My Research

My research focuses on several interdisciplinary questions involving relationships between the public, the news media, and political elites. This includes assessing journalistic norms and practices, measuring changes in digital news content, and exploring how both citizens and officials navigate a shifting landscape of political information. I am currently at work on three main projects.

A comparative study of trust in news across Brazil, India, the UK, and the US with multiple collaborators at the Reuters Instittue for the Study of Journalism.

A book project on why a small but significant subset of people consume little to no conventional news. The book is under contract with Columbia University Press.

This solo book project examines the role played by polls and surveys in how journalists portray public opinion. The manuscript is in progress.

Additionally, below are some of the other articles I have recently published. A more complete list is availble on my CV (available here) and my Google Scholar page. Many journal articles are behind paywalls, but please reach out if you’d like a copy.

Media Audiences

Juarez Miro, Clara, and Benjamin Toff. (2022). “How Right-Wing Populists Engage with Cross-Cutting News on Online Message Boards: The Case of ForoCoches and Vox in Spain.” International Journal of Press/Politics.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a link between online message boards and the rise of far-right movements, which have achieved growing electoral success globally. Press accounts and scholarship have suggested these message boards help to radicalize like-minded users through exposure to shared media insulated from cross-cutting viewpoints (e.g., Hine et al. 2017; Palmer 2019). To better understand what role online message boards might play for supporters of right-wing populist movements, we focus on the Spanish political party Vox and its supporters’ use of the message board ForoCoches, a fan site for car enthusiasts, which became an important platform for the party. Using more than 120,000 messages collected from threads mentioning the party between 2013–2019, we examine the URLs shared to show how mainstream news media events shape the conversation online and how users not only were exposed but deeply engaged with cross-cutting news sources. We argue that the use of sites such as ForoCoches should be viewed in the context of a broader increasingly hybrid political and media landscape where activity online and offline cannot be understood separate from one another. Moreover, our findings suggest that the online political discussions that take place in Vox-related threads on ForoCoches resemble normatively positive deliberative spaces—albeit in this case in support of illiberal political positions. In other words, our findings complicate conventional notions about the benefits of political talk, especially online, as a democratically desirable end in and of itself.

Toff, Benjamin. (2021). “The Social Function of News and (Mis) Information Use.” In The Politics of Truth in Polarized America (David C. Barker and Elizabeth Suhay, eds.). Oxford University Press.

The public’s reliance on faulty information while making political decisions has long alarmed political scientists, but two factors in particular have heightened concerns:(1) the growing influence of digital intermediaries, namely social media platform companies, which have become the primary mechanism through which many people discover and attend to news and political information, and (2) efforts by nefarious actors who deliberately use these technologies to amplify and disseminate false stories to sow division and influence the public’s attitudes and behaviors. This chapter synthesizes scholarship from across political psychology, journalism studies, and communications research to propose a new framework for thinking about research on misinformation while arguing that an exclusive focus on these factors obscures a more fundamental dynamic at the heart of the misinformation problem. Underlying most of these discussions are unrealistic assumptions about how information-seeking and news acquisition occur that may not generally reflect the motivations behind people’s behaviors. This chapter argues that the role and function of news in society is largely social, rather than informational. This has been true since well before the advent of social media. What has changed is that these dynamics are more visible and more susceptible to manipulation.

Palmer, Ruth, Benjamin Toff, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2020). “‘The Media Covers Up a Lot of Things’: Watchdog Ideals Meet Folk Theories of Journalism.” Journalism Studies 21(14): 1973-1989.

Covered by Nieman Journalism Lab

The idealized view of the press as an institution that operates independently from private and political interests and tries to hold power to account is central to many journalists’ self-conception and extensive academic scholarship on news. Yet surveys find significant numbers of citizens reject such views about the role of news in society. This article draws on in-depth interviews with a strategic sample of 83 news avoiders in Spain and the UK to investigate “folk theories” about the relationship between news and politics. Instead of believing in the watchdog ideal, many saw the news media as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, actively complicit with a distant and self-serving political and economic establishment. Instead of bringing important subjects to light, many saw the news as actively covering them up. The difference between professional and scholarly theories that stress the watchdog role on the one hand, and folk theories where this notion is completely absent on the other, highlights the specific cultural challenge journalism faces today. Cynicism about the role of news in society poses a problem that transcends the specific economic, political, and technological challenges that currently preoccupy many journalism professionals and institutions.

Toff, Benjamin, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos. (2020). “All the News that’s Fit to Ignore: How the Information Environment Does and Does Not Shape News Avoidance.” Public Opinion Quarterly 84(S1): 366-390.

Recipient of the Kaid-Sanders Best Political Communication Article of the Year Award (2020) from the International Communication Association. Covered by Nieman Journalism Lab, Columbia Journalism Review

In a fragmented digital media environment where news is increasingly encountered passively in social media feeds and via automated mobile alerts, active
avoidance of news, rather than deliberate consumption, takes on outsized importance in shaping what it means to be an informed citizen. This article systematically evaluates the factors that predict news avoidance behaviors, considering both individual- and country-level explanations. Using a large-scale quantitative, comparative approach, we examine more than 67,000 survey respondents across 35 countries worldwide and find consistent evidence for how factors including demographics, political attitudes, and news genre preferences shape avoidance consistently across information environments. But we also show how country-level contextual factors, what we call “cultures of news consumption,” influence behaviors beyond that which is explained by respondent-level differences. Specifically, levels of press freedom and political freedom and stability are shown to negatively predict rates of news avoidance. These findings suggest that many people’s news use practices depend not only on personal characteristics and preferences but quite sensibly on the news available to them, which they may have good reason to view as deficient or untrustworthy, as well as culturally specific norms around its value and utility.

Toff, Benjamin, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2018). “‘I Just Google It’: Folk Theories of Distributed Discovery.” Journal of Communication 68(3): 636–657.

Covered in Nieman Journalism Lab, Journalism Research News

A significant minority of people do not follow news regularly, and a growing number rely on distributed discovery (especially social media and search engines) to stay informed. Here, we analyze folk theories of news consumption. On the basis of an inductive analysis of 43 in-depth interviews with infrequent users of conventional news, we identify three complementary folk theories (“news finds me,” “the information is out there,” and “I don’t know what to believe”) that consumers draw on when making sense of their information environment. We show that the notion of folk theories help unpack the different, complementary, sometimes contradictory cultural resources people rely on as they navigate digital media and public affairs, and we argue that studying those who rarely engage directly with news media but do access information via social media and search provides a critical case study of the dynamics of an environment increasingly defined by platforms.

Palmer, Ruth and Benjamin Toff. (2020). “What Does It Take to Sustain a News Habit? The Role of Civic Duty Norms and a Connection to a ‘News Community’ Among News Avoiders in the UK and Spain.International Journal of Communication 14: 1634–1653.

Why do some people maintain a news habit while others avoid news altogether? To explore that question, we put findings from an interview-based study of news avoiders in the UK and Spain into dialogue with past research on factors found to shape news consumption. We found that news avoiders saw news as having limited informational benefits and high costs in terms of time, emotional energy, and mental effort. They also did not see consuming news as a civic duty to be pursued despite the costs, nor did they have strong ties to communities that highly valued news consumption. This meant they had few social incentives to return to news habitually and that connections between distant-seeming topics in the news and immediate concerns were rarely reinforced. We conclude that group-level social factors play an understudied but important role in shaping news avoidance.

Toff, Benjamin, and Ruth A. Palmer. (2019). “Explaining the Gender Gap in News Avoidance: ‘News-is-for-Men’ Perceptions and the Burdens of Caretaking.” Journalism Studies 20(11): 1563-1579.

Covered in Nieman Journalism Lab

Even in wealthy post-industrial countries where equity between men and women has improved in recent years, women are still significantly more likely than men to say they avoid the news, a gender gap that has important implications for political participation. This article employs a qualitative, inductive approach to examine the how and why behind the gender gap in news consumption. Using in-depth interviews with 43 working- and middle-class individuals in the United Kingdom who say they rarely or never access conventional news sources, we find that decisions around when and whether to engage with news are (1) often viewed through a gendered lens, which we call “news-is-for-men” perceptions, and (2) subject to structural inequalities that shape people’s everyday media consumption habits. These include both gender-based divisions of labor in the consumption of news within households and the physical and emotional burdens of caretaking responsibilities, which fall predominantly on women and can interfere with staying up-to-date with news. We argue that efforts to close the gender gap that fail to address both of these entrenched underlying causes are unlikely to succeed.

Public Opinion

Toff, Benjamin, and Elizabeth Suhay. (2019). “Partisan Conformity, Social Identity, and the Formation of Policy Preferences.International Journal of Public Opinion Research 31(2): 349–367.

Summary for The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog: “How worried are you about an impending trade war? That might depend on what your fellow party members think.

While much is known about the influence of partisan elites on mass opinion, relatively little is known about peer-to-peer influence within parties. We test the impact of messages signaling political parties’ issue stances on citizens’ own professed policy preferences, comparing the influence of party elites to that of co-partisan peers. Using an online experiment conducted with a quasi-representative sample of Americans, we demonstrate across two policy domains (education and international trade) that the opinions of co-partisan peers are just as influential on citizens’ policy preferences as the opinions of party elites. Further, the mechanisms underlying elite and peer influence appear to differ, with conformity to peers—but not elites—driven almost exclusively by strength of social identification with the party.

Cramer, Katherine J., and Benjamin Toff. (2017). “The Fact of Experience: Rethinking Political Knowledge and Civic Competence.Perspectives on Politics 15(3): 754-770.

Recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Heinz Eulau Award (2018). Covered in Political Science Now.

In the study of political knowledge, the emphasis on facts is misplaced. Evidence has grown that predispositions and social contexts shape how individuals are exposed to and interpret facts about politics, and the ready availability of information in the contemporary media environment may exacerbate these biases. We reexamine political knowledge from the bottom up. We look at what citizens themselves treat as relevant to the task of understanding public affairs and how they use this information. We draw upon our research in three different projects involving observation of political talk and elite interviews to do so. We observe that people across a range of levels of political engagement process political information through the lens of their personal experience. Failing to acknowledge this aspect of the act of using political information presents an incomplete empirical understanding of political knowledge. We propose an Expanded Model of Civic Competence that presents an alternative interpretation for what it means to be an informed citizen in a democracy. In this model, the competence of listening to and understanding the different lived experiences of others cannot be considered separately from levels of factual knowledge.

Toff, Benjamin. (2018). “Rethinking the Debate over Recent Polling Failures.” Political Communication 35(2): 327-332.

Covered in Journalist’s Resource

Toff, Benjamin. (2018). “Exploring the Effects of Polls on Public Opinion: How and When Media Reports of Policy Preferences Can Become Self-Fulfilling Prophesies.” Research & Politics 5(4). DOI: 10.1177/2053168018812215

Recent work has suggested that media reporting about the public’s policy preferences may be self-reinforcing, contributing to greater policy conformity. This article presents additional evidence in support of this theory and adds new detail about the conditionality of these effects. Results from two experiments are described in which respondents are presented with excerpted news stories containing varying polling information about six separate issues. Findings indicate that (a) exposure to such poll results can elicit differences in support for the issue by as much as 10–15 percentage points; (b) the magnitude of these effects varies systematically and inversely in relation to overall attitudinal intensity levels for each issue; and (c) the opinions of specific subgroups referenced in polls matter, producing larger or smaller effects depending on how salient the group is to receivers of the information. Taken together, these results underscore why news reporting about public attitudes deserves greater attention as an important factor in the policy process.


Journalistic Norms and Practices

Toff, Benjamin, and Nick Mathews. (2021). “Is Social Media Killing Local News? An Examination of Engagement and Ownership Patterns in U.S. Community News on Facebook.” Digital Journalism.

Covered in Nieman Journalism Lab

This article focuses on two forces linked to declines in coverage of genuinely local civic affairs: (a) the impact of increasing corporate consolidation in ownership among news providers, and (b) the degree to which the economic incentives and logics of digital platforms may also drive editorial decision-making at news organizations away from coverage of local news. Using a unique dataset of 2.4 million Facebook posts published by local news organizations in three U.S. states between 2018 and 2019, we find evidence that both factors matter. Long-running trends towards conglomeration in the industry have a demonstrable impact on how much and what kinds of local news gets posted on the site, but we also find that the platform itself may incentivize certain types of coverage over others. Specifically, we find organizations owned by chains are more likely to post duplicative, repurposed content that receive fewer interactions per post—evidence of quantity being valued over quality—as well as higher rates of engagement with national, hard news stories over unique content about local affairs. Findings shed light on how Facebook—combined with media ownership structures—may hinder the task of serving local communities with original news that satisfies important civic needs.

Toff, Benjamin. (2019). “The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ on Political Journalism: Gatecrashers, Gatekeepers, and Changing Newsroom Practices Around Coverage of Public Opinion Polls.” Journalism 20(7): 873-889.

Covered in Columbia Journalism Review, Nieman Journalism Lab, Journalism Research News, Journalist’s Resource. See also the summary of the article I wrote for Politico Magazine, “The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ Is Changing Journalism. Is That Good?

This article presents findings from 41 in-depth interviews with political journalists, media analysts, and public opinion pollsters in the United States. These interviews document several trends in how journalists assess and cover public opinion. The article shows (1) a growing interest in and reliance on polling aggregator websites fueled by demands for precise predictions, (2) the erosion of news organizations’ abilities to assert independent gatekeeping standards around individual poll results, (3) concerns about the level of in-house expertise within newsrooms to adjudicate between surveys, and (4) changing attitudes about the importance of gatekeeping around public opinion data. These findings reflect an increasingly complex landscape of opinion data, which conventional news organizations appear ill-equipped to navigate.

Toff, Benjamin. (2019). “Horse-Race and Game-Framed Journalism’s Effects on Turnout, Vote Choice, and Attitudes toward Politics.” In Elizabeth Suhay, Bernard Grofman, and Alexander Trechsel (Eds) Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190860806.013.24