Media Bias Is A Fact Of Life - But Polarization Need Not Be

In some ways, it would seem that we are living in the golden age of media. With just a click of a button, readers can access dozens or even hundreds of takes on an issue, from every conceivable perspective.

So why is it that our media conversation is dominated by words like misinformation, disinformation, bias, propaganda and mistrust?

And why do Americans -- particularly conservatives -- hold the media in such low regard, with only 7% of U.S. adults in a recent poll expressing strong confidence in reporting from the country’s major outlets?

The old adage of quantity vs. quality applies to our increasingly diverse, cacophonous media landscape.

With more media sources than ever before to choose from, Americans are increasingly disillusioned with their choices -- and increasingly disillusioned with the state of their democracy.



We can’t eliminate media bias. But we can recognize it, engage with it, and overcome our own preconceptions to become better participants in civic society.

Feelings about the state of democracy are directly related to where and how Americans consume news, as research from Duke University instructor Curtis Bram shows.

Using data from our news comparison platform, Ground News, Bram found a correlation between news consumption and feelings about civic health and the state of U.S. democracy. Reading centrist stories on Ground News makes people feel more positive toward their political opponents, Bram found.

But reading “in-partisan” stories – stories ignored by or in the “blindspots” of political opponents increases affective polarization. That’s another way of saying it causes people to distrust or actively dislike people with contrary political views.

It’s become clear that an increasingly partisan, clickbait-driven news landscape was making it more difficult for readers to get a full picture of the world around them, particularly on controversial issues. These news “blindspots” – stories largely covered or ignored by outlets with political predilections -- are now blotting out wide swaths of news.

As we process nearly 60,000 news articles from over 50,000 different news sources each day, we find stories that receive scant attention on one side of the spectrum yet dominate the other. Conservative outlets report almost daily on the troubles involving President Biden’s son Hunter, while more liberal and mainstream outlets largely ignore the story.

Right-wing outlets also elevate stories about the teaching of controversial subjects like critical race theory and transgenderism. News sources on the left, meanwhile, fixate on potential legal troubles involving former President Trump and his inner circle, and on the ongoing congressional inquiry into the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

It often seems like liberals and conservatives occupy two separate news bubbles with little or no overlap. It’s no wonder, then, that they seem unable to communicate with each other – that personal relationships buckle under the weight of political differences, and that those differences can even lead to violence as we tragically witnessed on Jan. 6. 

We’re seeing this same hard-edged partisanship play out in the primary races for competitive Senate races this year. In looking at midterm election campaigns around the country, we found that Republican candidates – with few exceptions – engage on social media with like-minded news outlets, and Democrats do the same. Coverage also splits along partisan lines, with some outlets acting more like cheerleaders for their favored candidates than as objective observers.

But research shows that exposure to contrary opinions in the media can soften preconceived views. Bram, the Duke political-science instructor who has been using Ground News in his doctoral research, surveyed 1,234 people before and after they received our weekly newsletter. He found that members of the President's party reflexively support his policies, and members of the opposing party reflexively take the opposite position.

But there was a twist: Exposure to contrary views in the media can be an antidote to knee-jerk partisan reactions, Bram’s analysis of responses to the Administration's posture last year on refugees from Cuba and Haiti demonstrates. He found that a balanced media diet can soften hard-line partisan positions on refugee policy or other divisive issues in the public sphere.

His research illustrates that repurposing the algorithmic approach that many media platforms use to monetize partisan acrimony can make a difference. Polarization is not inevitable. It is the result of choices that each one of us makes. By choosing to be well-informed, all of us can do our part to restore the promise of democracy.

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