How conflict framing and social identity affect public opinion

Long black served beautifully with lavender spring and vibrant napkin

This is the second edition of my research brief series in which I pick a piece of research in science communication (or a related discipline) and provide a quick synopsis while blearily inhaling my first coffee. These posts are part of an attempt to start writing regularly. All suggestions and comments are welcome.

Today we’re looking at Dr Rebecca Colvin’s recent article on the role of conflict framing and social identity in public opinion about land change in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Governance. This article is not open access, but you can read a good portion of this work in an earlier form if you check out chapter five of Dr Colvin’s thesis!

The role of conflict framing and social identity in public opinion about land use change

A brief summary

Problem: Public opinion plays an important role when decision-makers use it to determine social acceptance for land use changes. Public opinion is largely formed by media framing of significant public issues, which can focus on social conflict rather than specific details of the proposed change. The exact impact of this conflict framing on public opinion is unclear.

Findings: Colvin and her co-authors conduct an experimental survey to gauge how fictional land use change media headlines with different levels of conflict framing affect the opinion of media consumers. They find that conflict does appear to shape public opinion. Misleading representation of that conflict in the media make public opinion an inaccurate indicator of overall acceptance of land use changes.

More detail

Citizen perspectives are increasingly expected to inform innovation. These perspectives – a.k.a. ‘public opinion – influences the decision makers working on policy change and political outcomes.

News media influences the formation of public opinion by: selecting which topics are discussed, shaping early understandings of emerging issues, and determining how these issues are framed in ongoing reporting.

Conflict is a common frame adopted by news media when reporting on issues that involve controversy or differences in opinions. This frame emphasises polarised positions rather than moderate positions and nuanced complexity.

Conflict framing can polarise pubic opinion when the information is absorbed by people with strong political identities. Current evidence suggests that these people respond to conflict by increasing the strength of their identification with a political group as well as their dislike of the opposing group. However! Other research indicates that reporting that focuses on polarisation around specific issues can encourage people to adopt less extreme positions to distance themselves from the “perceived incivility of polarisation”.

These suggest that news reporting of conflict can polarise or moderate public opinion, depending on the media consumer’s political identity. The study conducted by Colvin and her co-authors sought to further investigate the role of conflict framing and identity on public opinion about land use changes.

The study collected data through an experimental survey that presented 12 fictional stories of land use changes to a representative sample of the Australian population. The stories used three different levels of conflict framing. Participants responded to a random selection of these stories and also indicated their personal identification with land use change sectors (miners, environmentalists, farmers, and fishers) as well as four major Australian political parties.

Survey results indicated that increased conflict framing led to a moderation of public opinion. In addition, identity was not an important factor when it came to public opinion on land use change.

These results suggest that land use change lacks the politics and controversy of issues like climate change. The lesser politicisation of land use change means people working in the management of land use change do not have to deal with identity-based dislike promoting polarised attitudes.

The authors note that these results are significant for decision makers as the study demonstrates the need for awareness as to how messaging (and conflict framing) can impact public opinion.

Further reading

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