Media, Polarization, and Regulatory Politics

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Research highlights correlation between partisan media and a polarized public.

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The last decade has seen increased political polarization in America, including over regulatory policies that often provoke clear clashes in ideological beliefs. Notably, the trend toward polarization has coincided with greater availability and consumption of narrowly-targeted media outlets, raising speculation about a possible link between the two trends.

In a recently published chapter in the book Regulatory Breakdown, Harvard Professor Matthew Baum suggests that the clear political leanings of media outlets bear some of the blame for the political polarization over regulatory issues.

Baum notes that traditional news media, such as network evening news, have undergone a well-documented decline in the past decade, largely replaced by new outlets, such as cable news channels, the Internet, and political talk radio. According to a 2010 Pew Center survey, cable news channels such as Fox News and CNN have overtaken (42 to 31 percent) the over-the-air broadcast networks that formerly received a majority of evening newscast ratings.

According to Baum, unlike broadcast networks that tried to be “all things to all people,” today’s media outlets more readily target specific subsets of the public. The dividing ground for many of the new outlets is ideology, be it conservative (Fox), moderate (CNN), or liberal (MSNBC). Baum indicates that media outlets’ clear ideological leanings allow consumers of political information to select those sources that reinforce their existing beliefs.

Further, Baum cites two studies independently showing that over the past decade viewership of the three major cable news channels has become increasingly polarized along party lines. The studies show partisan gaps for regular viewers of the channels reaching 30 percentage points.

The Internet’s political blogosphere, Baum argues, also enables politically-homogenous audiences to form. A 2007 Nielsen report reveals that 77 percent of the left-leaning readers were Democrats while only 3.8 percent were Republicans.  An earlier study that Baum co-authored finds that users of these types of sites are “more likely than typical Americans to prefer news that reinforces their preexisting preferences” and more likely to discuss this news with others.

Baum explains that even when selective exposure fails and consumers are exposed to ideas they disagree with, they often discount the source of the news based on their assessment its ideological leanings. Thus, the combination of the ability and the desire of the consumers to choose what information reaches them leads individuals to consume what Baum calls “self-segregated information streams (SSIS).”

To illustrate this phenomenon, Baum details three studies in his chapter. The first study examines how media outlets discussed healthcare reform. The other two studies statistically analyze the effects of cable news consumption on individuals’ opinions about healthcare reform. In performing these studies, Baum makes the key – and perhaps uncontroversial – assumption that Fox News is more conservative than either CNN or MSNBC, with the latter being the most liberal.

Baum first examines network news coverage of healthcare reform from January 2009 to July 2011 to find the frequency of the terms “Obamacare,” “socialism,” and “government takeover” within discussions of healthcare reform.  His research shows that right-leaning Fox News used “Obamacare” and “socialism” together nearly four times as frequently (as a percentage of all story segments relating to healthcare) as did the left-leaning MSNBC. Somewhat counter-intuitively, MSNBC used the terms more frequently than CNN, apparently using them to criticize opponents of healthcare reform.

Baum next uses individual identification markers such as political affiliation, news platform watched, and consumption of specific political blogs to see which factors influenced beliefs about healthcare reform. Before being exposed to news coverage, 77 percent of Republicans, 11 percent of Democrats, and 45 percent of independents responded that they opposed healthcare reform.

Baum finds that Republicans who mentioned Fox News as their first choice of news were 17 percent more likely to oppose healthcare reform than those who did not. In contrast, Fox News consumption had almost no effect on Democrats apparently due to the network’s low credibility among Democrats, supporting Baum’s contention that people discount information based on their beliefs about the political leanings of the source. Independents showed a significant opinion change when they consumed Fox News, while independents who watched MSNBC showed an 18 percent decline in opposing health care.

Finally, Baum cites a 2009 Washington Post poll of Republicans that shows that more moderate Republicans were the most likely to be influenced by Fox News consumption with a 55 percent drop in support for healthcare (78 to 22 percent). By contrast, the more conservative Republicans who were more concerned about the size of government had only an 8 percent drop when watching Fox News, from 17 to 9 percent. Conversely, the same Republicans who were more concerned with the size of government were much more likely to be influenced by MSNBC where maximum consumption is associated with a 28 percent increase in support for healthcare, rising from 17 to 46.

Baum concludes that, while some individuals do seek out news that spans an ideological spectrum, many more consumers are unmistakably trending toward self-selection of ideological preferences. Baum’s findings show how such self-selection by consumers, coupled with an ideologically-divided media landscape, can contribute to the public’s stubborn polarization on important regulatory issues like healthcare reform.



This post is part of The Regulatory Review’s three-week series, Regulatory Breakdown in the United States.