Do Our Media Choices Today Simply Reflect Our Political Identities?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
--Guest post by Sarah Merritt, American University doctoral student.
Do people seek news and information through environments on the Web that strongly align with their political identity? Do we always selectively expose ourselves to ideologically like-minded news coverage and selectively avoid information that does not align with our preexisting attitudes?
Understanding the nature of political communication effects and impacts depends in part on the answer to these questions.
In a much discussed 2008 paper by political scientists Lance Bennett and Shanto Iyengar, they argue that in today’s media system of many choices, audiences no longer have a shared context for receiving and interpreting news and information.
They argue that given the strong tendency to selectively seek out like-minded content, our news and online information choices have become synonymous with our political identities. This tendency towards selectivity in turn creates strong incentives for media organizations like Fox News or MSNBC to increasingly tailor and market their content to an ideologically motivated audience. The result is that most forms of news use today serve to reinforce, strengthen and make more ideologically consistent our viewpoints and policy preferences, rather than provide challenging information that might moderate them.
Bennett and Iyengar also suggest a second dimension to this selectively. While motivated news audiences are selecting themselves into ideologically-like minded content sources, those with less interest in public affairs are avoiding news all together, choosing instead to engage with entertainment media and other diversionary content.
In a 2010 response paper, communication researchers Lance Holbert and Kelly Garrett counter that it simply isn’t clear whether people tend to choose the type of information environment that reinforces their preexisting perspectives and strongly avoid information that counters their pre-existing attitudes. Citing a series of studies, the authors assert that while it is true that people are attracted to information with which they agree, they do not necessarily avoid information with which they disagree.
If this avoidance occurs, the process is de facto, driven by the fact that people are simply habitually seeking out ideologically like-minded sources. They also suggest that entertainment media is not without political content or effects, pointing to outlets ranging from the Daily Show and guest appearances on late night comedy programs to the political messages embedded in TV dramas and films.
The relationship between individual media choices, identity, perceptions and decisions will be a topic examined across this semester as part of our doctoral seminar at American University. The debate between these two groups of scholars centers on whether or not existing theories and methods in the field of political communication can adequately account for the changing nature of the news media, campaigns and their influence, or whether or not new theories and methods need to be developed.
--Guest post by Sarah Merritt, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication. Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.
Bennett, W. L., & Iyengar, S. (2008). A new era of minimal effects? The changing foundations of political communication. Journal of Communication, 58(4), 707-731. [PDF]
Holbert, R. L., Garrett, R. K., & Gleason, L. S. (2010). A new era of minimal effects? A response to Bennett and Iyengar. Journal of Communication, 60(1), 15-34. [Abstract]
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