Does Partisan Media Contribute to Healthy Politics?

Today at 5 pm, I’m participating in a South by Southwest panel entitled “How Partisan Media Contributes to Healthy Politics.”  I prefer to think of this as a question: can partisan media contribute to healthy politics?  For my contribution, I want to do two things.  The first is report on the available social science to show that partisan media might not be as powerful as is sometimes suggested.  I think that’s an important piece of context for this discussion.  The second is to raise some questions about whether and how partisanship—an often maligned notion—can play a valuable role in democracy.

The audience for partisan news is not as big as you might think.

What percentage of Americans watches cable news for 10 minutes or more per day?  Only about 10-15%, if you simply add up the audiences for Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.  This is based on calculations by political scientist Markus Prior, drawing on detailed data about what people actually watch and not what they report in a survey.  Survey reports of news consumption are often highly inaccurate.  Consider this comparison of a 2008 Pew survey to data on viewership from the Nielsen Company:

In the survey, almost a third of Americans believe they watch one of the three cable networks “regularly.”  It’s not quite clear what “regularly” means, of course.  This is one of the problems of using survey questions to measure media exposure.  But if we assume that a regular viewer should watch at least an hour per week, then in reality only about 6-7% of Americas meet that description.

And even those numbers may be too high, because they double-count anyone who watches more than one of those channels.  The seemingly inconceivable possibility that someone might watch both Fox and MSNBC leads to the next point.

Most people are news omnivores.

Most people’s “diet” of news isn’t all that skewed by their partisans.  There is actually a lot of overlap viewers of various cable news networks.  Markus Prior reports that people who watch at least 1 minute of Fox News each week devote about 7.5% of their news consumption to Fox but 3.7% to other cable news channels.  The same is true of CNN viewers.  This is consistent with the research of Michael LaCour, who tracked media usage via devices that participants carried with them and that regularly recorded the ambient sounds around them.  It is also consistent with the research of Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, who examined news consumption on-line and found that most consumers read ideologically diverse new outlets.

Unsurprisingly, if you isolate people who watch a lot of Fox News or a lot of MSNBC, their viewing habits reflect more skew.  But this is a small group of people.  The same is true of people who read political blogs: they are anything but omnivores, according to my research with Eric Lawrence and Henry Farrell, but they are also a small fraction of the public.

Prior has an excellent summary of these points:

Automatic tracking of television viewing using two different technologies reveals that most people avoid cable news almost entirely. A large segment watches cable news infrequently and nonselectively, mixing exposure to different cable news channels. In the small slice of heavy cable news viewers, however, partisan selective exposure is not uncommon.

Partisan news may not polarize partisans, but attract polarized partisans.

There is surprisingly little research that attempts to deal a fundamental issue.  Do people who watch partisan news become more polarized, or do people with polarized views simply like to watch partisan news?  In one experiment, political scientist Matthew Levendusky randomly assigned people to watch partisan news that either did or did not share their political outlook, or to a neutral news source.  He found that partisan news that reinforced subjects’ political outlook made their attitudes modestly more extreme.  This effect was stronger among those who said that they preferred to consume news that shared their political outlook—suggesting that even if the people who watch partisan news are already pretty partisan, partisan news will make them more so.

However, other research by Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson arrives at a different conclusion.  They conducted a set of experiments and allowed people to choose whether they watched their side’s partisan news, the other side’s news, or entertainment programming that had no news content.  They found that the news shows had no effects on attitudes as long as people were allowed to choose.  This suggests that, in the real world, partisan news doesn’t polarize.  If anything, it may be that polarization creates an audience for partisan news.

A few experiments isn’t much of an evidentiary base.  Much more needs to be done.  But it’s worth noting that we don’t really know that partisan news is polarizing us, and with more evidence, we may find that it isn’t.

Learning to love partisanship.

As you can tell from the title of the panel, it was deliberately framed as a provocation.  It’s sometimes (often? always?) hard to like partisan news and even partisanship itself.  But here is the trade-off I want to emphasize.  We want politics to involve calm, civil, rational deliberation about the common good.  Partisanship doesn’t necessarily facilitate that goal and can actively detract from it.  But we also want politics to be full of active, eager, and engaged citizens.  Partisanship does a very good job of facilitating engagement.  It’s one reason why voter turnout was so high in the late eighteenth century during the heyday of strong party organizations and a largely partisan press.

Indeed, if you look at partisans in the public, they look like ideal citizens in many respects.  In a December 2011 YouGov poll, 65% of people who identified as “strong” Democrats or Republicans said they were “very much interested” in politics.  Only 35% of those who identified as independents with no partisan leaning said that.  Partisans are more likely not only to follow politics but to participate in it.  Indeed, it is sort of odd to expect people to care deeply about something but then tell them they’re not allowed to have strong opinions.  It’s like saying, “You should love baseball, but please don’t actually root for a team.”

I’m not suggesting that partisanship is an unalloyed good.  Partisans can be misinformed if they are buying the spin their side is selling—spin that, by the way, they can usually hear in neutral news outlets doing “he said, she said” reporting, not simply in partisan news.  Partisanship militates against other democratic goals, like tolerance for opposing points of view.  Or compromise.

And, in any case, we’ve only got an hour in this panel, so we’re hardly going to resolve this.  I just think it’s worth exploring these tensions in the folk theories we have about politics.

If you’re at South by Southwest, please drop by the panel!  I’m joining Christina Bellantoni, the political editor of the PBS NewsHour, and James Kirchick, a writer, blogger, and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

[Originally posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.