Does Media Fragmentation Produce Mass Polarization? Selective Exposure and a New Era of Minimal Effects
45 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 25 Aug 2010
Date Written: 2010
Political observers are concerned that the fragmentation of contemporary news media and the proliferation of ideological cable news options fuels opinion polarization. The potential implications are problematic: Ideological camps on the left and right of the political spectrum, with different understandings of politics due to these fundamentally distinct sources of information. We develop a model of media effects given selective exposure and ask whether opinionated political shows polarize viewers. We test our hypotheses using a novel experimental design that requires participants to watch pro-attitudinal and counter-attitudinal programs in some treatment conditions, but allows others limited choice over what they watch. We find that the polarizing effects of political programs on cable networks dissipate when people can choose across these options or watch entertainment programs. While enabling people to construct an ideologically congruent information environment, media fragmentation also allows those most susceptible to media influence to select out of political information altogether.
Keywords: polarization, selective exposure, cable news, media effects
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