Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
Available online 5 April 2021
0747-5632/Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Full length article
How do people learn about politics when inadvertently exposed to news?
Incidental news paradoxical Direct and indirect effects on
Homero Gil de Zú˜
, Porismita Borah
, Manuel Goyanes
Democracy Research Unit, Political Science, College of Law & Public Administration, University of Salamanca, Spain
Media Effects Research Lab, Film Production & Media Studies Department, Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, Pennsylvania State University, USA
Facultad de Comunicaci´
on y Letras, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile
Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University, USA
Department of Communication, Universidad Carlos III, Spain
Incidental news exposure
Thorough information engagement
Citizens’ political knowledge is regarded as a vital element for well-functioning democracies. Accordingly, there
is a vibrant literature assessing the link between individuals’ news seeking behavior and learning about public
affairs. There are, however, more limited efforts devoted to clarifying how incidental news exposure may
facilitate political learning. So far, inconclusive research ndings have offered positive, null or even negative
effects, emphasizing an urge for scholars to further explore this relationship. Drawing upon U.S. representative
survey data, this study seeks to explicate and further advance the (paradoxical) paths that connect citizens’
incidental news exposure and political knowledge, both directly and indirectly. Our analysis rst shows either
null or mild negative direct associations between incidental news exposure and political knowledge. However,
relying on a two serial mediators’ model, when citizens thoroughly engage with and cognitively elaborate on the
information they unintentionally stumble upon, incidental news exposure is associated with positive mediated
effects on political learning. This study provides evidence for a better understanding over the potential direct and
indirect mechanisms that both facilitate and hinder political knowledge acquisition through inadvertent news
Over the years, scholars have studied the link between individuals’
information seeking behavior and political knowledge (Chaffee &
Kanihan, 1997; Kenski & Stroud, 2006; Park & Gil de Zú˜
Research has shown that intentional consumption of mass media fosters
political learning. However, users can also be exposed to news infor-
mation incidentally online. For instance, as by product of internet or
social media use, or just utter serendipitous inadvertent exposure (e.g.,
Tewksbury, Weaver, & Maddex, 2001). This non-intentional or
non-purposive exposure to news and information is broadly termed
incidental news exposure (Kim, Chen, & Gil deZú˜
niga, 2013; Tewksbury
et al., 2001; Bates, 2002; Erdelez, 1999). Social media often makes easy
to “incidentally encounter news and political information” (Lane, Kim,
et al., 2017, p. 364).
Despite increasing interest in this construct, ndings from an array of
empirical studies at best have been inconclusive germane to how social
media news and incidental exposure nourishes political learning.
Scholars have demonstrated positive (e.g., Lee & Kim, 2017; Yamamoto
& Morey, 2019), negative or even null effects (Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018; van
Erkel & Van Aelst, 2020), depending on the behavioral and cognitive
factors independently and directly examined. Moreover, most of these
studies do not examine the underlying mechanisms connecting inci-
dental news exposure and political learning, precluding us to gain a
deeper knowledge on the behavioral actions and cognitive processes
behind political learning on the online realm. This study addresses these
Drawing upon U.S. generalizable and diverse survey data collected in
2019, our study seeks to explicate and further advance the paradoxical
paths that connect citizens’ incidental news exposure and political
knowledge, both directly and indirectly. The primary contribution of the
current study is to understand the underlying mechanisms that can
* Corresponding author. Political Science University of Salamanca, Campus Unamuno s/n, 37007, Salamanca, Spain.
E-mail address: email@example.com (H. Gil de Zú˜
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Computers in Human Behavior
journal homepage: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/comphumbeh
Received 19 May 2020; Received in revised form 24 December 2020; Accepted 27 March 2021
Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
explain the path from incidental news exposure to political knowledge.
Whereas data suggests null or mild negative direct associations between
incidental news exposure and political knowledge, advancing a two
serial mediator model shows that incidental news exposure is positively
related to political knowledge through people’s news thorough infor-
mation engagement and cognitive elaboration.
1. Incidental news exposure, political knowledge, and the news
Although incidental news exposure is often referred to in terms of
online news gathering habits, it is not a new phenomenon (Karnowski,
Kumpel, Leonhard & Leiner (2017). In fact, Downs (1957) had explained
two different mechanisms of newsgathering: “sought-for-data” and
“accidental data” (Downs, 1957, p. 223). A few decades later Tewksbury
et al. (2001) highlighted that newsgathering can be purposive and
non-purposive. Purposive newsgathering is directional and conscious
and is prevalent in the context of traditional media since the news is
often segregated from other media content (Tewksbury et al., 2001).
However, given today’s digital and social media contexts, exposure to
news may also be non-intentional, which prior literature termed as
“incidental news exposure” (Tewksbury et al., 2001; Bates, 2002;
A large body of research has examined incidental news exposure (e.
g., Fletcher & Nielsen, 2017; Lee & Kim, 2017; Kim et al., 2013;
Valeriani & Vaccari, 2016). Most of these research demonstrates benets
of incidental news exposure, including enhanced political participation,
political knowledge, information seeking, argument repertoire recall,
and news engagement. Incidental news exposure on social media plat-
forms was associated with greater online political participation in Eu-
ropean countries (Valeriani & Vaccari, 2016) and political participation
in the U.S. (Kim et al., 2013), increased online political information
seeking (Lee & Yang, 2014; Yamamoto & Morey, 2019), use of more
diverse news sources (Fletcher & Nielsen, 2017; Strauß, Huber, & Gil
niga, 2020), higher news information recognition and recall (Lee &
Kim, 2017), and prompted active news engagement (Oeldorf-Hirsch,
A central concept in the political communication literature is polit-
ical knowledge (Mondak, 2001). An informed citizenry is a
much-desired democratic outcome (Amsalem & Nir, 2019; Gil de Zú˜
& Hsuan-Ting, 2019) and as a result there is an outsized research
focusing on examining the antecedents and consequences of political
knowledge (e.g., Galston, 2001; Miller & Krosnick). Scholars have
shown that citizens who are more knowledgeable hold consistent po-
litical views (Galston, 2001), are able to process news and information
faster (Miller & Krosnick, 2000), and participate more in politics
(Althaus, 2003). Consequently, understanding the behavioral and
cognitive mechanisms that both facilitate and hinder political knowl-
edge acquisition has become a long-lasting goal in academia (Gil de
Political knowledge inuences a variety of research areas including
public opinion, media effects, and voting behavior (Modak, 2001;
Amsalem & Nir, 2019). In general, political knowledge is dened as
citizen’s ability to answer factual questions about politics (Bourdreau &
Lupia, 2011; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). Learning about politics is
usually related to news media use (e.g., Kaufhold, Valenzuela, & Zú˜
2010; Lecheler & Vreese, 2017). Further, individuals who consumed
unfamiliar news information become more knowledgeable (Lecheler &
Vreese, 2017) and the level of political knowledge and news media tend
to signicantly inuence each other over time (Moeller & de Vreese,
In the context of emerging media, research investigating the inter-
relatedness between information gathering and political learning
abounds (Gottfried, Hardy, Holbert, Winneg, & Jamieson, 2016; Kenski
& Stroud, 2010). Social media users exposed to political information
were signicantly more knowledgeable regarding candidate
background facts (Gottfried et al., 2016) and people with higher expo-
sure to online information about presidential campaigns had signi-
cantly higher level of political knowledge (Kenski & Stroud, 2010). In
short, a stronger and healthier democracy heavily relies on the role of
news media to generate an informed public opinion.
2. Incidental news exposure and political knowledge
Individuals’ incidental news exposure is also related to learning and
political knowledge acquisition (e.g., Lee & Kim, 2017; Tewksbury et al.,
2001; Zukin & Snyder, 1984). For example, Zukin and Snyder (1984)
suggested that individuals accidently exposed to more election news and
advertising demonstrated more knowledge about the candidates. Like-
wise, people gain political knowledge through incidental exposure to
public service TV (Shehata, Hopmann, Nord, & Hoijer, 2015), as well as
when incidentally exposed to news headlines on portal sites such as
Yahoo! JAPAN (Kobayashi & Inamasu, 2015). This positive association
between incidental news and public affairs learning transpires beyond
quantitative work. Qualitative research (e.g. Bergstron & Belfrage,
2018; Feezell, 2018; Yadamsuren & Erdelez, 2010) also provides evi-
dence that supports the theoretical link between incidental news expo-
sure and knowledge. For instance, individuals acknowledged its
importance in keeping them informed about current events (Bergstron &
Belfrage, 2018), providing richer exposure to diverse political news in-
formation on Facebook which facilitated learning (Feezell, 2018), and as
means for individuals to learn about new topics and acquire knowledge
(Yadamsuren & Erdelez, 2010).
Albeit important, conicting ndings have also been reported
regarding the path from incidental news exposure to political knowledge
(Feezell & Ortiz, 2019; Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018; van Erkel & Van Aelst,
2020). In a more general analysis, a myriad of studies has underscored
the negative association between use of social media platforms and
political knowledge (Gotfried et al., 2017; Cacciatore et al., 2018; Lee &
Xenos, 2019; van Erkel & Van Aelst, 2020). Typically, these studies do
not differentiate between purposive or accidental nature of such expo-
sure. We argue that they may be crucial in accounting for citizens’ level
of political knowledge. For instance, Lee and Xenos (2019), found that
political social media use does not predict political knowledge, whereas
general social media use negatively impacted (van Erkel & Van Aelst,
2020). Specically, Facebook use is negatively associated to political
knowledge (Lee & Xenos, 2019; van Erkel & Van Aelst, 2020), a platform
growingly used for passing time (Boczkowski, Mitchelstein, & Matassi,
Similarly, Baum (2003), demonstrated that soft news consumption is
negatively related to political learning, and incidental news is typically a
crucial source of soft news encountering, especially in social media
(Boczkowski et al., 2018; Yoo & Gil DeZú˜
niga, 2019). Similarly,
Cacciatore et al. (2018) showed that increased levels of Facebook use
has a negative inuence on political knowledge. We argue that such
multitasking activities are in part, mixed with incidental news stimuli.
All told, due to the inconclusive ndings regarding the direct asso-
ciation between incidental news exposure and political knowledge
acquisition, we cannot clearly ascertain neither the direction nor the
signicance of such relation. Accordingly, the following research ques-
tion is formulated:
RQ1: What is the direct relationship between incidental news
exposure and political knowledge?
3. Incidental news exposure, thorough engagement, and
Due to the mixed ndings related to the effects of incidental news
exposure on political knowledge acquisition, this study suggests there is
a need to examine the underlying mechanisms of inadvertent news
exposure process to determine its association to political learning. The
H. Gil de Zú˜
niga et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
importance of information processing variables such as deep and thor-
ough information engagement with news have received attention from
scholars over the years (e.g., Eveland, 2001, 2004; Lee & Kim, 2017).
Thorough information engagement refers to how users engage with the
news when they are exposed to this information. Reading the informa-
tion in depth, and not simply quickly skimming over, is ‘thorough’ in-
formation engagement. Individuals will need to pay attention to the
information upon exposure to deeply engage with the material. Atten-
tion to news is thus, a primary factor in determining the inuence of
news exposure on learning (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986; Drew & Weaver,
1990; McLeod & McDonald, 1985). In terms of social media, attention is
often operationalized as engagement due to the difculty of measuring
social media attention (Choi, 2014; Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018). For example,
when one is unintentionally exposed to news on social media, in-
dividuals have two options, quickly skim the headline, or conversely
read the material carefully till the end, thoroughly engaging with the
information. The latter is the construct of interest in this study.
Being incidentally exposed to news is not a “happy accident”
(Thorson, 2018), especially on social media. It is important to note that
in social media platforms all users are not equally exposed to news and
information (Gil de Zú˜
niga and Hsuan-Ting, 2019). Thus, it is vital to
pay attention to the inequalities in how people are exposed to news. This
is key to understand the breath of this phenomenon. Likewise, algo-
rithmic lters and curation can display news or information liked or
shared by users with strong interactions (Karnowski, Kümpel, Leonhard,
& Leiner, 2017). Moreover, friends and acquaintances can also share,
re-tweet or like informative contents, connecting such information with
potential users, as a form of social network curation.
Beyond intentional or accidental news seeking, a growing number of
scholars have started shed light over the factors that connect incidental
news consumption with learning and engagement (Karnowski et al.,
2017; Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018). First, it should be noted that being
“inadvertently exposed to news on SNS does not necessarily mean being
exposed to the whole piece” (Karnowski et al., 2017, p. 44). This means
that users can stumble upon news, but they do not necessarily engage
with such content beyond reading a few lines or just the headline. As a
result, users’ cognitive elaboration processes maybe weaker than those
who have engaged in a thorough reading, consequently limiting the
potential learning (Eveland, 2001; Knoll, Matthes, & Heiss, 2018;
Stegmann, Wecker, Weinberger, & Fischer, 2012). Cognitive elaboration
is the process of reecting on the information that individuals encounter
in the news, making sense of it as it relates to their own lives. The process
of cognitive elaboration would involve critically thinking about the
material (Eveland, 2001; Jung, Kim, & Gil deZúniga, 2011) and “using
additional information taken from or inferred in combination with prior
knowledge” (Stegmann et al., 2012, p. 300). And this systematic
cognitive processing becomes a contributing factor for people to discern
relevance appraisal (Cho et al., 2009).
We argue that higher people get accidently exposed to news, the
higher chances they will have thoroughly engage with the information
encountered, especially when such information is interesting or the user
has previous knowledge about it (Karnowski et al., 2017). More
importantly, we theorize this type of information engagement will have
cognitive and political learning consequences. The incidental exposition
to news is pervasive (Morris & Morris, 2017), increasing the likelihood
of engaging in a thorough reading as users may feel they are missing an
important account of social reality. Therefore, news contents not sys-
tematically processed may become salient, inducing users to engage
with it. As Knoll et al. (2018) emphasize, incidental exposure describes
when people may take part in implicit processing of news content, where
even supercial or unconscious process may induce behavioral effects.
One such behavioral effect should be users’ deeper and thorough
engagement with the news information. Thus, we propose:
H1. Incidental news exposure is positively associated to thorough
engagement with news information.
When linking news exposure and political learning, cognitive elab-
oration is another potential variable that merits further exploration
na, & Gil deZú˜
niga, 2020). Elaboration refers to “con-
necting new information to other information stored in the memory,
including prior knowledge, personal experiences, or the connection of
two new bits of information together in new ways” that are meaningful
to one-self and the surrounding life circumstances (Eveland, 2001, p.
573). In his seminal “cognitive mediation model,” Eveland (2001) shows
news exposure was positively associated with information processing
variables such as “attention” and “elaboration,” which in turn inu-
enced political learning. Through thorough engagement with the in-
formation and cognitive elaboration, individuals increase the memory
store and the ability to recall (Jung et al., 2001; Kim, Chadha, & Gil de
A central question behind this literature is to test whether incidental
news exposure yields similar effects on elaboration as intentional news
seeking (Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018; Kim, Chadha, & Gil deZú˜
niga, 2018). In
the cognitive mediation model (Eveland, 2001; Jung et al., 2011), the
association between new use and knowledge is mediated by information
processing variables (i.e., news cognitive elaboration). Several scholars
have furnished strong empirical research on the possible power of
incidental exposure in triggering cognitive elaboration (Oeldof-Hirsch,
2018; Wei & Lo, 2008). Many of the incidental inputs may be positively
appraised, fostering the engagement in elaborate processing (Knoll
et al., 2018; also see; Kim et al., 2013). Therefore, we propose:
H2. Incidental news exposure is positively associated to cognitive
4. Thorough news consumption, cognitive elaboration, and
As indicated above, inadvertent news exposure alone does not
determine great or deeper engagement with such content and informa-
tion (Karnowski et al., 2017). Consequently, a user not interested in a
particular political topic may partially read the accidental contents
encountered, for instance skimming the headline, article or reading few
lines of the text. On the contrary, for instance, users interested in a
recent sanctioned public policy may be more prone to engage in a more
thorough reading if they accidently encounter such content while
checking their Facebook feed. Attention, time, and cognitive effort are
vital factors in processing news contents (Eveland, 2001; Jung et al.,
2011; Kim et al., 2018). Engaging in depth with the information should
spark knowledge acquisition. Prior research has shown that elaboration
of information is associated with learning (e.g., McNamara, Kintsch,
Butler-Songer, & Kintsch, 1996; Stein & Bransford, 1979). In line with
this reasoning, citizens that thoroughly engage with political informa-
tion will retain and gain political facts. Accordingly:
H3. Thorough engagement with information is positively related to
Importantly, prior scholarship has also established the link between
cognitive elaboration and political knowledge. Elaboration is a mediator
impacting the relationship between motivations for active news use and
political knowledge acquisition (Eveland, 2002; Cho et al., 2009; Jung
et al., 2011). Other studies further pointed out that elaboration is related
to individuals’ knowledge structure density in news use, which is a more
salient form of learning (Eveland, Marton, & Seo, 2004). Accordingly,
cognitive elaboration is generally considered as a fundamental mental
process that links new information acquisition with pre-existing
knowledge (Eveland, 2001; Kim et al., 2018), as it is a causal process
after news consumption (Perse, 2001). Similarly, it theoretically plau-
sible that incidental news cognitive elaboration may lead to political
H4. Cognitive elaboration is positively related to political knowledge
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Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
The role of news engagement and cognitive elaboration as a medi-
ator in terms of incidental news exposure and political knowledge is
relatively new (Karnowski et al., 2017; Oeldof-Hirsch, 2018; Wei & Lo,
2008). Building to this scholarship this study provides an integrative and
theoretically driven model that accounts for behavioral and cognitive
differences. Engagement may be a pre-condition of effective learning
outcomes, as may engage in systematic process of such information only
after they have payed attention to the information. By engaging with
news contents, citizens’ spur the cognitive process germane to incidental
news inputs, bringing the new information together with prior knowl-
edge. As result of this cognitive process, people learn from news, inci-
dental or intentional (Knoll et al., 2018). As a result, we expect that
citizens that exhibit greater levels of incidental exposure to news will
have more chances to thoroughly engage with information. And those
who do, will in turn reect on that information and cognitively elaborate
about such incidentally gathered information which ultimately, will be
related to enhanced levels of political knowledge. A more formal theo-
H5. Incidental exposure to news will be positively related to political
knowledge through a double mediation mechanism via a) thorough in-
formation engagement, and b) cognitive elaboration.
This study draws upon a survey data sample seeking US national
representativeness, elded in June of 2019. Researchers at University of
Vienna contracted IPSOS Austria to provide the subjects for the survey.
The questionnaire was elaborated and administered via Qualtrics. To
achieve US national representativeness and pursue generalizable in-
ferences on the US population, IPSOS Austria curates a massive panel of
US individuals/respondents of hundreds of thousands. They stratied a
subsample of 3000 individuals from this pool, matching key de-
mographic elements from the US census (i.e., gender, education, and
The nal sample left 1338 valid cases, yielding a cooperation rate of
45.5% (AAPOR, 2018). Overall, the sample fairly resembles key US
census demographic breakdowns (see Gil de Zú˜
alez & Goyanes, 2021), and also compares fairly well to survey data
collected at a similar time by the Pew American Life Project by RDS (Pew
American Life Project, 2018).
5.2. Endogenous and exogenous measurements
5.2.1. Thorough information engagement
Individual conscientious news engagement is measured by three
items (on a 10-point scale from “never” =1 to “all the time” =10),
asking respondents’ their reading strategies, when it comes to keep up
with the news (written, video, pictures). Items included: “thoroughly
follow through the entire news piece (written/video)”, “click on the
news link and listen or read the entire news piece” and “read the entire
news article until the end” (M =5.64, SD =2.71,
5.2.2. Political knowledge
We used measures of participants’ awareness of current events and
politics in the U.S., as well as its political system and chief institutional
rules (see Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1993; Moeller & Vreese, 2015). The
rst two questions were open-ended. Participants were asked to name
the positions held by Mike Pence and Brett Kavanaugh at the moment in
which the survey was administered. The next six items were multiple
choice and inquired participants to pinpoint the interval of a term for “U.
S. Senators,” “the budget item on which the U.S. Federal government
spent the least,” “the party afliation of the Senators who introduced
“For the People Act” bill,” “the ruling government system of the U.S,”
“the name of the country embassy in which WikiLeaks founder, William
Assange, was sheltered,” and “the name of the presidential candidate
that accused a liberal think tank to undermine Democrats’ chances of
taking back the White House in 2020 by “using its resources to smear”
contenders.” Correct answers were coded as 1, while incorrect or
missing ones were coded as 0 (M =2.77, SD =2.02, Guttman λ =0.71).
5.2.3. Cognitive elaboration
Cognitive elaboration was measured with the average scores (1 =
never, 10 =all the time) to items related to elaboration of news (Eve-
land, 2001; Jung et al., 2011). The index included two items: how
frequently respondents “think about what I have encountered in the
news” and “try to relate the news I encountered to other things I know”
(M =5.29, SD =2.70, Spearman-Brown coefcient =0.90).
5.2.4. Incidental exposure to news
This construct taps on the amount of information about current
events, political matters, or public affair issues respondents report to
inadvertently acquire accidently (Kim et al., 2013; Tewksbury et al.,
2001). The variable was measured by averaging the scores (1 =never,
10 =all the time) of ten items. The participants were asked to respond to
the question “Sometimes people encounter or come across news and
information on current events, public issues, or politics when they may
have been using media for a purpose other than to get the news. How
often does that happen to you” for each of these media: “tv”, “radio”,
“mobile devices”, “search engines”, “blogs”, “SNS”, “WhatsApp”,
“Facebook”, “Twitter” and “Instagram” (M =5.21, SD =2.15,
We added multiple variables to account for any confounds. As extant
research has pointed out (Cho & McLeod, 2007; McLeod & Perse, 1994),
different demographic, political and media antecedents have been
shown to impact the level our dependent variable, i.e. political knowl-
edge. A set of sociodemographic variables were shown to inuence
citizens’ levels of political knowledge (Eveland, Hayes, Shah, & Kwak,
2005; Jung et al., 2011) and hence we control for gender (46.7% males),
age (Median =3 [36–55]), education attainment (Median =3 [Some
college], range =1 “less than high school to 8 “doctoral degree”), family
income (Median =4 [$50,000 to $99,999], range =1 “0 to $14,999” to
7 “$200,000 or more”), and race (75.2% white). Motivations of political
knowledge and previous political behaviors have been shown to have a
strong impact on citizens’ level of political knowledge. Citizens that
usually engage in political behaviors may be more prone to be more
knowledgeable about politics too. Among such motivational and
behavioral political variables, political ideology, ofine political dis-
cussion, online political discussion, political interest and political ef-
cacy where shown to strongly predict citizens’ levels of political
knowledge and, therefore, all of them were included as potential co-
founds (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Cho et al., 2006; Gil de Zú˜
et al., 2017, 2019). Finally, news use and network size were also
controlled as they may inuence citizens’ political knowledge.
5.3.1. Political ideology
This construct computes respondents’ general, political and eco-
nomic ideology by creating an index of three items captured on a ten-
point scale (0 =strong democrat, 5 =Independent, and 10 =Strong
Republican): “generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a
Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or something else?“, “on po-
litical issues, where would you place yourself” and “on economic issues,
where would you place yourself” (M =6.31, SD =2.67,
5.3.2. Ofine political discussion
This variable was computed by asking participants about the fre-
quency that they discuss politics (Borah, Edgerly, Vraga, & Shah, 2013;
Valenzuela et al., 2012; Kim et al., 2018). Specically, questions asked
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Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
respondents how often they talk face-to-face with: “spouse/partner,
family, relatives”, “friends”, “Neighbors, co-workers you know well”,
“Acquaintances” and “strangers” (M =4.14, SD =2.13,
5.3.3. Online political discussion
This variable was computed with the help of questions that the
participants used to discuss politics with people (Kolstad, 2011). Spe-
cically, the questions asked how often they talk online with: “spouse/
partner, family, relatives”, “friends”, “Neighbors, co-workers you know
well”, “Acquaintances” and “strangers” (M =3.03, SD =2.07,
5.3.4. Political interest
This variables was measured (e.g. Kenski & Stroud, 2006) based on
questions that asked respondents about their interest in political infor-
mation and about their attention to politics (M =6.13, SD =2.72,
Spearman-Brown coefcient =0.94), on a ten-point scale (1 =not at all
to 10 =a great deal).
5.3.5. Political efcacy
Citizens’ perceptions on their level of internal political efcacy are
more prone to consume news about public affair and politics and be
more knowledgeable as a result (Morrell, 2003; Niemi, Craig, & Mattei,
1991). The statements used were “I have a good understanding of the
important political issues facing our country” and “I consider myself
well qualied to participate in politics”, on a ten-point scale ranging
from 1 =strongly agree to 10 =strongly disagree (M =5.91, SD =2.44,
Spearman-Brown coefcient =0.81).
5.3.6. News use
An exhaustive construct of news use consumption was created with
the help of 15 items. These were measured on a 10-point scale (1 =never
to 10 =all the time): “network TV news (e.g., ABC, CBS, NBC)”, “local
television news (cf. Local afliate stations)”, “infotainment programs (e.
g., The Daily Show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert)”, “national
newspapers (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today)”,
“local newspapers (e.g., Oregonian, Houston Chronicle, The Miami
Herald)”, “MSNBC cable news”, “CNN cable news”, “FOX cable news”,
“radio news (e.g., NPR, talk shows)”, “citizen journalism sites (e.g.,
GroundReport, CNN’s iReport)”, “Online news sites (e.g., Politico, VOX,
BuzzFeed)”, “local news online sites (online sites related to news in your
local community)”, “local news on social media”, “national news on
social media”, “Podcast (online or smartphone)” and “International
news outlets (e.g., BBC, Al Jazeera)” (M =4.16, SD =1.97,
5.3.7. Network size
This variable was computed with two items (Moy & Gastil, 2006),
that measured on a ten-point scale about the number of people the re-
spondents talked to face-to-face or over the phone and about how many
the participants have talked to online, including “email,” “chat rooms,”
“social networks” (M =4.27, SD =12.94, Spearman-Brown coefcient
5.4. Analysis strategy
To test our main hypothesis and research question, we conducted a
series of hierarchical ordinary least-squares regressions with three
different independent variables (H1-H3 and RQ1): thorough engage-
ment with information, cognitive elaboration and political knowledge.
After the series of OLS regressions and to test whether thorough infor-
mation engagement and cognitive elaboration mediate between inci-
dental news exposure and political knowledge, we used PROCESS macro
for SPSS (Hayes, 2013, Model 6 [2 serial mediators], 95% CI and 5.000
bootstrapped samples, H4a-b-c).
First, to learn more about key variables in the study, a zero-order
correlation table is introduced (see Table 1). We expected incidental
exposure to news to be positively associated with both thorough infor-
mation engagement (H1a) and cognitive elaboration (H1b). Consistent
with these theoretical predictions, Table 2 shows that incidental expo-
sure to news positively affects both through information engagement (β
=0.104, p <.001) and cognitive elaboration (β =0.096, p <.001).
Therefore, the more citizens are passively exposed to news, the more are
their chances to thoroughly engage with and think about the news
contents they stumble upon.
The thorough information engagement model accounts for 36.4% of
the total variance. Next, the cognitive elaboration regression model
accounted for 37.6%, after controlling for all potential cofounders; while
the political knowledge regression model, accounted for 31.8% of the
total variance, having therefore a considerable explanatory power.
Also consistent with our expectation (H2), results from the hierar-
chical OLS regression indicate a positive relationship between through
engagement with information and political knowledge (β =.125, p <
.001). Those users who thoroughly engage in the news reading show a
positive relationship with their political knowledge as a result. Likewise,
as expected (H3), cognitive elaboration is positively associated to po-
litical knowledge (β =0.117, p <.001), and therefore, users who
frequently reected on what they encountered in the news about public
affairs and politics showed higher political knowledge too.
Results also indicate a negative and statistically signicant associa-
tion between incidental exposure to news and political knowledge (β =
−0.065, p <.05). Therefore, citizens that reported higher levels of
incidental exposure to news are more likely to know less about politics.
In order to test the potential serial mechanisms that might facilitate
political knowledge, we t the model 6 for the PROCESS macro for SPSS.
Consistent with our hypothesis, citizens that reported higher levels of
incidental exposure to new are more likely to thoroughly engage with
news, which in turn positively predicts their overall levels of political
knowledge (indirect effect =0.0124, 95% MC CIs =[0033 to 0.0242];
for full model see Table 3 and Fig. 1).
H4b predicted that incidental news exposure facilitates political
knowledge through cognitive elaboration. Results of the mediation
analysis yielded a positive association, showing that our prediction is
empirically supported. Therefore, higher incidental exposure to news is
positively related to higher cognitive elaboration, which in turn is
positively associated with citizens’ level of political knowledge (indirect
effect =0.011, 95% MC CIs =[0.0025 to 0.0226]).
The nal serial mechanism by which incidental exposure to news
may facilitate political knowledge include the two mediators: thorough
information engagement and cognitive elaboration. As theorized (H4c),
incidental news exposure facilitates political knowledge through thor-
ough information engagement and cognitive elaboration (indirect effect
=0.002, 95% MC CIs =[0.0004 to 0.0041]). Therefore, citizens’ higher
levels of incidental exposure to news are and higher thorough engage-
ment with news contents, were positively associated with their level of
cognitive elaboration and higher level of political knowledge.
Zero order correlations.
Variables 1 2 3 4
1. News Use –
2. Incidental News Exposure .498*** –
3. Thorough Information Engagement .565*** .355*** –
4. Cognitive Elaboration .426*** .339*** .389*** –
5. Political Knowledge .062* .015 .216*** .227***
Note. Sample size =1365. *p <.05; **p <.01; p <.001.
H. Gil de Zú˜
niga et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
An extensive body of research have examined the relationship be-
tween incidental news exposure and political learning (e.g., Fletcher &
Nielsen, 2017; Kim et al., 2013; Lee & Kim, 2017; Yamamoto & Morey,
2019). Yet, the ndings are not entirely conclusive (e.g., Oeldorf-Hirsch,
2018; Yoo & Gil de Zú˜
niga, 2014). Our study lls that gap in several
meaningful ways. First, it offers a more nuanced model introducing
different ways through which people engage with incidental news
content. It also accounts for people’s mental elaboration and cognitive
processing. Our ndings show that the direct effects from incidental
news exposure to political knowledge seem to be either null or even
negative. However, incidental news exposure is directly related to more
deeply engaging with the content individuals get exposed to inadver-
tently, as well as to cognitive elaboration of that information. Most
importantly, our ndings reveal that there is a mediated effect from
incidental news exposure to political knowledge via these paths: a)
thorough news information use, b) cognitive elaboration and c) by
means of thorough information engagement, and cognitive elaboration.
In a nutshell, the study’s results are able to offer an explanation as to
why over the years scholars have found inconsistent effects of incidental
news exposure on political knowledge such as positive (e.g., Lee & Kim,
2017; Yamamoto & Morey, 2019) or null and negative effects (Oel-
dorf-Hirsch, 2018; Gotfried et al., 2017; Cacciatore et al., 2018; Lee &
Xenos, 2019). Prior research has shown that sometimes individuals learn
from stumbling upon news and while other times they don’t. Findings
from this study suggest that the answer might not necessarily depend
solely on the exposure, the amount of exposure, or even the frequency of
exposure. But rather what individuals tend to do after they get inci-
dentally exposed to news.
Deeply engaging with the information (Eveland, 2001; Jung et al.,
2011) that they were inadvertently exposed to also matters. When
people use news and information strategies that include exhaustive
reading, thorough watching/listening, and going through the ‘whole
news’ experience as intended by journalists, incidental news exposure
fuels political learning. Thus, it is important to discern how individuals
engage with news content and think about it. Individuals who thor-
oughly engage with the information yield further political knowledge
gain. The ndings show a very similar relationship with cognitive
elaboration. When individuals make better connections cognitively,
they may have a better understanding of important public affair issues,
and better connect those with their lives. Likewise, cognitive elaboration
allows citizens to connect prior knowledge more efciently with the new
information they may have been exposed to incidentally. As results
attest, the cognitive connections have important implications for
Nonetheless, our study comes with some important limitations. First,
relying on cross-sectional survey data to test causal mediating mecha-
nisms is problematic. However, mediation models guided by theory
have been successfully tested by prior research (e.g., Chen & Chen,
2020; Kong & Wang, 2020; Lab˘
ar & T¸epordei, 2019; Lee & Borah, 2020).
Specically, the mediating mechanism of news surveillance variables,
leading to cognitive reection and to political learning is a
well-established theoretical model in the literature (see for instance
Eveland, 2002; Jung et al., 2011; Cho et al., 2009). As such, this previous
scholarship lends a layer of condence and theoretical validity to the
directionality of our theoretical model.
Additionally, we test the effects of the incidental news exposure as
frequency self-assessment. That is, we do not content analyze the type of
incidental news exposure on social media. Future research could study
the kind of information that individuals are exposed to incidentally. The
current study is fundamental in understanding the mechanism involved
after individuals are incidentally exposed to news, leading to gain in
political knowledge. These paths are important to show that when in-
dividuals engage with the content, incidental news exposure shows
positive relationships with political learning.
Future research should attempt to understand other such processes
that could bolster potential positive effects of incidental news exposure.
Variables such as social network connections and trust could play an
important role in this relationship. For example, there might be a dif-
ference in information processing and knowledge acquisition (Levin &
Cross, 2004) when the information comes from their friends (strong-ties)
versus people they do not know well (weak-ties). Trust in the informa-
tion could also inuence this relationship (Miller & Krosnick, 2000).
These paths could also be determined by the type of content such as
videos versus text and participants’ engagement with the content.
Future studies could also examine the antecedents of thorough
engagement and cognitive elaboration. We know now that thorough
engagement and cognitive elaboration are two important variables for
individuals to learn from incidental news exposure. To gain the benets
of this kind of exposure we need to think about what causes individuals
to engage with the content. Considering the high occurrence of inci-
dental news exposure on social media (Morris & Morris, 2017; Purcell,
Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Omstead, 2010), understanding what
makes people engage with the content is noteworthy.
Incidental news exposure predicting thorough information engagement, cogni-
tive elaboration and political knowledge.
Block 1: Demographic
Gender -.081* -.127*** -.229***
Age -.095** -.065* .200***
Education .100** .155*** .270***
Income .040 -.016 .147***
Race .027 -.023 .011
(%) 3.0% 4.0% 25.4%
Block 2: Antecedents
Political Ideology -.060* -.100*** -.053
News Use .553*** .119*** -.006
Political Interest -.003 .032 .069*
Political Efcacy .030 .050 .054
.108** .426*** .117**
-.111** .066 -.097*
Network Size .103*** .047 .128***
(%) 35.6% 35.0% 29.3%
Block 3: Mediators
– .172*** .125***
– – .117***
(%) – 36.9% 31.5%
Block 4: Variable of Interest
.104*** .096*** -.065*
(%) 36.4% 37.6% 31.8%
Note. Sample size =1365. Cell entries are nal-entry OLS standardized Beta (β)
coefcients. *p <.05; **p <.01; p <.001.
Direct and indirect effects of incidental news exposure on political knowledge.
Note. Standardized path coefcients. Controlled for age, education, income,
race, political ideology, news use, political interest, political efcacy, ofine
political discussion, online political discussion and network size.
H. Gil de Zú˜
niga et al.
Computers in Human Behavior 121 (2021) 106803
The current study was conducted in the U.S. and as such are related
to the population of the U.S. The phenomenon of being incidentally
exposed to news is common around the world. Almost 50% of the global
population uses social media platforms (Clement, 2020) and they are
equally likely to be accidently exposed to news as demonstrated in our
participants from the U.S. We think that the inuence of this exposure
and the underlying mechanisms will possibly and relatively be the same
on individuals regardless of which part of the world they are from.
Although there is no research that has compared these mechanisms in
different parts of the world, ndings from research on psychological
well-being (Spencer-Rodgers, Peng, Wang, & Hou, 2004) or collective
vs. individual characteristics (Chao, Zhang, & Chiu et al., 2008)
demonstrate country-level differences. Thus, future research should test
our hypotheses in different countries and distinct cultures. A compara-
tive study would shed light into the phenomenon of incidental news
exposure and the underlying mechanisms around the world.
All in all, this study has important theoretical and practical impli-
cations. Theoretically, it takes initial steps to explain the potential un-
derlying mechanisms involved in the path from incidental news
exposure to political knowledge acquisition. A valuable contribution to
the literature because it shed light over the mixed ndings puzzle from
prior research. Our ndings also open a whole area for future research,
which can help understand these mechanisms further. Likewise, the
study encapsulates important implications for journalists. Knowing the
process by which incidental news exposure can help people gain
knowledge, journalists can pay attention to strategies that might help
individuals who are just scrolling their social media feeds to engage with
the news content. These are individuals who are not necessarily looking
for news and yet they are learning about politics from incidental news
exposure. As social media and algorithmically curated news consump-
tion mechanisms continue to ourish, incidental news exposure research
will continue to gain visibility. This study is a modest step contributing
to this literature.
Credit author statement
This document is to state that all authors fairly contributed to the
manuscript and deserve authorship. First author designed the study,
collected the data, run the analyses, and wrote the paper. Second author
contributed to rene the ideas and write the paper. Third author
contributed to rene the ideas, write the paper, and helped with the data
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Homero Gil de Zú˜
niga. Ph.D. in Politics at Universidad Europea de Madrid and Ph.D. in
Mass Communication at University of Wisconsin – Madison, serves as Distinguished
Research Professor at University of Salamanca where he directs the Democracy Research
Unit (DRU), as Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and as Senior Research Fellow
at Universidad Diego Portales, Chile. His research addresses the inuence of new
technologies and digital media over people’s daily lives, as well as the effect of such use on
the overall democratic process.
Porismita Borah. Ph.D. in Mass Communication at University of Wisconsin – Madison, is
part of the graduate faculty in the Murrow College and in the Prevention Science program
in WSU. She is also afliated with the Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion. Her
research interests are emerging technology in the context of politics and health. Her
research has been published in many prestigious journals including Journal of Commu-
nication and Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. She serves in the editorial
boards of journals including Journal of Communication and Journal of Information
Technology and Politics.
Manuel Goyanes. Ph.D. in Journalism at Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, teaches
at Carlos III University in Madrid and his main interests are in media management and
sociology of communication sciences. He has written about leadership, news overload, and
business models. His works have appeared in journals like Information, Communication &
Society, Journalism, Journalism Studies, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly,
and so on.
H. Gil de Zú˜
niga et al.