NEWS 2013

Divided We View

How our current media landscape contributes to America's polarized electorate

Rachel Davis Mersey
Rachel Davis Mersey (l.) discusses the role of news networks
in creating an informed voting public with political scientist
and IPR associate Traci Burch.

A 2012 poll revealed that 68 percent of Republicans trust Fox News while 57 percent of Democrats put their faith in PBS, ABC, and CNN. Why have Americans become so polarized in their news consumption?

IPR mass communications researcher Rachel Davis Mersey points to several factors, including how the public responds to news. In a media landscape saturated with 24/7 news coverage, nearly half of respondents feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and 40 percent say they cannot tell what is important.

These statistics came out of a survey of people living in Illinois’ Cook County that Mersey conducted. In an October 23 talk at Northwestern, she enumerated many reasons behind this “news bifurcation.” She covered time constraints, personal interests, mobile devices, and news reporting.

Mersey fingers identity to explain why more than half of media consumers often opt for partisan news sources. Ninety percent of respondents said they had no inclination to read things that did not reinforce their ideas and opinions, answer their questions, or fill some need in their own life.

“People feel smarter when they are told we agree with them; they don’t feel smarter when their ideas are challenged,” Mersey said.

This identity issue has led to “very divergent messages,” she continued. To attract viewers, many news networks, both conservative and liberal, now offer what Mersey calls “counter-programming” rather than news coverage.

“Ultimately, they’re not delivering coverage to help inform people, but to inflame an argument,” Mersey said.

Yet the strategy does not always lead to increased viewer- or readership, she said, noting that liberal-leaning MSNBC was then rated no. 9. She offered examples of growing niche news organizations that offer smart, in-depth coverage such as The Economist and The Atlantic.

Returning to the issue of an electorate divided by news outlets, Mersey suggests offering more coverage of candidates and issues, in addition to developing new and more interesting ways to present the information.

“It’s not surprising that we have a divided electorate when the media environment is divisive and presenting information this way,” Mersey said. “Media companies need to become more informed about their users—and socially responsible enough to tell both sides of the story.”  

Rachel Davis Mersey is associate professor of journalism and an IPR fellow.