Do partisan media add to political polarization?

Political scientist Matthew Levendusky finds that partisan media does indeed push some Americans further to the extremes.

Is this man hazardous to the nation's political health? Image credit: Fox

A recent landmark report from the Pew Research Center suggests that Americans are more polarized than ever. Pew found, for example, that the “median” Republican today is more conservative than 94 percent of Democrats, and that the “median” Democrat is now more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans.

While a multiplicity of factors no doubt account for the growing ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans, the rise of partisan media is an obvious potential culprit. Many of the most well-known figures working in media today – conservative talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, for example – are unabashedly partisan.

But is there evidence that partisan media actually contributes to polarization? University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky argues yes. He is the author of How Partisan Media Polarize America, published by the University of Chicago Press. This interview has been edited for length. 

 R3.0: Let’s first lay the context. What are the broad recent trends you’ve observed in the media landscape?

Levendusky: The biggest change has been the proliferation of news outlets. If you went back to 1980, there really wasn’t a whole lot of choice. If you wanted to watch TV news, you had the “big three.” Before the rise of talk radio, you only had a small number of major content providers. There was no Internet, no blogs, no cable.

With the expansion of cable and the explosion of the Internet, people have many more choices now than they used to. One consequence is that people can tailor the kind of news they get in a way that wasn’t possible a generation ago. The biggest change is the rise of partisan media.

R3.0: How is “partisan media” defined?

When you think about classic, “objective” journalism, you don’t take a position; you remain neutral; you just report the facts. But on partisan sites, there is a particular slant to the news. If you were to watch Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity, it would be pretty clear where their sympathies lie. Likewise, if you were to read Townhall or Daily Kos, it would again be pretty clear where the writer’s or commentator’s sympathies lie.

R3.0: And it’s not just a matter of opinions being injected into the coverage but also editorial choice of content, right?

Levendusky: Exactly. What Fox will talk about is often very different from what MSNBC will talk about once you get past the biggest stories of the day. They will all cover the big news stories, obviously with their own slants on them. But the interesting thing is the other stories they choose to cover.

Fox, for example, tends to cover stories that they know will appeal to conservatives and that on average tend to make Democrats look worse.

R3.0: The proliferation of partisan media seems to indicate there’s a market for it. What is its appeal and why are people drawn to it?

Levendusky: We know from work in psychology that people like to hear their own beliefs echoed back to them. There seems to be some pretty strong evidence that humans are naturally predisposed to like hearing what they already sort of believe.

This is “ confirmation bias” and “disconfirmation bias” – people are drawn to evidence that they already like, and when they find evidence to the contrary of a belief – particularly a strongly held belief –they don’t usually rethink their position.

So if you’re a conservative and you sit down and watch Sean Hannity, you’ll see coverage of the news that fits systematically with your point of view. Likewise if you’re a liberal and you watch Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes, you’ll see the same thing. People get the feeling they’re being informed, but it’s all within a framework that’s pretty congenial to them.

Another way of thinking about [the appeal of these shows] is from a “team” model – as a way of expressing your identity for your “team” or your “side.” Finally, these shows also tend to be a little more engaging and more dramatic than a regular newscast. It’s not as cut-and-dried as watching the PBS Newshour.

R3.0: Your book looks at the impact of exposure to polarized media in three aspects – the effect it has on the positions people take; attitudes that people have toward the other political party and their willingness to compromise; and voting behavior. What are the broad conclusions you’ve drawn?

Levendusky: The book shows in general how partisan media – particularly reinforcing media – tend to make people a little more extreme, a little less positive toward the other side, more unwilling to compromise, and more willing to ascribe negative traits to the leaders of the other party.

But there’s an important caveat: a lot of these findings are centered on those who are more likely to encounter that type of media. It’s not that [these media] take people who are uninterested and uninformed and polarize them; people who are somewhat polarized go to these sources, and it pushes them further out.

To analogize to a bell curve, it’s not the people at the center of the distribution who are being affected, it’s more the people who are at the tails that are being drawn by these sources.

R3.0: How did you measure this empirically? How do you disentangle cause and effect if people are already predisposed this way?

Levendusky:  Much of the book talks about the experiments we used to study this.

First, I tried to find issues where people wouldn’t necessarily have strong prior views. For example, one of the issues [I used] was how we should prosecute terrorism suspects: should they be tried in a military court or should they be tried in a civilian court?

When you expose people to a stimulus – something from a left-wing show, something from a right-wing show and something from a “neutral” show, such as PBS – you can see how that affects their attitude after watching the program relative to where they were before. People tended to move in the direction of the program that matches their views. So if you were a Democrat and you watched the left-wing show, you tended to move to the left, and if you were a Republican and you watched the right-wing show, you tended to move to the right.

R3.0: Overall, though, we’re talking about a minority of people who are susceptible to the effects of these media and have these extreme views. Why does it matter then for governance?

Levendusky: It matters on two levels. One, we know that the types of people who are watching these shows and are affected by them are more likely to participate in the political process.

These are the people who show up and vote in primaries; the ones who are calling campaigns to volunteer; and the ones who are getting out the vote and all the things that makes politics possible. These are the kinds of people that politicians in campaigns tend to pay a lot of attention to.

It also matters because they can affect the broader agenda. One of the things that we don’t have a very good understanding of is the ways in which stories from these outlets travel to the mainstream media.

We won’t ever know for certain what would have happened without Fox but something like what happened with Shirley Sherrod [the USDA official who was forced to resign after the release of a misleading video clip] got a lot of initial play on Fox News. Having these outlets can shape the terms and contours of the debate on broader issues.

And in a more subtle way, there’s some indirect influence. Maybe it’s a small percentage of people who watch Fox or MSNBC – it’s only a few million people per night – but those are the people other people ask about politics and government. These people then give their opinions to others, and that creates a way for these ideas to disburse through the population as well.

R3.0: So the center is not immune from this.

Levendusky: The center is not directly affected by it, but indirectly, certainly so.

R3.0: What does your research suggest might be a way to mitigate some of the impacts of media polarization?

Levendusky: I think it poses an interesting question to [mainstream] media organizations about they get some of their stories and how they factcheck. At the end of the book I quote a journalism professor who points out that while the Shirley Sherrod story was not completely untrue, there was a strong misinterpretation of the facts. That was a case where the media did not do its watchdog role in making sure that things were properly vetted and factchecked.  If they had, the narrative of the story would have turned out quite differently.