Political communication scholar explores how media choices affect political beliefs and develops tools to help citizens consider multiple viewpoints
March 5, 2012
The political season is in full swing and with that comes increased media use by potential voters eager to hear the latest political gossip on the radio, read pundit opinions online and catch snippets of the debates on TV.
If prior elections are any guide, Americans will be tuning in to politics at increased rates in the coming months. However, research also suggests that the public is consuming media that reinforces existing political beliefs, which contributes to the nation’s political polarization. The proliferation of media choice – such as cable news, radio, blogs, newspapers and magazines – only exacerbates the problem.
Natalie Stroud, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, researches how our media choices affect our political attitudes and vice versa. Additionally, she is exploring how media can create environments that encourage people to look at multiple perspectives with an open mind.
“Think about the news you have consumed over the past month,” Stroud said. “Did you only use media that reinforced your beliefs or did you look at opposing views? And if you looked at opposing views, did you do so only to laugh at them and reinforce your own views?
“On the other hand did you consume any news media at all? If not, does that concern you? Can you think of how media might have enticed you to watch?”
The Politics of News Choice
Stroud’s debut book, “Niche News: The Politics of News Choice,” published by Oxford University Press , investigates how people navigate their menu of media choices and the related political implications. At the heart of “Niche News” is the concept of “partisan selective exposure,” people’s tendency to consume news that reinforces their political beliefs.
Stroud has examined people’s media consumption habits – such as reading newspapers, watching cable news, listening to the radio and reading online news sources – and found that people prefer to get their news from outlets that reflect their existing beliefs about issues and politicians.
For example, she found that 64 percent of conservative Republicans routinely get their news from at least one right-leaning media outlet. In contrast, only 26 percent of Democrats turn to a media source that leans to the right.
When looking at the other side, 76 percent of Democrats routinely get their news from a source that leans to the left, and 43 percent of Republicans do so.
“There’s quite a discrepancy in partisan habits of media consumption,” said Stroud. “Essentially people discover what media sources are their ‘friends’ and turn there for news, and what sources are their ‘enemies’ and avoid those sources.”
Although partisan selective exposure may spark more political participation, the consequence is a less tolerant, more polarized public unable to agree on the nation’s priorities. And this can mean trouble for a government with limited time and resources. How can government serve the public if the public cannot agree on what the problems are to begin with?
Stroud says that if the public can accept that most citizens want what’s best for the country, perhaps they can take a more charitable view of differing viewpoints and learn from them. The skill and hard work come in developing ways to counteract the detrimental effects of partisan selective exposure while encouraging its benefits.
On the Wings of Humor
It’s been said that a message delivered on the wings of humor can have a profound effect on the audience. Previous research has shown that people process comedic news differently from hard news; comedic news is less subject to counter-argument than hard news. The popularity of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” may be testaments to this idea.
With hopes that comedy might be a strategy to overcome partisan selective exposure, Stroud, graduate student Ashley Muddiman, and a group of undergraduate students created two news websites – “Political Beat,” delivering straight news and “Political Offbeat,” delivering the news with a humorous bent. Each website featured eight news stories representing conservative and liberal sides of four issues: immigration, the economy, health care and candidate speeches.
Stroud and her team asked study participants to examine one of the two websites and then to provide their feedback.
As in real life, the participants chose which articles they would read for the study while the Web program unobtrusively tracked which articles respondents chose to view. When reporting on their attitudes about the articles, individuals who browsed the humorous website expressed lower levels of tolerance for views unlike their own. In other words, the humorous articles triggered a partisan response. This was a revelation.
“I think the humorous articles were perceived as partisan because they made fun of one side or the other,” said Stroud. “If you selected a humorous article with viewpoints that collided with your own, you felt like you were being made fun of — and no one likes to be the butt of a joke.”
Understanding why people look at political views unlike their own is a helpful step in limiting partisan selective exposure. Another challenge is getting people to tune in to the news at all.
One possible way to educate the public on issues is through “incidental learning,” or catching people when they least expect it – people unintentionally learn about politics by stumbling across the information. Stroud theorized that by sharing short bursts of information while listening to music on the radio, people could learn about some of the pressing issues in their community.
With the help of graduate student Josh Scacco and five undergraduate students from the College of Communication, Stroud designed an experiment using a series of mock Internet radio websites that played a variety of music, including country, hip-hop, classic rock, alternative and classical.
For some of the study participants, the radio stations played continuous music as one would expect. For the other participants, the stations switched from music to a news break after two minutes. Participants could choose to listen to the news or switch to a station that was playing music. Participants listened to the radio for five minutes and then answered a series of questions based on the content of the news segment.
The experiment showed that radio listeners faced with a news segment quickly changed to another station, and listeners who liked several of the available radio stations changed even faster.
“Contrary to expectations, we found that incidental exposure did not result in significant knowledge gains, but instead motivated people to find another channel,” said Stroud. “One of the more interesting findings was a direct correlation between liking multiple stations and the speed with which listeners changed channels once the news was introduced.
“Many worry about the future of local news given cutbacks in local newsrooms and declining audiences,” she continued. “This study demonstrates how important it is for us to look for a way to make the news more attractive to consumers, which is not a simple task.”
Stroud hopes to explore whether delivering the news in a tone consistent with the music content on that station can keep listeners through news breaks.
“The results of this study suggest that adding news breaks could be devastating to radio. When listeners have so many alternatives – from satellite radio, HD radio, iPods and CDs – they quickly change the channel when the news comes on.”
Beyond Our Point of View
Politicians have been known to characterize media outlets as being liberal or conservative to cue likeminded citizens to what media they should or shouldn’t be using, thus reinforcing a black and white worldview.
“While this strategy can work brilliantly for campaigning, it’s dangerous if you’re trying to compromise and advocate for issues and priorities,” said Stroud. “If all candidates did this, it would make governing very tough once they’re in a position of power.”
Partisan selective exposure is at odds with the goals of a deliberative democracy in which voters may not agree on issues but at least have some common ground on which to debate those issues. And no news at all doesn’t help citizens monitor government actions.
In today’s media environment, Stroud hopes citizens will start to think about their media choices and the implications of those choices. She expects her research on strategies for overcoming selective exposure will eventually help media outlets deliver information in a manner that is attractive to today’s news consumers and that motivates citizens to consider other viewpoints with an open mind.
For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, Moody College of Communication, (512) 475-8071;
Home page photo illustration and interior photo of Dr. Natalie Stroud: Marsha Miller
Photo location courtesy Caffé Medici