic or social obligation’ to be informed.)

John: Anyway, the study we did only hits one of two morally important moments. There’s the moment of experiencing, where I’m watching or reading or whatever. And then there’s the moment of selecting, where I decide which channel to watch, or whether to turn on the TV at all, or if I’m going to click on this story in my Facebook feed or not. In real life, these aren’t all that separate, but experimentally you kind of have to pick one. Because either you ask people to watch something -- which simulates the increasingly rare experience of watching TV, where you see whatever happens to be on -- or you let them choose and you focus on what they choose. And we did the former, asking people whether what they saw seemed relevant to them. In other words, do they care about the people and events they see in the story...and why?

Jena: Interesting! I’d be inclined to talk about relevance as something that’s co-constructed by journalists and audiences, rather than something that’s either inherent to the story or totally decided by the audience.

John: About co-constructing relevance, I think collaborative models of conversation and discourse likely have a lot to say. We’d have to combine collaborative models of conversation with social theories of morality. For example, my favorite theory of morality (meaning the one that explains existing data and answers all my “what abouts”) talks about “why” at three scales -- self, interpersonal, and social or collective. Whether news audiences care about the people and events in a story might be because they can see themselves in the story, because they can see those close to them, or because it affects a group with which they affiliate.

Jena: How do you define morality, anyway?

John: Let me start with norms. Norms are behaviors that you expect other people to expect. There’s a statistical component and a belief component, but the difference between aesthetic, social, and moral norms is two things. One is the level of enforcement that you expect, and the other is whether you think enforcement is justified.

Jena: Is the difference between a legal norm and a moral norm the second half of that?

John: The second half is the part that’s controversial. But yes -- if you believe it’s justified, that’s what gives it moral weight. Anyway, let’s leave institutions out of this -- we want to talk about transgressions against persons rather than the state.

Jena: Now I’m trying to think about how I define morality. Or rather how anthropology defines morality. I agree that ‘especially high-stakes social values’ seems like a good starting point, though. I’m going to keep thinking.

John: What are anthropologists interested in, in terms of the news?

Jena: Honestly, I’m less interested in the individual watching the news as in all the social stuff that surrounds it. I’m interested in the conversation you have with your husband during, or after, or the way it comes up in conversation at work tomorrow. There’s a ton of research on sharing in the social media sense, but I think this is only really interesting if we look at in the context of all the other kinds of sharing, including stuff like postal mail and co-present speech. The thing is, it’s hard to naturally happen to be there for all the times news comes up, so Elizabeth Bird came up with a method for eliciting what she calls ‘news talk’. She sent people videotapes in the mail and asked them to watch it with whoever they watch news with, and tape themselves talking about it, and send her back the tapes.

John: We kind of did this with video-game teams. What if we invited pairs of people to perform a news task? Substantive possibilities are endless: pairs that are household members vs. friends vs. strangers; a partner who fully engages in conversation vs. one who simply grunts “I hear you” feedback vs. one who is silently present vs. a silent and remote partner; an explicit goal for the task--such as answering a question or settling an argument--versus idle curiosity or banishing boredom. All of these “contexts” should have noticeable effects on what stories people choose and/or how they respond to the news.

Photo by Flipboard on Unsplash

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