Are changes in the news media system feeding political polarization in American society or just exploiting it? And will political polarization grow in the future?
A 2014 Pew Research Journalism Project survey showed that people with strong conservative or liberal political views tend to favor certain news media and stay away from others. And they follow a similar pattern in their use of social media. "When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds," Pew concluded. "There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust."
Ideological conservatives mostly watched a single news source: Fox News. And while ideological liberals consumed a greater range of news and opinion from a wider range of sources, most of these sources were toward the moderate- liberal side of the political spectrum: the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, NPR, MSNBC, the Huffington Post, and so on. Liberals strongly distrusted Fox News and conservative talk radio personalities, while conservatives strongly distrusted most of the other cable and broadcast networks.
As Pew pointed out, most Americans find news from a variety of digital sources every day, but the most conservative and the most liberal news consumers have tended to engage more in political conversations and activity. And yet the academic research conducted into the relationship between media consumption and political belief paints a complex picture. Political communication scholar Markus Prior sums it up well:
Although political attitudes of most Americans have remained fairly moderate, evidence points to some polarization among the politically involved. Proliferation of media choices lowered the share of less interested, less partisan voters and thereby made elections more partisan. But evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best. Measurement problems hold back research on
partisan selective exposure and its consequences.
That said, it's obvious that Fox News and websites and blogs like Daily Caller, Matt Drudge's Drudge Report, and Lucianne Goldberg's Lucianne.com are heavily skewed toward conservatives and MSNBC and websites and blogs like the Huffington Post, Think Progress, and Markos Moulitsas Daily Kos are similarly skewed toward liberals. It's most likely that the media and politicized voters are trapped in kind of a vicious circle: partisan media feed polarization in the electorate, which increases demand for partisan media, and so on. But journalism might not be the main reason why American politics have become so polarized. Changes in campaign spending laws are another reason. Demographic clustering and district gerrymanding are yet more reasons. The rise of primary elections that push candidates to appeal to their base is another. All of these macro-political factors are related to changes in journalism and the media, but not always directly.