The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why you shouldn’t blame polarization on partisan news

Kevin Arceneaux is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University.

In casting about for explanations for the unprecedented level of polarization in Congress, many singled out the partisan news media. This is an understandable notion, but unlikely nonetheless. Partisan media, which reach a small slice of the electorate at any rate, emerged well after Congress began to polarize, and mainstream news media have just as much power to polarize.

The expansion of programming choices on cable television in the late 1990s made partisan news media possible. But today Americans can watch not only partisan news but hundreds of other channels, most of which are not political at all, much less partisan. As Martin Johnson and I demonstrate in our new book and discuss elsewhere, the plethora of entertainment options filters out those who are most likely to be persuaded by news shows (partisan or otherwise) and blunts the polarizing effects of partisan news on the mass public.

If partisan media played any role in generating polarization in Congress, it is unlikely to have done so by polarizing the mass public first. But perhaps partisan media polarize through an indirect path. Matt Levendusky makes the case that partisan news shows energize viewers, inducing them to contact members of Congress and creating the impression of a broadly polarized electorate. While plausible, this scenario offers a better explanation for how partisan media may reinforce polarization rather than for how polarization came about in the first place.

For one, polarization in Congress precedes the advent of partisan media by almost two decades. Fox News appeared at the end of 1996 and was not widely available until the early 2000s. The parties in Congress began polarizing in the late 1970s. As Jonathan Ladd points out, it could just as easily be the case that a polarized Congress contributed to the demand for partisan news media.

Moreover, the partisan news media were relatively one-sided until the mid-2000s, when MSNBC gravitated to the left. Fox News was the first ostensibly partisan news channel on the dial, and it reported news with a conservative slant. In a working paper, Martin Johnson, Rene Lindstadt, Ryan Vander Wielen and I use the uneven roll-out of the Fox News network to investigate its effects on congressional voting behavior. We find that both Democratic and Republican representatives located in districts that had access to Fox News were more likely to vote in line with the Republican agenda in the months just before the general election. This pattern is consistent with Levendusky’s argument that partisan news outlets may influence elected representatives indirectly as well as the notion that representatives themselves may treat news programming as a barometer of public opinion.

But our finding undermines the claim that partisan news media generated congressional polarization: If Fox News is pushing all members to the right, it isn’t polarizing them. In fact, it’s entirely possible that were it not for Fox News in the 1990s, Congress would have reached today’s level of polarization sooner.

Finally, many implicitly assume that partisan news is inherently more polarizing than mainstream news. The idea here is that we are what we consume. Balanced presentations of news moderate political attitudes, while partisan presentations polarize attitudes. It is an intuitive idea but not necessarily an accurate one. People are motivated to defend cherished worldviews, especially in the realm of politics. Many studies illustrate that people are capable of cherry-picking the facts they wish to believe from balanced presentations.

In an experiment conducted in July 2013, Martin Johnson and I compared the polarizing effects of mainstream and partisan news. We asked people about their viewing habits and political predispositions and then randomly assigned them to watch either a non-political entertainment show or news story about accusations that the Obama administration meddled in IRS audits of conservative groups. Those asked to view the news story saw either one from a mainstream outlet (CBS), their side’s partisan outlet (Fox for conservatives and MSNBC for liberals), or the other side’s partisan outlet (Fox for liberals and MSNBC for conservatives).

After watching the program, people were asked whether the IRS audits were politically motivated or whether the IRS made an innocent mistake. The question is which program created the most polarization — that is, with conservatives taking the view that IRS audits were politically motivated and liberals taking the view that the IRS made an innocent mistake? We found that the mainstream news program was just as polarizing as the partisan news programs. Subjects assigned to view the CBS story registered more polarized opinions about the IRS than those who watched the non-political show.

What’s more, the polarizing effects of both partisan and mainstream news shows were driven by the reactions of people who normally do not tune into news programs (unless instructed to do so by political scientists, that is). In fact, partisan news viewers are more polarized than mainstream news viewers and entertainment program viewers to begin with. People tune into partisan news because they are partisans. Even without partisan news media, these individuals would likely interpret the world through a partisan lens. Those who are most likely to be polarized by exposure to news — mainstream or partisan — tend to watch something else.

The rise of partisan news media is likely a symptom, not a cause, of elite polarization. Partisan media may reinforce partisan strife, but we should look elsewhere for the ultimate cause.

Further Reading

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on political polarization. The previous posts are listed below.  -Dan Hopkins

What we do know and don’t know about our polarized politics

American politics is more competitive than ever. That’s making partisanship worse.

Polarization we can live with. Partisan warfare is the problem.

How political polarization creates stalemate and undermines lawmaking

Electing more women to Congress isn’t a solution for polarization

How U.S. state legislatures are polarized and getting more polarized (in 2 graphs)

How ideological activists constructed our polarized politics

Our politics may be polarized. But that’s nothing new.

Our politics is polarized on more issues than ever before

How race and religion have polarized American voters

Can young voters break the cycle of polarization?

Americans aren’t polarized, just better sorted

How politically moderate are Americans?  Less than it seems.

The real extremists are American voters, not politicians

How better educated whites are driving polarization

How our partisan loyalties are driving polarization

Party polarization is making is more prejudiced

Why don’t Americans trust the government? Because the other party is in power.

Are Fox and MSNBC polarizing America?