Unpublished (in development). Excerpt.
Selective exposure scholarship has been challenged by the digital media environment with a growing number of scholars questioning its applicability and relevance. Through a unique qualitative approach, this study validates the criticisms and affirms aspects of selective exposure scholarship through interviews that explore participants interactions with news and information in online environments.
Marshall McLuhan's pronouncement that the medium is the message is a tatty truism today, as social media engineers endlessly bake code in their platforms that track what news we read to serve us more of what we think we like. The implications of these personalized news channels, utilized and even heralded by popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, remains unsettled as scholars continue to identify and critique personalization's benefits and harms. The continual decline of traditional news media and the rapid rise of digital news—disseminated widely through these sites—has unquestionably disrupted and reshaped not only the U.S. news media, but has also altered our news reading habits and potentially influenced our democratic engagement. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now turn to social media to read the latest scoop, and Facebook has arguably become the new national newspaper of record for many Americans (Shearer & Matsa, 2018). Given these transformations, mass media scholars have investigated how digital news delivery and consumption affects perceptions of what constitutes "news." In addition, scholars have measured how beliefs and attitudes on current events are formed and shaped because of these new communication mediums.
Because of the positive and adverse effects of this pronounced trending toward digital media, a revival in selective exposure scholarship is underway. A fundamental mass communication theory, selective exposure predicts individuals will largely select information that aligns with their beliefs and attitudes, while steering clear of information that is cognitively dissonant (Knobloch-Westerwick, 2015). However, selective exposure theory was generated in an entirely different communication context, analyzing how traditional mass media—newspapers, television, printed information—affects information choices. In recent years, the scholarship pivoted to applying and testing the theory in new media contexts—with results widely variant from nullifying the theory's validity to fully affirming it. That has produced fruitful and conflicted findings: social media as a driving force of the echo chamber effect (e.g., we only read news aligned with our political beliefs) or that these platforms provide a diversity of sources, offering us the fruit to be an informed citizenry (Bakshy, Messing, & Adamic, 2015; Sunstein, 2007). Scholars continue to refine if and how selective exposure theory applies to the digital environment and that has produced several additional conditions to the theory driven by digital technologies that go beyond mere belief-attitude information alignment. Those conditions include friend network composition, which may provide exposure to a narrow or wide range of perspectives (Bakshy et al., 2015; Weeks, Lane, Kim, Lee, & Kwak, 2017), as well as gauging the influence of the platform's social cues (likes, shares), which can affect information choice (Anspach, 2017). Ultimately whether social media produces a "Daily Me" (a personalized news environment tailored to users based on their information seeking habits or selected preferences) or a multi-perspectival information environment remains unsettled. This research validates all of these tensions, revealing how selective exposure still occurs in a new media environment while also showing that the dampening effect offered in the literature is evident. However, this study also demonstrates how intense focus on particular new media features comes at a detriment to ignoring how new media systems design greatly enhances and exacerbates selectivity.
Also, selective exposure scholarship is overwhelming driven by quantitative and experimental designs. However, there appears to be little qualitative research designs in the literature. Through interviews, this study seeks to fill that critical gap. The qualitative approach utilized here provided direct participant expression of selectivity behaviors, as well as moments of articulated deviation. Selectivity behaviors were conceptualized using a priori frameworks provided by the selective exposure literature. Overall, this grounded theory study assessed individuals' descriptions and behaviors related to consuming news and information, predominately using digital tools. Data was collected through interviews with five individuals representing a variety of professional backgrounds and ages. All participants were non-digital natives—at one time, largely consuming traditional media then transitioning to digital sources.
This research examined news and information consumption experiences, particularly via online platforms and social media. Ultimately, the inquiry sought to unearth individual habits, preferences, beliefs, and attitudes regarding these experiences. In addition, investigating awareness of the information environment, particularly perception of and experiences with personalization, was key to providing a full-portrait of the research questions. Given this depth and breadth, a qualitative approach allowed for a complete, in-depth exploration of the research questions, which hinged on ascertaining, broadly, participants descriptions and encounters with news and information, notably as influenced and facilitated by today's globalized, digital platforms. In this environment, acquiring participants' reactions and voice and problematizing those vocalized reactions as related to what is otherwise routine online news reading are research aims suited for qualitative inquiry (Silverman, 2013). Also, this research did not seek to make cause-and-effect claims (Creswell, 2018), such as to identify and trace the roots of a news seeking behavior and correlate it to a belief or attitude—what the preponderance of the selective exposure literature has attempted to achieve. This research stood apart from quantitative research designs and other postpositivist methodologies that have dominantly influenced selective exposure theory to date (Knobloch-Westerwick, 2015; Stroud, 2008). As the literature review noted, the quantitatively-driven selective exposure literature is plagued with tensions and contradictions: the complex, dynamic contextual and conditional pressures of new media have called into question the resilience of the theory in this environment. A theory's strength is predicated upon its durability beyond the often-narrow bed of clay from which they are formed. Attempts to free selective exposure theory from its roots—traditional, print media habits and effects—and test it in a variety of digital media environments has produced mixed and at times highly conflicting results. Given the abundance of challenges to selectivity theory in this specific context, hypothesis formation is hampered, a key thrust of postpositivist, quantitative methodology. A specific hypothesis built upon theories and propositions (Babbie, 2014) cannot be placed on this shaky foundation.
Considering this backdrop, this research took a small step away from the past and recent conflicted literature and embarked on a fresh exploratory journey to see whether selectivity indicators, as highlighted in the literature, manifested in the descriptions of participants or whether new conditions and experiences were uncovered. Qualitative designs allow for both exploration of new concepts, as well as affirmation or denial of prior literature, particularly among grounded theory designs (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). Because of the riddle of tensions in the selectivity literature, demonstrated by theoretical misfires in the new media context, this research investigated whether alternate explanations of selectivity and new media habits become apparent, or whether alignment with the selectivity literature is conspicuous. This research walked that fine line of exploration and a priori validation. While this qualitative study remained open to all meaning-making moments ascribed by participants during the interviews, data collection and analysis was guided by findings offered by the selectivity literature, in part to observe whether additional distortions with selectivity literature surfaced through the more nuanced and personal explanations of participants, which quantitative methodology typically denies. To achieve this, the semi-structured interview protocol developed for this project was influenced by prior scholarship. This ensured that data about selectivity habits and news personalization was acquired, which aided in understanding if any selectivity behaviors described by participants and in the literature cohered. Qualitative researchers are "increasingly" turning to a priori theoretical frameworks and findings for not only the purpose of shaping researcher perspective to emergent phenomenon, but also to guide "types of questions asked," in addition to informing "how data are collected and analyzed" (Creswell, 2018, p. 62).
To ensure a representative variety of perspectives was acquired, this research sought participants with distinct personal and professional backgrounds, seeking variance regarding age, sex, gender, and degree of new media use. Variance was desired in part to provide for negative cases and ultimately to enhance study validity (Morse, 2015)—for example participants who do or do not seek a wide spectrum of news and information online. The sample of five participants achieved this aim. Additionally, variance and negative case analysis also afforded density to the study: comparison of aberrant and contrasting descriptions with common participant descriptions highlighted key similarities and differences in perceptions among the sample, which is "often critical to understanding the process as a whole" (Morse, 2015, p. 1215). Because of study time constraints, a convenience sample was acquired drawing from the network of the researcher. The sample included four, adult working professionals and one unemployed adult, all of whom have no affiliation to the researcher's university network and none of whom are college students. Subject availability and access were challenged (Creswell, 2018) due to project time constraints, in particular allowing sufficient time for participant acquisition, date collection, transcription, data analysis, and project-related writing. However, purposive selection criteria guided participant selection (Creswell, 2018), including meeting prior variance requirements and other criteria, such as known users of new media who frequent it to different degrees. These sample boundaries ensured participants could speak to the research questions and more importantly, provide variant perspectives and experiences to the researcher: men and women were in the sample, representing a variety of political ideologies and varying degrees of media use and platform differentiations.
Data Collection: Semi-Structured Interviews
Interviews were conducted with participants using a semi-structured interview protocol. Semi-structured interviews offered both the exploratory flexibility and precision that both the research methodology and research questions demanded. Interviews allowed the researcher to extract and analyze the lived experiences of participants (Tracy, 2013), particular to this research context descriptions and perceptions of their news and information seeking experiences. In addition, in-depth interviews afforded the researcher and participants the opportunity "to stumble upon and further explore complex phenomena that may otherwise be hidden or unseen" (Tracy, 2013, p. 132). For example, participants may have been aware of news personalization, but might not have given it much thought as to how personalization can dictate what information they are exposed to and concurrently, solidifying their beliefs and attitudes on a given subject that the algorithms predominantly exposed them to. Interviews provided both that affirmation of these key research concerns and further exploration in which both conscious and less apparent thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions were probed (Berger, 2000). In addition, the semi-structured format ensured that both emergent and deductive considerations—such as a priori frameworks—were fully plumbed. For example, open-ended and probing questions (see appendix: interview protocol) were asked to garner a richer understanding of participants' perceptions, or lack thereof, of the news and information environments they immerse themselves in. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, then analyzed using NVivo qualitative software. Overall, this methodology gave participants the opening to construct their experiences through directed, interview discourse and during data analysis and interpretation their discourses were assessed, in part, through the prism of selectivity theory. These etic and emic dialogues generated coherences and tensions that yielded fruitful findings.
Data Analysis: Grounded Theory
Corbin and Strauss' (2015) variant of grounded theory guided the analysis and interpretation of participant data. While there are several interpretations of how a researcher should conduct a "grounded theory study," their approach met the unique needs of this research context—that is, sensitization to the literature to see if a priori concepts surfaced in the transcript data, as well as allowing for the potential emergence of new concepts, or themes in this case, that challenged or affirmed those prior frameworks. In this research, themes surfaced that aligned with selectivity literature, but the dimensions of each theme challenged the theory, as well as affirmed it. Ultimately, their approach to grounded theory allows for extension or modification of prior theory, if called for; researchers, however, should let theory, in this case selective exposure theory, "provide insight, direction, and an initial set of concepts to use as a starting point" while remaining "open to the possibility that a previously developed theory may not fit with the new data and be willing to let go if they discover that the imported concepts do not fit" (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). This approach to data analysis coheres with the overall thrust of this research: exploratory in nature through semi-structured interviews, while affirming or discrediting the claims, findings, and theoretical propositions guiding selective exposure theory, which the findings of this research achieved in all of those dimensions.
Open and selective coding was conducted, in which data and theoretical saturation was ultimately arrived at. Theoretical saturation was attained when no new concepts or properties surfaced (Bowen, 2008; Corbin & Strauss, 2015)—albeit and admittedly, a larger and more varied sample will likely have challenged this quick attainment of saturation. Nearly 70 open codes during the first round of coding were whittled down during a pilot axial coding phase where relationships between categories and concepts were explored. Ultimately, three primary themes were formed following selective coding; some codes were discarded that did not fit the themes or research questions, but nearly all codes were folded under the themes described in the following section. In addition, this researcher acknowledged the role of researcher as instrument in the qualitative paradigm (Creswell, 2018), potentially posing subjectivity and related validity threats. However, the development of a semi-structured protocol drawn from selective exposure theory provided an empirically grounded basis from which the researcher began the exploratory journey. While this etic backdrop, as well as the researcher's own background, can potentially spawn error-prone subjective interpretations of the data, the central focus remains emic phenomenon, that is, participant created meanings (Corbin & Strauss, 2015; Creswell, 2018) as generated through the semi-structured interviews and subsequent data analysis. Due to time constraints, reflective and analytic memos were not written. Future research on this project will not follow that memo approach and will also more greatly fine-tune data collection and analysis, as well as more closely adhere to grounded theory methodology. Additional time with the data must be spent; these findings that follow are preliminary and pilot in nature; however, this pilot project will be carried into dissertation research, with tweaks and improvements already recorded.
While challenged, selectivity theory need not perish or undergo radical transformation. This pilot study does not offer a new theory to replace selectivity theory, but it does provide critiques and new directions that call for likely augmentation. In the spirit of grounded theory, however, a fuller, more comprehensive study may generate a new and more durable theory. Scholars have rightly pointed out the nuances and peculiarities that the new media context demonstrates, in sharp contrast to the largely one-way communication flows of the 20th century where the theory was born from.