Expert Commentary

Research: TV news outlets overrepresent extreme partisans in Congress (Plus: 4 tips for better coverage)

The analysis indicates broadcast news outlets are partly to blame for growing political polarization in the U.S. and voters’ heightened dislike for members of the opposing political party.

(U.S. House of Representatives)

Major network and cable TV news outlets have given the most airtime to members of Congress with the most extreme views, creating a perception there is greater division among elected leaders than actually exists, researchers have found.

Their analysis indicates broadcast news outlets — Americans’ primary source for political news — are partly to blame for growing political polarization in the U.S. and voters’ heightened dislike for members of the opposing political party.

“The Congress that gets reported in the media is a different ideological distribution than Congress as it exists,” one of the study’s authors, Joshua P. Darr, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, tells Journalist’s Resource. “The media feature these extreme legislators and that makes Congress seem more extreme than it is.”

While extreme partisan politics have drawn significant TV news coverage since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the problem pre-dates the Trump era by a decade or more.

The analysis that Darr and his colleagues conducted, published in the Journal of Communication in December 2019, focuses on members of the U.S. Houses of Representatives and their statements aired on news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The researchers examined a combined 46,218 transcripts of national TV news programs broadcast between Jan. 3, 2005 and Jan. 3, 2013, representing the 109th through the 112th sessions of Congress.

“There were more televised statements by extreme members and fewer statements by moderate members across all networks and network types,” the researchers conclude in their paper, “As Seen on TV? How Gatekeeping Makes the U.S. House Seem More Extreme.” Darr’s two co-authors are Jeremy Padgett, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Mobile in Alabama, and Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.

Darr says the most partisan lawmakers likely have sought and been given even more airtime in recent years, especially since Trump took office.

political polarization Congress TV news research
Joshua P. Darr

Republican legislators soon discovered that appearing on TV news programs was an easy way to communicate directly with the president, known to watch national news broadcasts and Fox News in particular, Darr explains.

“Media coverage on partisan networks, if anything, has gotten more important for members of Congress,” Darr says.

The researchers point out in their paper that both Fox News, which leans right, and CNN, which tends to lean left, gave more airtime to Republicans with extreme views than Democrats with extreme views. They also write that left-leaning MSNBC “seems to have prioritized content from the most conservative members of the House … possibly in an effort to present negative exemplars to liberal audiences for criticism.”

CBS, on the other hand, gave more airtime to far-right members of the House than to other conservative legislators. But the network gave the most airtime to far-left and left-leaning House members, according to the paper.

The consequences of covering extreme politics

Dunaway warns that TV news programs will continue incentivizing extreme politics if they do not stop giving the most attention to the most partisan lawmakers and focusing on party conflict. And that, she says, will result in an even deeper division among members of the two political parties.

TV news broadcast partisan extreme Congress
Johanna Dunaway

“We know that the public often relies on signals from elites to help inform their impressions of the parties as well as to clarify the differences between them,” Dunaway wrote to JR in an email. “As long as these outlets are depicting members as more uniformly extreme than they actually are, members of the public will have misperceptions about the degree to which elite partisans differ across policy issues and perhaps even the degree to which there is animosity between the two parties.”

Another potential consequence: Fewer moderate politicians will seek office.

“Moderates are unlikely to run for Congress if they perceive a lack of fit with the national party,” the researchers write in their paper. “The media’s rewards for ideological extremity in Congress could prove self-reinforcing, by encouraging extreme voting behavior and discouraging moderates from running for office.”

The loss of local news

Darr says the decline of local journalism nationwide has contributed to the problem. Local news outlets experiencing financial losses in recent years have cut staff and coverage while some smaller newspapers have shuttered completely.

Without local news coverage, members of Congress have less incentive to prioritize the needs and demands of people living in their legislative districts, Darr says. Historically, local newspapers and TV and radio stations often interviewed federal legislators for local stories, especially after a successful push for funding or new policies benefitting voters in their home states.

“If the media gatekeepers’ tendency toward extremity and conflict are rewarding people who use conflict in their words and they’re doing it at the national level, then that’s what the legislators are going to pursue,” Darr notes. Likewise, he adds, if newsrooms run stories looking at whether or not legislators are doing work that benefits their constituents, legislators will put more effort into helping their constituents.

Earlier research from Darr and Dunaway focusing on local newspapers found that in some parts of the country where newspapers had closed, voters became more polarized. They were more likely to vote along party lines in key races and less likely to choose candidates from multiple political parties.

A new book by Darr, Dunaway and Matthew Hitt, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, further examines how local newspapers affect political polarization in their communities.

The book, Home Style Opinion: How Local News Can Slow Polarization, is scheduled for release this spring. One of its main takeaways: Political polarization began to spread more slowly in one California city after a newspaper there stopped running opinion page pieces about national issues for a month in 2019.

Tips for journalists

There are several things journalists can do to improve their coverage of Congress and prevent political polarization — or at least not make it worse, Darr and Dunaway explain. Here are their suggestions:

  • Journalists should think carefully about which members of Congress they mention and quote in their news stories. “Just as they might strive to ensure that they select members who are representative in terms of race, ethnicity, geography, and gender, they should also be mindful of trying to represent the range of views on either side of the aisle (at least as long as there is still a range of views),” Dunaway told JR by email.
  • Use Voteview, a project launched by two researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, to gain a better understanding of federal legislators’ voting patterns, ideological positions and party loyalty. The website provides ideology scores and tracks how often a member of Congress agrees with their party’s majority position on a vote.
  • When reporting on members of Congress, include local context such as what the House member or U.S. senator has done for voters back home. National journalists should reach out to local reporters for insights, Darr says. “To the extent you can, talk about the local angle and not just partisan conflict,” he recommends, adding that national TV news programs should feature local journalists to report out their stories. “Get a local reporter on TV. That could take the focus off partisan conflict and extremity and put it on what they [legislators] are doing for their constituents.”
  • Remind audiences that despite their differences, members of Congress have been able to work together successfully over the years. Even amid conflict, they have created and approved new policies and amended and adopted budgets. “Talking about division foments division,” Darr says. “Spotlighting times when compromises were reached and bills were passed can be a useful complement to stories on partisan division.”

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