Abstract: Exploring the Effects of Reader Comments on Perceptions of Non-Controversial Health Stories

◆ Amanda Hinnant, University of Missouri
◆ Sisi Hu, University of Missouri
◆ Yoorim Hong, University of Missouri
◆ Rachel Young, University of Iowa

Research has shown that user-generated comments can influence reader opinions about health and science news stories (Flemming, Cress, & Kimmerle, 2017; Kareklas, Muehling, & Weber, 2015; Hinnant, Subramanian, & Young, 2016; Zhang & Wang, 2019). For example, in the context of climate change communication, a controversial science topic, the influence of comments on perceived story credibility vary depending on the political ideology of the readers (Hinnant et al., 2016). This paper is original because it examines the influence of comments on perceptions of a story that is non-controversial, relative to topics like vaccination, smoking, or genetically modified organisms. The non-controversial apolitical health topic used in this study is the over-prescription of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant “super bugs.” The overarching question is: Do user comments adjacent to a health news story influence reader reactions to the story itself even when the story is not politically charged?

This study hypothesizes: Comments on a non-controversial story 1) will have an independent influence on audiences and 2) will not interact with political ideology. Engaging with the exemplification theory, this study also asks: How do comments that disagree with the story and contain either anecdotal or scientific evidence affect perceptions of the story and the health issue? What are the combined effects of evidence type and argument direction on perceptions of the story and the health issue?

Adult participants (N = 426) all viewed the same news story about how the over-prescription of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, with either no comments (control) or one of four sets of comments. The experiment used a 2 (argument direction: supporting vs. dissenting comments) x 2 (evidence type: anecdotal vs. scientific evidence referenced in comments) between-subjects factorial design. For the anecdotal condition, comments referred to evidence of over-prescription and antibiotic resistance from their own experience, their friends or family, or local stories. For the scientific-evidence condition, comments referred to evidence based on studies, scientists, statistics, the CDC, graphs, research, and experts.

Results support the hypothesis that comments have independent effects on the perceived story credibility, story likeability, and risk perception regarding the health issue. More specifically, the combined effects of having comments that disagree with the story’s argument and that use scientific evidence to back up those claims significantly reduce the perceived credibility of the story. In line with the second hypothesis, the effects of comments do not interact with the political ideology, but they do interact with participants’ intellectual humility (Leary et al., 2017) and scientific numeracy.

This study adds an important and novel dimension to understanding democratic discourse in health and science communication via journalistic outlets. Although audience participation and feedback to the journalistic process were once heralded as a transformative way to get citizens involved with important social matters, evidence continues to grow that user participation can be deleterious to understanding and believability, particularly with health and science content.