Partisan Selective Exposure in the Digital Age: Evidence from Field Experiments
26 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2013
Date Written: 2013
The possibility that citizens expose themselves to information in biased ways — so-called selective exposure — is increasingly important in a high-choice media environment, but support for the idea that citizens prefer congenial information is notably mixed. Methodological challenges likely contribute to the inconclusive nature of findings, as researchers face trade-offs between the artificiality of lab environments and the difficult-to-disentangle confounds of observational analysis. We try to improve understanding of selective exposure in two ways. First, we consider how message content may affect the preference for congenial political information in the context of a U.S. presidential election. Economic news is minimally enticing to partisans, irrespective of whether the news is good or bad for their candidate. In contrast, citizens find news regarding the personal foibles or gaffes of candidates much more attractive, particularly when it is embarrassing for the opposing party. Second, we arrive at these conclusions by way of a field experiment that provides a passive and naturalistic measure of selective exposure to electoral news content while retaining the benefits of random assignment. This allows us to reach more confident conclusions about the genuine manifestation of partisan selection exposure under certain conditions. Overall, our results help to illuminate underpinnings of the oft-lamented tendency for campaign media to focus on personalities and candidate miscues rather than substantive policy differences.
Keywords: selective exposure, schadenfreude, field experiment, partisanship, gaffe
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