Donald Trump supporters and the mainstream media have a well-practiced routine that goes like this: The media report that the Republican presidential front-runner said or did something untrue/offensive/dangerous, and then supporters reject the reports as dishonest/exaggerated/insignificant.
Which leads to the confounding question for journalists: Why does critical coverage of Trump have no effect on his loyalists? Wait. Scratch that. There is an effect — it arguably makes them more loyal, not less. But if that's the case, then why does critical coverage have a reverse effect?
The obvious answer is that Trump's backers don't trust the media. But that's a very superficial explanation. Most Americans — not just Trump fans — say they don't trust the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, according to Gallup. Yet voters frequently abandon politicians amid negative press, whether the scrutiny focuses on marital infidelity (see: Edwards, John) or a poor grasp of important issues such as foreign policy (see: Carson, Ben).
So people say they don't trust the media, but the truth is they often take news coverage to heart -- especially when it comes to disqualifying events.
That is considerably less so when it comes to Trump, however. The billionaire has said things no politician would say about about his fidelity and repeatedly betrayed his lack of understanding on subjects ranging from federal spending to the nuclear triad. This is all well-documented. But his supporters are unfazed by the same kind of media coverage that dooms other candidates. There must be something about why Trump lovers mistrust the media that makes them react to negative reports differently than voters typically do.
Here's a theory: Trump backers feel personally offended by coverage that suggests they must be stupid to support him. Insulted, they refuse to accept information presented by media outlets that disrespect them.
Think about it: When someone calls you an idiot, then tells you what to do (or not do), do you listen? Even if the instructions are sound, your wounded brain is inclined to tune them out and go the opposite direction.
A study published this week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute suggests that insulting news consumers is indeed a major problem. In a survey of more than 2,000 people, 38 percent said "yes" when asked, "Have you ever had an experience with a news and information source that made you trust it less for any reason?"
What were the reasons? Factual errors and perceived biases were the top answers. No surprise there. But the third-biggest cause of diminished trust — cited by 24 percent of those who have had a bad experience — was finding "something about the content personally offensive."
People are less receptive to new information when they are offended. That was one of the key findings of a 2013 study by communication scientists at the University of Wisconsin. Researchers tested the effect of "uncivil" reader comments appended to online articles — remarks like, "You must be dumb if you think X."
"The results were both surprising and disturbing," study co-authors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele wrote in a summary published by the New York Times. "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself."
They called this phenomenon the "nasty effect."
Could the same thing happen if insulting sentiments were conveyed within the story itself, rather than the comment section? I asked Brossard. She isn't sure the same "nasty effect" she observed is playing out among Trump supporters. She's a scientist, after all, and she hasn't tested this hypothesis.
But "you raise an excellent point," Brossard told me. "It is not surprising Trump supporters refuse to accept critical, fact-based media reports about their candidate if those imply that to be a supporter means being an idiot. I think the phenomena you are describing is not related to the 'nasty effect,' specifically; I think it is reflecting what we call 'motivated reasoning.' It is actually rare for people to accept fact-based information that goes against their already-formed attitudes. If people have their minds made up about something, they will discount information that contradicts their belief system and will eagerly accept information that supports their point of view. I think this is what we are seeing here."
Now, for the most part, news outlets don't explicitly say Trump supporters are morons. (Though the Huffington Post recently diagnosed a new "syndrome" known as STUPID: Support for Trump's Unreal Policies Infecting the Dumb. But that was an exception. And it was a joke. I think.)
More common are stories that cite the low education levels of many Trump backers. As I've noted before, such articles have referred to Trump voters as “downscale,” “relatively ignorant” and “uninformed.”
There are subtle digs, too. Reports that characterize Trump as a "con artist" — one of Marco Rubio's favorite labels for the real estate magnate — also imply something about his fans. After all, who falls for a con? Gullible dopes, of course.
And how many times have journalists (including this one) written some variation of this sentence?
Trump's latest misstep should erode his base of support, but it probably won't.
What we mean is that Trump defies the laws of political gravity, leading polls and winning primaries despite conduct that would sink other candidates. It's impressive — and a big reason he's such an interesting figure. But it's easy to see how such statements could be interpreted differently:
If Trump supporters were smart, they would ditch him at this point. But they're not, so they won't.
Fox News Channel's Howard Kurtz summarized the problem perfectly this week in an interview with the Wrap: "I think it’s pathetic for news organizations that don’t like a particular candidate to slime the candidate’s supporters. It gives fuel to those who think we are a bunch of arrogant elitists."
Intentional or not, critical Trump coverage often does "slime" his supporters in a way that tough reporting on other candidates does not. Whether you call it the "nasty effect," "motivated reasoning," or something else, the media have offended Trump voters, and they're not listening to what we say. How related those two things are is up for debate.
Correction: Brossard said after publication of this article that she meant to say "motivated," not "moderated," reasoning.