The media isn’t making people more divided

Instead, people are using the media to ally with their partisan team

Source: DC Tea Bagger Protest, Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Are Americans really cocooning themselves in partisan media bubbles that increase ideological and affective polarization, decrease trust in democracy, and undermine faith in our institutions? Recent political science research casts doubt on this troubling picture of hyper-politicized media consumption. But this doesn’t mean we should rest easy.

Rather than inhabiting unpunctured bubbles, partisans in fact sample a variety of online news sources. But media choice has become a vehicle of political self-expression. Partisans tend to overestimate their use of partisan outlets, while most citizens tune out political news as best they can. Media outlets seem to function mainly as conduits for competing political elites to mobilize already polarized partisan teams.

What people report they do vs. what they actually do

Scholars find out how people consume news in two basic ways: first, they ask people to report which news outlets they have recently read, viewed, or listened to; or second, they directly track people’s news consumption, usually by unobtrusively and electronically recording their online behavior. An important pattern emerges: people overreport their consumption of news and underreport its variety relative to the media consumption habits revealed through direct measurement. Partisans especially seem to report higher rates of quintessential partisan media consumption. People may explicitly tell interviewers they rely mostly on Fox News, while their web browsing histories and Facebook logs suggest they visit several different newspapers and CNN’s website, along with many apolitical sites.

But that also means partisans now think of media consumption as an expressive political act, and therefore believe that they should stick to Fox, as right-thinking Republicans, or that they should be loyal to MSNBC, as right-thinking Democrats.

When news preference becomes a matter of loyalty

Certain trends in modern media exacerbate people’s sorting themselves into partisan teams. First, increasing media choice, brought about by the rise of cable television and the Internet, means that people only need to see political information if they choose to do so. Second, traditional distribution of news through local newspapers and local television networks used to expose people to lots of local and state political news, but now Americans are increasingly selecting into national-only news outlets.

On the one hand, we have a hyper-partisan and engaged subset of Americans who consume mostly national news of all kinds and think of media consumption as a way to express their views and support their side. On the other hand, we have a much larger group of Americans who pay only sporadic attention to political news. Highly-engaged partisans fight it out online over the president’s latest pronouncements while most Americans watch the game.

Partisans tend to overestimate their use of partisan outlets.

To the extent Americans are growing more polarized, it is with respect to our feelings about the other party. The polarization we see in the American public is less substantive than “affective” and “negative,” meaning that our emotional attitudes about the other side, especially its leaders, have grown more negative, even if we haven’t necessarily become more positive about our own side.

This growing mutual dislike seems to be mostly driven by increasing social distance from people in the other party. Americans now feel more culturally distant from those who identify with a different party than in the past. There are indications that elite party leadership is guiding public opinion and that partisan team spirit, social group overlap, and motivated reasoning are doing the work that persuasion does not have to do. If citizens just had to be exposed to the other side to adopt more moderate views, that would make polarization easier to counteract. If partisans are liable to take their own side even in a two-sided argument, and even in the absence of argumentation based only on partisan labels or teams, that suggests it will be difficult to reverse.

The unique Republican relationship to journalism

Assessments of media bubbles and declining trust in institutions should not treat the political parties symmetrically. The Republican Party, and its associated conservative movement, has long sought to undermine trust in mainstream institutions and build explicitly ideological alternatives, which then further critique mainstream sources and reinforce conservative partisans’ reliance on conservative sources. The Democratic Party and its affiliates have not done the same.

To acknowledge that reality is not a gratuitous shot at Republicans. It is widely acknowledged by Republican politicians, operatives, and media figures, and it has a clear explanation: Democrats and liberals were disproportionately represented in the journalism profession by the middle of the 20th Century and they continue to be much better represented. Republican leaders had reason to doubt that they would have their views fully and fairly represented in mainstream media. The conservative movement viewed counteracting mainstream media as critical to its success. They took an early role in talk radio and print media, burgeoned in talk radio in the 1990s, and (after several failed television ventures) eventually succeeded with Fox News Channel.

Today, partisan attitudes toward the media are polarized not only in terms of trust, but also on the question of the media’s impartiality, whether the media advances the public interest, and whether it is important for democracy or is, instead, an enemy of good governance. President Donald Trump seems to have both increased the audience for partisan media and polarized partisan views about the media’s value and credibility — turning Republicans further against the media and rallying Democrats to its defense.

How strengthening local news can help

The nationalization of news media and the decline of local and state sources are implicated in declining public knowledge about local politics, the nationalization of political priorities and issues, declining split-ticket voting, and increasingly partisan and ideological politics. Additionally, voters without local information may be more prone to polarize. Even if these trends are a consequence of increased choice in media and better matching of individual interests to content, citizens may still understand the collective downside. Efforts to increase local political journalism could have positive effects, mitigating some of the worst aspects of the trend toward the nationalization of local politics.

Likewise, even if people may hear from both sides on social media, that doesn’t mean the shareable content on their feeds amounts to useful information. Social media platforms are not bastions of deliberative democracy, as some had hoped they would be. We should be concerned to identify how constituents of all kinds can become more knowledgeable and engaged political participants, as well as how representatives can become better informed about the public’s views.

Media trends may be enabling political actors to amplify polarization and distrust, even if reporters are not directly responsible. President Trump has proved willing to use distrust in media to impugn reporters and media organizations as enemies of the people. He has also used conservative media to broadcast and defend his threats to democracy’s key procedural norms and institutions. Some liberals are seeking to emulate this approach, thinking that Republicans have gained an advantage from such behavior. These trends should provoke sustained and substantial pushback from those who see the obvious risks.


This piece is adapted from “Partisan Media and Political Distrust,” part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.