A generation ago, if ordinary Americans turned on the TV at 6 PM, they had basically one choice: to watch the evening news. They could have chosen to watch ABC, CBS, or NBC, but it wouldn’t really have mattered, because they all basically gave the same news in a similar format. Today, if they did that, they would have hundreds of options, including not just the news, but also sports, movies, reruns, and so forth. Even within news, they have a variety of choices. Not only would they have the major network news programs, but they would have many choices on cable, most notably the partisan outlets of Fox News and MSNBC (not to mention even more choices online). This choice over explicitly partisan outlets means that individuals can choose to hear messages that reinforce their beliefs, while avoiding those from alternative points of view, which some claim leads to polarization. Does this high-choice media environment, especially with its partisan outlets, polarize the mass public?
The research in this article shows the answer is “yes,” but in a more circumscribed way than many popular commentators suggest. In this article, “Why Do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers?” I conducted a series of experiments to examine the consequences of partisan media exposure (readers interested in the details of the experiments should consult the article). I find that exposure to partisan media sources such as Fox News or MSNBC has important effects of viewers, and makes them more polarized. But there is an important caveat to these results: these results are concentrated primarily among those who are more likely to watch these shows in the real world. For these viewers, watching the segments in my experiment had a big effect. But for those who avoid these shows in the real world (as most do), the segments in the experiment did not change their attitudes much at all.
What would generate this pattern of results? I cannot say exactly, but work in political psychology suggests an explanation. Those who watch these shows in the real world understand the language and symbols used on these shows, and they’re receptive to the arguments used on them. These viewers can make sense of the host’s message, and are motivated to accept it since it agrees with their point of view. So these viewers are affected by the show’s message, and become somewhat more polarized. But those who never watch typically don’t agree with the viewpoint of these shows, and are less likely to accept their point of view. Given this, they are largely unaffected by their messages.
This suggests an important caveat to how these programs polarize the mass public. Partisan media do increase polarization, but they do so lengthening the tails, rather than by shifting those in the ideological middle. Watching Fox News doesn’t make an Independent become a Republican, but it does help a moderate Republican become a more conservative Republican (and likely a more partisan figure as well).
Such polarization can have important spillover consequences. Because those who watch these shows are more partisan and ideological than other viewers, and are more likely to participate and make their voices heard in the halls of power, this shows how partisan media can skew the voices heard by elected officials. If elected officials hear extreme voices on the issues, this can push them further apart, thereby exacerbating polarization in Congress and other elected bodies.
Of course, there is much that remains to be learned about the effects of partisan media. First, we know essentially nothing about the indirect effects of these shows: do those who watch these shows transmit some of the effects to non-watchers through discussion in social networks? Does the Rachel Maddow fan in the cubicle next to you shape your opinions by telling you what she discussed on her show last night? Second, what is the effect of these shows on the broader media agenda, and on elites? Do the frames and issues that originate on Fox or MSNBC influence the broader media agenda? If so, that’s an important finding, as it shows how these networks help to shape what a wider swatch of Americans see. In general, we understand little about how news outlets influence one another, especially in a 24-hour news cycle. Given the rise of cable news in recent years, answering these types of questions is an important challenge for social science in the years to come.
About the Author: Matthew Levendusky is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Partisan Sort and How Partisan Media Polarize America, both published by the University of Chicago Press. His article, Why Do Partisan Media Polarize Viewers?, appears in the July 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.