White House looking for new ways to penetrate polarized media

When most Americans turn on their televisions at night, they expect their meteorologists to get the forecast right, or at least try.

That level of trust is one reason President Obama and his staff spent hours Tuesday giving top weather forecasters the royal treatment — a briefing in the Roosevelt Room with multiple Cabinet secretaries and senior officials on a major new report on climate change, plus Rose Garden interviews with the president.

It was the White House’s latest attempt to penetrate a polarized media climate where Americans increasingly read and view — consciously and unconsciously — material that matches their political beliefs. Not only do cable news networks and editorial pages offer markedly different takes on the news, but Americans also are increasingly guided toward like-minded material through the algorithms of online searches and social media.

“With presidential communication, it can either preach to the choir or convert the flock,” said Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at Harvard. The technological and media changes “basically mean it’ll be easier than ever before to preach to the choir and get harder and harder to convert the flock.”

This new reality has prompted the White House to adopt messaging strategies that once might have seemed unusual or even undignified — including hosting an animated page on Buzzfeed, letting Obama appear on the Internet show “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis, and encouraging the president and others to pose for “selfies” and other funny pictures. In hopes of it going viral, White House staff members promote such content to popular sites such as Upworthy, which is known for stock headlines promising readers they will be “amazed” by a particular story.

Obama also has granted interviews to Web sites that are largely ignored in Washington but have large online audiences, such as Zillow for housing or WebMD for health-care news.

For the president and his advisers, the Web has gone from being an enormous asset to reach young people in the 2008 campaign to a place that can easily divide Americans by political ideology, making all but the staunchest Obama supporters hard to reach.

“In every year, this project gets harder, the media gets more disaggregated, people get more options to choose from, and they self-select outlets that speak to their preconceived notions,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser and longtime communications strategist.

Still, he said, the Internet also makes it possible to continually experiment, and successes can yield huge returns. “It makes the environment a double-edged sword,” Pfeiffer said. “It makes it hard to break through, but when you break through, you do it more than ever before.”

In the case of weather forecasters, surveys show that Americans hold their meteorologists in high regard. A 2012 poll by Yale and George Mason universities showed that 60 percent of respondents strongly trusted or somewhat trusted meteorologists in terms of getting information about climate change. That compares with the 51 percent who trust Obama and the 37 percent who trust mainstream media.

“They can help viewers connect the dots between what they have heard about climate change, and what they have personally experienced in their own lives,” Edward Maibach, a George Mason University communications professor who helped conduct the survey, wrote in an e-mail.

A body of political science research has documented the communications problems facing the White House.

One study published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, for example, found that supporters were 13 percent more likely to watch a State of the Union address between 2000 and 2007 than members of the opposition party. In the previous three decades, the partisan gap was about 3 percent.

The change is largely a function of increasing polarization among the population, and the popularity of cable news networks and other outlets with an ideological slant.

But even online, the White House faces challenges when it experiments. In 2012, Obama started a Twitter message campaign around “#my2k” amid the fiscal-cliff debate, with the goal of persuading Americans to pressure their lawmakers to support continuing tax policies worth $2,000 a year for the average family.

A study by the Pew Research Internet Project found that liberals and conservatives tweeted messages among their own groups with the hashtag but there was little crossover.

“You find people talk with other individuals that agree with them,” said Itai Himelboim, a professor of telecommunications at Grady College at the University of Georgia and one of the Pew study’s authors.

One of the biggest challenges for the White House and other political leaders in the future will be grappling with algorithms on search engines and social networks that use a person’s online history and habits to shape results.

“What all these things are doing is narrowing the range of options that you’re going to be exposed to,” said Baum, the Harvard professor.

Pfeiffer said that compared to companies or campaigns, the White House has only a limited set of tools to respond to these changes. But even today, White House officials will do test searches and respond accordingly.

“What’s the first page on Google and Bing look like? Let’s take Benghazi,” Pfeiffer said, referring to the partisan battle over the administration’s response to the attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya in 2012. “Is it five things from Free Beacon and Breitbart? Or is it something from the New York Times or is it from the New Republic?”

If the administration’s perspective is not well represented in the Google search results, he added, “we have to ask: Does it mean we need to do a better job of getting our message out?”

Pfeiffer said the White House is not bypassing traditional media such as news conferences and other events. But he said it’s more important than ever to do late-night comedy and daytime talk shows, ESPN and MTV.

“It used to be that Ronald Reagan or, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton could give a national address,” he said. “We don’t have that option. We have to go where the public is.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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