Political commentators and polarization

Political commentators play a heavy hand in the polarization of the national political conversation. Mainstream media outlets like CNN, Fox, CBS and MSNBC use panels of political commentators as a way to enhance the objectivity and credibility of their reporting. Unfortunately, these functions are often overlooked. Similarly, political Youtubers like Steven Crowder and The Young Turks offer opinion in response to current events, and invite guests of differing views to balance the scales.

(In the above videos, the political divide is visualized. Stephen Crowder, a right-leaning political commentator, has a nearly opposite viewpoint from The Young Turks, left-leaning political commentators, about the Ford-Kavanaugh Senate Judiciary hearings.)

The problem occurs when people fail to use critical thinking, or simply are too lazy to seek out news from varying sources. Selective exposure is an avoidance of information that opposes one’s beliefs. People use the practice of selective exposure to reserve energy that would otherwise be used to create a case for their opinions, according to Thomas Ridout’s “New Directions in Media and Politics.”

When people participate in selective exposure, especially in the current political climate, they are, in fact, strengthening their own biases and becoming more partisan. Think about the differences between Fox News and CNN’s news coverage. Fox News tends to focus on undocumented immigration and President Trump’s successes while CNN tends to focus on healthcare and Trump’s failures. Respective audiences of the networks would not agree on what the issues are, let alone how to approach them. In fact, when viewing commentary that’s in-line with one’s political beliefs, those beliefs are strengthened, said Ridout.

Partisanship has become more powerful and influential of an identity marker than race. As a result, people are much more likely to trust and believe someone of their own party. When partisans see prominent figures on their side attacking a member of the opposite party, they’re more likely to justify the action, and this is true of those on the right and left, according to a study by Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood.

“The level of animosity across party lines also implies a reduced willingness to treat the actions of partisan opponents as legitimate, resulting in more intense contestation of policy outcomes,” said Iyengar and Westwood.

People are more likely to think something is true if they’ve been exposed to it in the past, according to a study by David Rand and Gordon Pennycook. This is dangerous, because in participating in selective exposure, people are only gaining information from one side, and that information may be opinion, or may simply be inaccurate.

The problem of polarized commentary began as CNN was established in 1980, and became the first news station to cover the news around-the-clock. The 24-hour news cycle required more than just journalists to cover breaking news events–paving the way for commentators to weigh in–and allowed for more in-depth reporting of issues. In the late 80s, the Big Three followed the lead of cable news and began to favor opinionated guests over hard news reporting. In 1996, Fox News emerged as a right-leaning contender in the 24-hour news world.

Fast-forward to the 00s and 2010s; with the rise of social media, anyone could espouse their opinions and become a “political commentator” without training. Today, most people take advantage of social media platforms to share their political views. In 2016, in fact, over half of social media users found discussing politics to be “frustrating,” according to a study from PEW Research. The rise of social media led to the rise of political Youtube channels like Steven Crowder and The Young Turks (which started as a radio talk show in 2002).

As a result of an increasingly polarized political climate and the ease of posting our thoughts on the internet, opinion is found in every medium. In print journalism, news organizations label their opinion pieces clearly. In other mediums, however, we aren’t afforded the same luxury.

When watching and reading information, it’s hard to distinguish fact from opinion. People can see bias, normally when it is coming from across the aisle. A liberal can identify bias from a conservative espousing opinions rather than facts. However, a liberal cannot necessarily see bias when it is coming from their own side, said Ridout.

This relates back to the argumentative section of the class because people don’t have debates anymore. They’ve grown accustomed to shouting their opinions over others’ opinions. Additionally, as a result of selective exposure, people have become apathetic and cold to the views of those with opposing viewpoints.

“This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding,” said John Duca and Jason Saving in a study published in 2016.

When in doubt, balance it out. Seek to at least understand the reasoning behind opposing viewpoints, and actively work to bridge the divide where possible.

Challenging your beliefs will make you a better consumer of the news, and inspire change in others.

Further reading:

This article won’t change your mind

The real story about fake news is partisanship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s