Research & Insights

This just in: Emotional news stories can shape our policy preferences

New research out of the University of Zürich suggests that the emotions raised by news stories can impact our policy preferences. When the news makes us angry, we prefer punitive policies, but we support remedial policies when we’re sad.

To explore the connection between news and policy, researchers Rinaldo Kühne and Christian Schemer from the University of Zürich in Switzerland conducted a series of experiments using 71 undergraduates at a European university. Their results were published in a 2015 issue of the journal Communication Research.

For the study, the students read one of two articles about a traffic accident which resulted in the death of a child. One version of the article, designed to encourage an angry response, told readers that “a drunk car driver drove at excessive speed and left the scene of the accident without attending to the injured child.” The other version, written to increase sadness, reported that “the driver was going at an appropriate speed but had no way of avoiding the child, who unexpectedly ran across the street to retrieve his ball.”

After reading the articles, the students were asked how much they would support various policies designed to increase traffic safety. Some of the policy suggestions were punitive (“driver’s licenses should be revoked more often”) while others were focused on remediating damages (“psychological support for traffic victims and family members must be improved”).

The researchers found that students who read the reckless-driver piece preferred punitive policies over remedial ones. In contrast, students who read the article about the responsible driver supported remedial policies more than punitive ones.

“[F]raming effects on political preferences were demonstrated to be a consequence of emotions triggered by news reports,” the authors explain. “[C]ertain frames may influence information processing and opinion formation by eliciting emotions such as anger and sadness.”

The study suggests that, for communicators, it is important to understand how news stories relevant to your campaign are being framed, and what emotions your audience may be bringing to the table.

Communication Research

Rinaldo Kühne and Christian Schemer, University of Zürich, Switzerland

Posted: June 22, 2015