How The Media May Be Contributing to Political Polarization

Source: Flickr

The 2016 election was the first major election in my family where we had extensive cable coverage — and thus, the twenty-four hour news cycle. And my family, used to the mellow voices of NPR’s Morning Edition and the calm colloquies of the PBS NewsHour, suddenly discovered cable news. Our TV blared with the noise of talking heads, political pundits, and politicians — and I’ve come to feel that all of their voices are just that — noise.

Political partisanship is clearly at an all-time high, with a Pew Research Center study reporting that for the first time since 1992, the majority of Democrats and Republicans say they view the opposing party “very unfavorably.” And half of the members of each party stated that the opposing party made them feel fear and anger. This growing political polarization has clearly played out in our nation’s politics, where politicians are often forced to play to the extremes of their party in order to survive in the political world.

Source: Pew

Obviously, there is a multitude of factors contributing to hyper-partisanship in the United States. And the twenty-four hour news cycle channels have been criticized immensely for fueling the flames of partisan rancor. With the growing prominence of screaming 24-hour news cycles, social media, and media outlets targeted towards individuals with specific political alignments, it is worth taking a look at how new forms of media may be helping to foster animosity towards those with differing views.

Matt Levundusky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, author of How Partisan Media Polarize America, found in his research that partisan media tends to make viewers more extreme, less positive towards the other side, more unwilling to compromise, and more willing to think of opposition party leaders in a negative fashion. To put it in plainer terms, Republicans who consumed more conservative media tended to move to the right, and Democrats who consumed more liberal media tended to move to the left.

Other scholarly research has come to similar conclusions. A 2010 study by Natalie Stroud of the University of Texas, Austin, found that liberal Democrats who consume their news from more liberal media outlets had more polarizing political attitudes compared to other liberal Democrats, and conservative Republicans who consumed more conservative media sources were more likely to have polarizing political attitudes compared to other conservative Republicans. And perhaps more interesting was the finding that consumption of more unbiased media sources, such as network news, was related to lower levels of polarization compared to others who had similar political beliefs.

These findings are significant. Not only do these studies show that partisan media may often cause increased polarization, but the Stroud study shows how unbiased media may be critically important — even vital — to maintaining a strong presence of moderate Democrats and Republicans in the electorate, who are critical to ensuring that moderate candidates more likely to forge bipartisan consensus are elected.

However, even seemingly moderate news sources have been criticized for fostering sensationalism and divisive rhetoric, often relying on talking heads representing conservatives and liberals to harshly battle it out on live television. In 2004, comedian and former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, known for his satirical and critical punches at the mainstream media, came on one such show, Crossfire, as a guest, harshly criticizing the two anchors for engaging in political theater as opposed to substantive debate. That particular show was cancelled, but many shows still often invite guests representing opposing political extremes to take sides in hyper-aggressive televised arguments that create drama and generate ratings.

Former senator Olympia Snowe put it best in her book Fighting For Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, writing, “In a desperate race to the bottom, there is a competition for the loudest and most partisan opinionators. Today’s twenty-four-hour news cycle serves only to demonize different viewpoints…and therefore cut off any opportunity for thoughtful debate.”

Media outlets that constantly pit liberals and conservatives against each other in heated television debate make it very difficult for liberals and conservatives to fairly understand the other side’s point of view and find consensus with each other.

Source: Wikimedia

Of course, no news media source can completely be labeled as “bad” or “good.” The problem is not that partisan media exist or that television debates are engineered for maximum sensationalism. This nation was founded on a bedrock of belief in free speech, and that means that everybody should have the freedom to express their views however they choose.

But as individuals, we can choose what media we want to support. News programs that promote sensationalism and partisan rancor are not programs that are going to help foster national bipartisanship and should not be rewarded with sky-high ratings. To support bipartisanship, it is important to support media that actively try to reach out fairly to both sides of the aisle and promote understanding between different political ideologies.

There are examples of responsible media out there: the PBS NewsHour does this with their conversational segments with liberal Mark Shields and conservative David Brooks. NBC’s Meet the Press also does a great job of bringing diverse people together to politely discuss current issues. And there are many other shows, including a considerable number on cable news channels, that work to avoid sensationalism, present facts, and offer substantive debate with the goal of creating understanding, rather than divisiveness. As media consumers, we ought to support media that help the citizens of our politically and culturally diverse nation understand each other.


Editor’s Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Sravya Tadepalli is a millennial writer based in Eugene, Oregon. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization governed by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Millennial Action Project (MAP) is generally prohibited from attempting to influence legislative bodies in regards to policy and legislation. It is important to note guest authors frequently take firm stances on issues and policy matters that are currently being debated by policymakers; when they do, however, they speak for themselves and not for MAP, its board, council or employees.