Recently in the United States the majority of citizens have come to reside at the extremes of either the political right or the left. “Most people either love George Bush or hate George Bush,” Professor Wayne Wanta explains, with few people falling in the middle. Wanta carefully recounts his recent research concerning such polarization of attitudes, especially in terms of how the media contribute to this phenomenon. Initially he suspected that the internet (now about ten years old) was the primary factor affecting this polarization, that perhaps people were going online to get information that reinforces their already existing beliefs, resulting in those beliefs becoming more extreme.
However, Wanta found this theory to be unsupported by the data. He started by comparing the polarized extremes with different groups of people in terms of how they obtain their news—whether in the form of television, radio, newspaper, or the internet—to determine which of these groups is most extreme on a variety of issues ranging from religion to politics.
Wanta’s findings were unexpected. It turns out that there is a more complex selection process at play, in which people seek information that reinforces their already existing beliefs, creating a “snowball effect,” but do so differently in different media. Currently, most people in the U.S. obtain their news from television, yet television networks did not seem to be contributing one way or the other toward polarization. Newspaper and internet users tend to be less polarized. Interestingly, people who showed the most polarization were those who used radio. One logical explanation for this finding is that radio news commentators (such as Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken)—versus the news itself—are themselves extreme, drawing listeners who already hold those beliefs and making those listeners’ viewpoints increasingly extreme. Internet use, on the other hand, showed the opposite effect, possibly because of the breadth of information available. As such, internet consumers of news are more likely to see the value of multiple points of view and therefore be less polarized. As for television, conservative networks (such as the Fox network) draw conservative viewers, reinforcing their previously held beliefs and making it more likely they will become more polarized.