Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD
In the modern news media environment, news consumers are faced with opportunities to experience “wall to wall” news coverage of issues, big and small. Often this coverage is heavy on hyperbole and “talking heads” but short on actual, clear information. Further, the market of news media has so increasingly polarized that news viewers can take a buffet approach to their news, selecting “facts” that best fit their own personal views of the world. What impact does this hyperpolarized news environment have on viewers?
As with all things media, it is easy to place the blame on producers and forget that interactions between news audiences and producers are complex and nuanced. To be sure, in the past several decades with the advent of cable news and online news sites, news media have become both Balkanized and more narrowly tailored to individual tastes and interests. This differs from past decades in which news was conveyed mainly through a smaller number of television stations and newspapers wherein a particular narrative was likely more consistent (if not necessarily any more accurate … massaging of news media for political or social purposes is hardly an invention of the 21st Century.) Myside bias (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2013), or the tendency to discount news antithetical to one’s personal beliefs, is probably not recent, although the fracturing of news media into polarized camps does give people an opportunity to select particular news outlets that were not previously available.
Part of the challenge comes from the infotainment problem. The Balkanization of news media allows consumers to further silo and shield themselves from news they do not like while simultaneously creating a blood sport out of news media. Coupled with this is the observation that news shows spend a significant amount of time on “talking head” opinions rather than coverage of actual news (Jurkowitz, 2013). This can create a situation where news becomes less a set of generally agreed upon factual events and more a blood sport for contrasting worldviews. This can add to a social environment in which society is devoid of any shared informational structure, increasing polarization. Both individuals on the right (such as relates to climate change) and the left (such as gender differences in the standard deviation of intelligence) may come to reject data that conflicts with political views. Adherence to a belief structure may become part of signaling tribal political identity rather than a discernment of facts on either side of the political equation. Individuals seek to “preach to the choir” rather than construct rational arguments intended to convince others with differing views.
The other issue worth investigating is cultivation, an area long misunderstood and, at times, misused. In brief, Cultivation Theory suggests that people may develop beliefs and attitudes about the real world based on their exposure to news media. As hypodermic needle models go (theories that assume attitudes, behaviors and beliefs are injected into consumers via social learning or social cognitive mechanisms), Cultivation Theory probably makes more intuitive sense than other theories such as modeling of aggression or body image. This is because the amount of change is often quite a bit less dramatic, and potentially more fragile to better information. Nonetheless, the effects of cultivation have not always replicated (e.g. Chadee, Smith & Ferguson, in press) and probably don’t apply very well to core beliefs and attitudes (Ferguson, 2018). However, in the absence of any other good information, news media can sometimes cultivate erroneous beliefs. These may include things such as belief that crime is increasing, despite it actually being at historic lows in the United States. In our own area of study, this can also explain why, due to biased news coverage (see Copenhaver, Mitrofan & Ferguson, in press) the general public may believe that evidence for various media effects on consumers is stronger than it actually is.
At the same time, we must be cautious to avoid scapegoating news media for large social trends and problems. In essence, media often act more as mirrors than causes of pressing social issues, and news media, like most media, are largely subject to market pressures. Or, put simply, news media is largely giving people what they want. News media has become a kind of tool for people to indulge their baser instincts. We must be cautious not to continue social science’s reflexive scapegoating of technology for social problems.
However, this does not mean we need to accept the status quo, either. At present, I’m working on a book that considers how madness influences history. As part of this, I am considering how the mechanisms of even democracies and republics sometimes empower the madder elements of society from which disaster can ensue. Arguably, the partisanship of modern politics is a serious challenge for our historical era and, as psychologists, we can look for ways to restore collegial, constructive debate. In this sense, as media experts, we can seek ways to work with news media providers to help them remain as data-based as possible and open up avenues for bipartisan dialogue, compromise, and centrist perspectives. Our future could depend on it.
Chadee, D., Smith, S., & Ferguson, C.J. (In press). Murder she watched: Does watching news or fictional media cultivate fear of crime? Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
Copenhaver, A., Mitrofan, O., & Ferguson, C.J. (In press.) For video games, bad news is good news: News reporting of violent video game studies. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
Ferguson, C.J. (2018). Feminist Frequency and the truth about video games. Areo. Retrieved from: https://areomagazine.com/2018/08/30/feminist-frequency-and-the-truth-about-video-games/
Jurkowitz, M. (2013). Is MSNBC the place for opinion? Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/05/is-msnbc-the-place-for-opinion/
Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2013). Myside bias, rational thinking, and intelligence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(4), 259-264. doi:10.1177/0963721413480174