Media is not a top cause of the political schism in the United States today. Instead, scholars look to income inequality and racial justice preferences among the political parties as the chief causes of political polarization. Nonetheless, the media is a player, and as polarization deepens, the role that media plays in the process becomes more and more apparent.
A 2020 study from Pew Research showed stark differences in the ways that consistent liberals and consistent conservatives consume news. Liberals show high levels of trust in broadcast news networks, CNN, The New York Times, and many other so-called mainstream media sources. In contrast, conservatives tend to distrust those sources and show high levels of trust in one news source—Fox News.
Moreover, consistent liberals tend to consume a variety of news sources, while conservatives tend to favor Fox over all others. A 2019 study showed Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that journalists lack ethics: 31% of Republicans say that journalists have “very low ethical standards”, while only 5% of Democrats believe this about journalists.
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The Most Polarized
In terms of the relationship between media consumption and polarization, for the most part, it’s the people who are highly engaged and highly aware who tend to be the most polarized. Among people who say they are highly aware of politics, 91% of Democrats and only 16% of Republicans, say they have a great deal of confidence that journalists act in the best interests of the public.
These numbers have diverged even more in the Trump era, most likely due to the president’s frequent and public disparagement of mainstream media. The cues that political elites send really matter.
Learn more about the major political parties in the USA.
The Liberal-Conservative Gap
There is a liberal-conservative gap among people who are less politically aware, but it’s not nearly as extreme. Among people who say they do not pay much attention to politics, 62% of Democrats and 46% of Republicans express confidence in journalists.
From people who pay attention to politics to those who hold strong opinions about politics—a related but not perfectly overlapping group—there is a correlation between someone’s opinions and how extreme their views can be. An ideologue, or someone with strong opinions, has more extreme views, either liberal or conservative, compared to a non-ideologue.
Ideologues make up about 20% of the population. However, they make up the vast majority of news producers—the professionals who create written, audio, and visual news content—and they contribute much more to media than non-ideologues. Ideologues are also more likely to vote and donate money to political campaigns.
To understand the ideological position of news sources themselves, scholars look typically at the consumers of a news source, making the assumption that people tend to consume news that fits their ideological worldview. A study from Pew Research in 2020 shows more extremism in conservative media than in liberal media.
Based on the ideological preferences of the viewers and readers of various media, Pew found the most liberal sources to be things like Vox and HuffPost.com.
The most conservatives sources were things like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh’s radio programs, and Breitbart News; the sources favored by the most moderate media consumers include The New York Post, CBS, ABC, NBC, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.
Learn more about the extreme partisan polarization of current US politics.
Political Ideology and Individual Psychological Characteristics
Furthermore, liberals express a preference for greater variety in news consumption, and also make up the vast majority of the audience for late-night comedy such as Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to distrust more news sources than they trust, and this effect has become more pronounced over the last few years.
Political science research has shown that there may be a reason why it seems that there is no liberal talk radio, like there is for conservatives, and why there is also little conservative satire in the media. Research shows that political ideology is strongly associated with individuals’ psychological characteristics and people tend to select the media that is consistent with their approach to the world and how they process new information.
For example, political liberalism is associated with a high tolerance for ambiguous and cognitively taxing ideas, whereas conservativism is associated with identifying specific threats and being exact about what is threatening.
Political Humor or Talk Radio?
Satire and humor require abstract thinking and ambiguity, which is much more consistent with political liberalism. On the other hand, being outraged, feeling fear, and identifying sources of threat, are associated with political conservativism and are easily communicated through formats such as talk radio.
Liberals create and consume political humor and satire whereas conservatives create and consume anger or outrage-focused television and radio shows because their individual psychology supports those formats and worldviews. By this account, then, conservative talk radio is to Republicans what late-night television political comedy and variety shows are to Democrats.
Cable News Networks
Today, fewer Americans get their news from major networks such as NBC, ABC, or CBS. Now, the cable news networks are much more popular, such as Fox and MSNBC, with their specialized programming and quirky hosts.
Most Americans don’t live in echo chambers. People who are older, white, male, ideologically conservative, politically active, and aware are more likely to live in a Fox News echo chamber than someone who does not fit those characteristics, but that’s not most people.
Most people do get some exposure to countervailing ideas from a variety of sources. Thus, to some extent, social media does contribute to these effects in both positive and negative ways.
Common Questions about Media Consumption and Polarization: Liberals vs. Conservatives
Political liberalism is associated with a high tolerance for ambiguous and cognitively taxing ideas, whereas conservativism is associated with identifying specific threats and being exact about what is threatening.
The creation and consumption of content does differ between liberals and conservatives. Liberals create and consume political humor and satire whereas conservatives create and consume anger or outrage-focused television and radio shows.
Now, the cable news networks are much more popular, such as Fox and MSNBC, with their specialized programming and quirky hosts.