Fox News and American Politics Since 1994

The interplay of the hostile media phenomenon and group polarization

Posted Jun 03, 2016

Robert Mather
Oklahoma State Capitol, Oklahoma City, OK, USA.
Source: Robert Mather

American politics has seen a variety of transformations since the early 1990’s. The two main parties have become polarized (see “This is What the Future of American Politics Looks Like” by Michael Lind) and social media has created a means through which voter attitudes can quickly become extreme. Political Scientist Kurt Jefferson and I discussed some of this in our recent article “The Authoritarian Voter? The Psychology and Values of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Support” (Mather & Jefferson, 2016). Here I will make the argument that social psychological processes of the hostile media phenomenon and group polarization have played substantial roles in the recent evolution of American politics.

Persuasion is the process of changing attitudes, and media can provide a platform for political parties to advance their agendas and change a population’s attitudes on issues to favor the positions of the particular political party. Vallone, Ross, and Lepper (1985) identified the hostile media phenomenon, where partisans perceive mediated presentations of information to be biased against their side. They showed segments of American national news coverage (ABC, CBS, NBC) of the Beirut massacre in 1982 and assessed responses immediately after viewing the footage. Both pro-Israeli and pro-Arab partisans rated the news coverage as being biased against their viewpoint, reported more negative references to their side than positive ones, and reported that viewing the coverage would be influential in persuading neutral partisans to the other side.

During an election cycle, partisan voters will always believe that the news outlets are biased against them, whether they are or not. However, bias in the news in the United States may very well be real due to the following dynamic. Fox News works very hard to tell their viewers (largely Republican; Pew Research Center, 2010) that Fox News is unbiased and the other outlets are all biased towards liberal Democrats. By doing this, Fox News identifies as biased to the viewers of all other outlets. Once that has occurred, Fox News can direct their coverage to the preferences of their audience and actually be biased in the supplemental commentaries that they provide. All parties likely overestimate the probability that a neutral viewer would be persuaded by the coverage, especially since the identification of bias self-selects the viewership, and neither side listens to the other. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Fox News, but Fox news plays a key role in the cycle regarding how American politics may have become so recently polarized. Group polarization is the tendency for groups to make decisions that are more extreme than the members are initially inclined to make as individuals. This occurs because 1) people provide persuasive arguments during discussion that other people hadn’t thought of, and 2) people wait to see what group members want, then pick something more extreme to win individual popularity in the group, using social comparison. This is a basic phenomenon of small group and large groups, not just political parties.

The following events may have created the context for recent widespread political polarization in the United States: 1994 GOP “Contract with America,” 1996 Fox News Channel launched with Roger Ailes as CEO (Republican media consultant), GOP attempted to impeach Clinton, 2000 Presidential election went to the Supreme Court for a decision, subsequently Bush serves a term where many Democrats didn’t acknowledge that he was the elected President, 2008 Democrats win the White House with a Black President and a changing electorate demographic, and 2016 Trump appeals to authoritarians (described in more detail in Mather and Jefferson, 2016). All of this, given the new mass media venues (i.e., cable news, internet, social media), provides a context where political positions are easily polarized to the extremes and this can be used by political parties to win elections.

References

Lind, M. (2016, May 22). This is what the future of American politics looks like. Politico. (www.politico.com)

Mather, R. D., & Jefferson, K. W. (2016, May). The authoritarian voter? The psychology and values of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders support. Journal of Scientific Psychology, 1-8. (www.psyencelab.com)

Pew Research Center. (2010, September 12). Ideological news sources: Who watches and why? Washington, D.C.: Author (www.peoplepress.org)

Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R., (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut Massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.