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How the media’s coverage of political polarization affects voter attitudes

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(David Trilling)

The issue: Ideological divisions between Democrats and Republicans are more pronounced and views of the opposing party more negative than at any time in at least a quarter century, the Pew Research Center reported in June 2016. Approximately half of party members – 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans – say they fear the other party. Those numbers are higher for party members who either donate or volunteer.

Some attribute the dark mood to the media’s coverage of American politics, which can give the impression that the nation is irreconcilably split. But how do such feelings affect political attitudes? Does the media’s coverage of partisan debates and disagreements deepen the discord?

An academic study worth reading: “Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?” Political Communication, 2016.

Study summary: This study, by Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University, explores the media’s role in shaping perceptions of political polarization. The authors focus on newspapers, starting with a search for variations of the word “polarization” in midterm and presidential election years between 2000 and 2012. Later they conducted experiments by asking subjects to respond to articles on a set of policy issues.

The study investigates the media’s role in shaping perceptions about how divided the country is, how news consumers alter their own positions and how they respond to members of the other party.

Key takeaways from the study:

  • Media coverage of polarization increases the belief among voters that the electorate is polarized.
  • In response to these increased feelings that society is polarized, voters soften their own positions, seeking to compromise and see themselves as more centrist. “When media depict the mass public as polarized and divided, citizens moderate their issue positions.”
  • Amid this awareness of polarization, voters increase their dislike for those with extreme views on the opposite end of the spectrum from their own — what the authors call “affective polarization” — and come to see these voters as representative of members of the opposition party. These individuals are perceived as “violating the norms of moderation” and compromise. That leads voters to respond more viscerally and dislike members of the opposing party more on a personal level.
  • Voters respond slightly negatively to members of their own party whom they perceive to be polarizing, but far less than they do to “opposing partisans.”
  • The media’s discussion of political polarization has “increased dramatically” since the contested 2000 U.S. presidential election.
  • The meaning of the word “polarization” has changed, too. In 2000, it referred to political positions less than half the time; instead it often described a feature of optical lenses used in sunglasses and cameras. By 2012, it was about politics almost 80 percent of the time.

Helpful resources for reporters writing about this issue:

The Pew Research Center has published several reports measuring political polarization and party affiliation. Among the Pew studies that might be helpful are:

  • An April 2016 study that suggests that education may play a large role in shaping one’s political views.
  • A study published in April 2015 that notes differences in party affiliation by race and gender: “Democrats hold advantages in party identification among blacks, Asians, Hispanics, well-educated adults and Millennials. Republicans have leads among whites — particularly white men, those with less education and evangelical Protestants — as well as members of the Silent Generation.” The paper also reports that registered independents tend to lean Democratic or Republican: “48 percent either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; 39 percent identify as Republicans or lean Republican.”
  • A June 2014 study, which found partisan animosity “increased substantially” between 1994 and 2014: “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” These hardcore partisans are not a majority; they constitute 27 percent of Democratic Party members and 36 percent of Republicans.

Related research:

“Party Polarization, Media Choice, and Mass Partisan-Ideological Sorting”
Davis, Nicholas T.; Dunaway, Johanna L. Public Opinion Quarterly, 2016. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfw002.

Abstract: “What is the relationship between party polarization, media fragmentation, and partisan-ideological sorting? The growth and availability of partisan media — afforded through the expansion of cable, satellite, and Internet penetration — is often linked to the consistency and extremity of individuals’ political attitudes and partisan identities. At the same time, the literature on mass audiences and media choice suggests that the effects of choice and partisan media should be differential according to levels of political interest. This debate has yet to fully articulate a role for elite party polarization, which has been identified as a primary cue to facilitate mass partisanship and sorting. Synthesizing these bodies of scholarship, we utilize a variety of data to assess the influence of elite polarization, media fragmentation, and political interest on partisan-ideological sorting. We find that sorting is consistently connected to perceptions of polarization and qualified evidence that media fragmentation is related to partisan-ideological sorting. The expansion of cable and satellite programming is positively related to sorting, but this effect is isolated to individuals highly interested in news and politics.”

“Corporate Funding and Ideological Polarization about Climate Change”
Farrell, Justin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1509433112.

Abstract: “Drawing on large-scale computational data and methods, this research demonstrates how polarization efforts are influenced by a patterned network of political and financial actors. These dynamics, which have been notoriously difficult to quantify, are illustrated here with a computational analysis of climate change politics in the United States. The comprehensive data include all individual and organizational actors in the climate change countermovement (164 organizations), as well as all written and verbal texts produced by this network between 1993–2013 (40,785 texts, more than 39 million words). Two main findings emerge. First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue. Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time. These findings provide new, and comprehensive, confirmation of dynamics long thought to be at the root of climate change politics and discourse. Beyond the specifics of climate change, this paper has important implications for understanding ideological polarization more generally, and the increasing role of private funding in determining why certain polarizing themes are created and amplified. Lastly, the paper suggests that future studies build on the novel approach taken here that integrates large-scale textual analysis with social networks.”

“Elite Polarization and Public Opinion: How Polarization Is Communicated and Its Effects”
Robison, Joshua; Mullinix, Kevin J. Political Communication, 2015. doi: 10.1080/10584609.2015.1055526.

Abstract: “Elite polarization has reshaped American politics and is an increasingly salient aspect of news coverage within the United States. As a consequence, a burgeoning body of research attempts to unravel the effects of elite polarization on the mass public. However, we know very little about how polarization is communicated to the public by news media. We report the results of one of the first content analyses to delve into the nature of news coverage of elite polarization. We show that such coverage is predominantly critical of polarization. Moreover, we show that unlike coverage of politics focused on individual politicians, coverage of elite polarization principally frames partisan divisions as rooted in the values of the parties rather than strategic concerns. We build on these novel findings with two survey experiments exploring the influence of these features of polarization news coverage on public attitudes. In our first study, we show that criticism of polarization leads partisans to more positively evaluate the argument offered by their non-preferred party, increases support for bi-partisanship, but ultimately does not change the extent to which partisans follow their party’s policy endorsements. In our second study, we show that Independents report significantly less political interest, trust, and efficacy when polarization is made salient and this is particularly evident when a cause of polarization is mentioned. These studies have important implications for our understanding of the consequences of elite polarization — and how polarization is communicated — for public opinion and political behavior in democratic politics.”

Keywords: Political ideology, divisive rhetoric, party politics, party fighting


    Writer: | Last updated: August 9, 2016

    Citation: Levendusky, Matthew; Malhotra, Neil. “Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?” Political Communication, 2016. doi: 10.1080/10584609.2015.1038455.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics."

    1. What key insights from the research examined in the news article and the studies in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?