Our Modern Media Environment and Political Polarization

Written by Zoe Gordon, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Information Science Major

Image Source: iStock

Over the last 40 years, the United States has become increasingly politically polarized. Polarization is the idea that opposition becomes more extreme over time, and it can negatively affect both government and everyday life. It can make it difficult to reach a compromise in government and hinder personal relationships with those who may hold differing viewpoints. According to Boxell et al. (2017), “the relative favorability of party affiliates towards their own party has increased by over 50 percent from 1980 to 2015” (p. 2). A variety of factors may be contributing to this phenomenon, including changes in the makeup of political parties and increased racial, cultural, and religious division within the U.S. However, characteristics of our modern media environment have also shown to increase polarization. While media organizations do not directly influence voters or officials, they have several means of indirect influence. Media organizations may shape the viewpoints of voters and affect the types of issues brought up in election debates. The increase in polarization is partly due to changes in media consumption and content, including the rise of partisan 24/7 news, news choices, and negative election advertisements.

The rise of 24/7 partisan news may be one influential factor accounting for the increase in political polarization in the U.S. Before the rise of cable television in the 1980s, viewers had significantly fewer news-viewing options on television than they do today, with three major news channels (CBS, ABC, and NBC) updating the American public on related stories during select hours. Research has pointed that having news come from three main sources that all approached the news in similar “neutral” ways and similar times — the evening news hour and special event coverage — contributed to more moderate and similar public beliefs (Prior, 2010). It was not until 1980 when CNN launched its innovative 24-hour news cycle that this news homogeneity changed. Now, 24/7 partisan news is a crucial characteristic in U.S. mass media. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, Jurkowitz et al. (2020) examined levels of trust and reliance of news outlets based on party identification in today’s 24/7 media environment. They conducted a survey asking about participants’ usage and perceptions of 30 different media sources, ranging from neutral to partisan. They found significant differences in the responses between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats were more likely to trust a broader scope of news sources, while Republicans expressed more distrust in news sources. Democrats expressed more trust in 22/30 sources and only expressed more distrust in eight sources, including Fox News and Sean Hannity — a politically conservative commentator. On the other hand, Republicans expressed more distrust in 20/30 sources and only expressed more trust in seven sources, including Fox News and Sean Hannity. (Jurkowitz et al., 2020). This inverse relationship between Democrats and Republicans highlights that political parties conform more to their group identity while expressing increased distrust in news believed to be favorable to the other. Based on the notion that U.S. political viewpoints were more centralized and neutral before the 1980s, it is likely that 24/7 partisan news may be a factor accounting for the increase in political polarization.

Image Source: PsyPost

The greater availability of news choices may account for an increase in affective polarization, or the idea that partisan members view the other political party with distrust and dislike while conforming more to their party. In the 1980s, the rise of cable television brought a wider variety of news sources. These outlets divided the viewing audience into smaller sectors, often targeting their news content to specific ideological groups to distinguish themselves from other news sources (Stroud, 2011). A study by Lau et al. (2016), conducted an experiment during the 2012 presidential election to examine the effects of an ideologically diverse media landscape on polarization. They found causal evidence that a combination of an ideologically diverse media landscape and exposure to negative political advertisements showed the greatest indication of affective political polarization compared to other conditions. This finding is noteworthy because it shows how increased polarization combines several factors. Additionally, Lau et al. noted that this greater availability of news sources might lead to increased selective exposure, in which individuals seek out additional information that confirms their viewpoints and avoids conflicting information. When exposed to a wide array of news sources, viewers may consciously decide to attend to more stories that prove their viewpoints and avoid/discredit reports that suggest contradicting information. According to Lau et al. (2016), “the internet…has made a second type of selective exposure possible, allowing partisans to actively construct a one-sided media environment where they are primarily exposed to messages they already agree with” (p. 235). It is evident that building a one-sided media landscape and being influenced by it may enable society to become more polarized over time.

Image Source: Penn Today

Lastly, the usage of negative advertisements in mass media has shown to play a role in increasing political polarization. Negatively toned advertisements criticizing another candidate are another critical characteristic in the modern U.S. media landscape. Garramone et al. (1990) measure the role negative political advertisements play in terms of candidate attitude polarization. The authors define attitude polarization as voters being “more likely to strongly like one candidate while strongly disliking the other” (Garramone et al., 1990, p. 301). After having participants watch two positive and two negative 30-second advertisements and then completing a questionnaire, they noted that “attitude polarization was greatest when negative advertising provided a contrast to the opponent’s positive advertising or lack of advertising” (Garramone et al., 1990, p. 308). This experiment supports the idea that negative advertisements increase political polarization. Additionally, affective polarization suggests that individuals conform more to their party identity while expressing greater distrust of the other party (Lau et al., 2016). Therefore, when a person supports a candidate, they will likely maintain positive feelings towards the candidate even when they attack their opponent. Additionally, they are likely to reject any discrediting information from opponents while becoming more loyal to their supported candidate. The Lau et al. (2016) study finds evidence supporting the link between increased negative advertisements, selective exposure, and affective polarization. This link is heightened due to the prevalence of diverse news sources for viewers to choose from. The authors note, “it is possible that the combination of a negative campaign environment and a high-choice, ideologically-diverse media environment is what actually drives affective polarization” (Lau et al., 2016, p. 237). Thus, it is evident that a variety of characteristics of the modern U.S. media environment may account for the rise of political polarization.

Image Source: AZCentral

There is no single factor accounting for the rise of political polarization in the U.S. over the last 40 years. However, the media we consume may indirectly influence society to become more polarized over time. In my personal experience with platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, I recognize that with all of the diverse media I can consume, I tend to unconsciously choose information that supports my political views and avoid information that discredits them. Additionally, when viewing negative advertisements, I will tend to stick with my supported candidate, regardless of whether they are being attacked. While I do not necessarily want to contribute to the rise of political polarization, the way our media environment is structured almost compels me to have more polarizing beliefs. These personal experiences are consistent with the findings that I found on political polarization through the media. With the rise of 24/7 partisan news channels, greater availability of news sources, and increased usage of negative political advertisements during election seasons, it is evident that mass media is contributing to political polarization.

Works Cited

Boxell, L., Gentzkow, M., & Shapiro, J. M. (2017). Is the internet causing political polarization? Evidence from Demographics. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Garramone, G. M., Atkin, C. K., Pinkleton, B. E., & Cole, R. T. (1990). Effects of negative political advertising on the political process. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 34(3), 299–311. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838159009386744

Jurkowitz, M., Mitchell, A., Shearer, E., & Walker, M. (2021, May 28). U.S. media polarization and the 2020 election: A nation divided. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/

Lau, R. R., Andersen, D. J., Ditonto, T. M., Kleinberg, M. S., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2016). Effect of media environment diversity and advertising tone on information search, selective exposure, and affective polarization. Political Behavior, 39(1), 231–255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-016-9354-8

Prior, M. (2010). Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in Political Involvement and polarizes elections. Cambridge University Press.

Stroud, N. J. (2011). Niche news the politics of news choice. Oxford University Press.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store