My Topics

4 December 2019

SCANDAL: does scandalization of political news result in political cynicism?

In the battle for consumer attention, journalists increasingly ‘scandalize’ minor mistakes made by politicians to make them more newsworthy and to elicit public outrage. A study in Journalism reveals that scandalization may have unexpected consequences. While it does not affect consumer perceptions of politicians, scandalization can decrease trust in the news message, when the reported norm violation is only mild.

Take aways

  • Scandalizing a news message can backfire. When journalists scandalize a mild norm violation of a politician, people find the event less severe compared to when it is not being scandalized.
  • Even worse, people trust scandalized news less when it reports on only mild norm violations, and find the message less appropriate.
  • Scandalization of news does not result in more negative perceptions of the politician. Regardless of the severity of the norm violation, the politician is not seen as more guilty or less trustworthy when scandalized by the news.

Study information

  • Who?

    128 participants (mean age: 22, age range: 18-34, 77% female)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    Participants read a news article online about either a mild (wrong parking) or severe (hit-and-run car accident) norm violation that was made by a government official. Some of the participants read the scandalized version of one of these articles (whereby the bad behavior was denounced and the aim was to elicit public outrage), others read the ‘normal’ factual version. Then they answered questions about the severity of the reported event, the trustworthiness and guilt of the government official involved, the appropriateness of the news article, and the trust they had in the article.

Facts and findings

  • Participants who read about the mild norm violation of the government official thought the event was less severe when the article was scandalized than when it was written in a factual manner.
  • Participants thought the factual article was more appropriate and they trusted it more than the scandalized version, but only when the norm violation discussed was mild.
  • When participants read the article about a severe norm violation, their trust in the article and the perceived severity of the event were similar—regardless of whether the article was scandalized or not.
  • The politician’s trustworthiness and perceptions of guilt were not affected by scandalization.