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In an era when ideologically based news programs are proliferating, media scholars and political observers have expressed concern that television programming may be polarizing American voters.
But, according to research conducted by Temple political scientist Kevin Arceneaux, the increased availability of entertainment options in our media environment may be a bigger problem.
"We should be less concerned about Fox or MSNBC turning us into polarized voters and more concerned that with the fragmentation of the media, people can wall themselves off from news completely and just watch entertainment," said Arceneaux.
Insulation from Divergent Viewpoints
In research supported by the National Science Foundation, Arceneaux, along with his collaborator Martin Johnson of the University of California-Riverside, set out to test the claim that, by allowing people to insulate themselves from divergent viewpoints, cable television is polarizing the mass public into opposing camps. The results were presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
For the study, Arceneaux investigated the effects of slanted news on political attitudes under two different conditions — a forced condition or a choice condition. In one experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to either a forced condition where they were only exposed to a 15-minute segment from The Rachel Maddow Show or The O'Reilly Factor; a choice condition in which they could select to view either a segment of Hardball with Chris Matthews or one of two entertainment options, The Dog Whisperer or Dhani Tackles the Globe; or a control group where they were only assigned to one of the entertainment options. The self-identified ideology of the subjects was identified prior to the experiment.
Source of Extreme Positions
Arceneaux found that in the forced scenario people tended simply to reject or ignore programming that went against their own political viewpoints, whereas programming that conformed to viewers' political opinions caused them to adopt more extreme positions.
In other words, under a forced viewing condition, the biased broadcasts did indeed further polarize their viewers, but only by reinforcing currently-held beliefs.
Choice Dissipates Polarizing Effects
However, once the research subjects were allowed to choose what they watched, the polarizing effects dissipated.
"Politically-biased news shows cannot directly affect those who refuse to watch them, and in real life no one is forced to watch them," said Arceneaux. "By self-selecting out of political information entirely, rather than choosing to watch an ideologically congenial news source, the effects of biased communication in the media are diluted."
Also worth noting, said Arceneaux, is that the findings were obtained in an environment with choices that were quite limited compared to the numerous options available to home viewers.
In earlier days, when there were just three television networks, the nightly news set the national conversation: What Walter Cronkite talked about, everybody was talking about, explained Arceneaux.
Declining Knowledge + Black and White Terms
"Now with the explosion of entertainment options, we've created a problematic cocktail with a mix of declining knowledge, increasing voter turnout and election choices that are cast in black and white terms," he said.
Another possible influence the biased news programming may have — and an area for further research — is that these shows may be steering the bigger political conversation.
"It's possible that the fringe shows might be indirectly impacting what we hear by influencing the more balanced network shows to cover topics they might not have covered otherwise," Arceneaux said.
Editor, Carolyn Allen
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