How to cut down on partisan hostility? Get people to read what the other side is actually saying.

February 4, 2021

Watching both sides can soften political attitudes. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Partisan audiences are less hostile toward online news sources associated with a rival political party after reading articles from them, according to new research, suggesting that some opposition to a rival's ideas may come from a lack of exposure.

In a paper published on Jan. 25 in the American Political Science Review, co-authors Erik Peterson and Ali Kagalwala of Texas A&M University found evidence that reading neutral news coverage from an out-party, or rival party, source cuts down on hostility, which was likely rooted in bias to begin with.

The results show how negative misperceptions can sustain feelings of opposition and hatred toward groups perceived as “other,” a phenomenon with far-reaching implications for understanding the effects of media reputation and the dynamics of polarization more broadly.

“We show that when individuals hold unfavorable views of a group and also avoid encounters with them, inaccurate stereotypes can sustain negative out-group affect,” the researchers wrote, adding that future work could shed more light on what causes the deepening divisions and out-group animus, currently on the rise in the U.S.

Additionally, they said the animus isn't necessarily a function of first-hand encounters with views from the other end of the political spectrum — it's also rooted in a conscious choice not to encounter rival partisan news sources in the first place.

Peterson and Kagalwala set out on their research in hopes of better understanding why it is that people who are suspicious of out-party news actually aren’t likely to have read much of it, or to understand how largely nonpartisan it actually is.

“There is this central puzzle, which is that the people who hold the most negative opinions [of out-party media] tend to have had the least exposure to it,” Peterson told The Academic Times, noting that the degree of hostility can’t easily be explained by a pervasive ideological slant among online partisan news outlets.

That’s because those outlets don’t show the “rampant bias” often seen from their counterparts in cable news, according to content analysis research cited by Peterson and Kagalwala.

The researchers’ analysis of 206 political articles from or the Huffington Post — outlets known for their right- and left-leaning tendencies, respectively — revealed that while each site ran “reputation-consistent” stories slanted against the out-party, 57% were perceived by readers to be neutral between the parties.

The gap between perceptions of out-party and reality could be explained by the fact that many partisans rely on inaccurate stereotypes, rather than direct experience, to assess and then confirm their evaluations of news from the other side. 

In that way, the researchers argued, selective exposure to out-party media actually sustains hostility to it — but such hostility can be curbed by exposing partisans to coverage which could challenge their preconceptions.

They conducted three experiments with a total of over 8,000 respondents to determine whether “oppositional media hostility” could be reduced by exposure to neutral political coverage — which discusses the parties without a “slant” toward either — or to stories about nonpolitical topics from an online source associated with the opposite party.

For right-leaning respondents, this meant reading stories attributed to the Huffington Post, while left-leaning respondents were exposed to coverage attributed to Fox News.

The first experiment examined the effects of “cross-cutting exposure” from a story labeled with the out-party source, with respondents measuring their assessments of that source on a "feeling thermometer" rating. Reading nonpolitical coverage significantly lessened hostility and narrowed the gap between respondents’ evaluations of in- and out-party sources, according to Peterson and Kagalwala.

The second survey-based experiment explored the effects of exposure to different kinds of coverage, including both neutral political stories as well as stories that were overtly hostile to the reader’s partisan allies. 

Besides replicating the findings of the first experiment, it also showed that viewing neutral political news from an out-party source improved assessments of that source by 3.7 points on the feeling thermometer scale relative to the control condition. Respondents who read hostile coverage didn’t raise or lower their evaluations, a result the researchers said could mean that readers generally “already have such hostile coverage in mind when forming their evaluations.”

The third experiment gauged respondents’ perceptions of neutral out-party political content in terms of its partisan slant, finding further evidence that neutral political coverage improves views of out-party sources relative to hostile coverage — and that it did so by reducing the bias readers perceived against their own party. Respondents were also found to give credit to out-party outlets for covering political stories in a nonpartisan way.

While respondents’ views didn’t radically change after being exposed to out-party content which challenged their preconceptions, Peterson said the shift they observed was real and could inspire real-world interventions in the fight against media polarization.

Many online outlets and social media sites use recommendation systems to shape users’ news diets, he said — and could potentially adjust them to allow for more cross-cutting media exposure.

But for the most part, Peterson said, it’s difficult to shake people out of their “entrenched” media habits. Readers can simply choose to tune out sources they’re suspicious of, perpetuating the dynamics that yield hostility toward out-party news stories.

Nevertheless, the research “highlights a need to consider how media reputations are established,” according to Peterson and Kagalwala.

“We expect messages from copartisan politicians and media contribute [to out-party media hostility],” they wrote, “Particularly when people do not encounter such media on their own.”

Peterson said economic pressures may ultimately tamp down on the newsrooms’ ideological bias. For one thing, it forces them to cater to audiences that are mainly interested in topics besides politics.

Online news outlets “want to build up a large readership and maintain that over time — and if they’re going to do that, they can’t just be hyper-political all the time,” he said, noting that even many politically oriented online outlets host extensive entertainment, sports and lifestyle coverage.

The pressure to publish stories at a fast rate can also cut back on political tilt by constraining the reporting resources they can devote to political stories, Peterson added, forcing the outlets to rely on republished wire coverage which carries a more neutral tone.

The article “When Unfamiliarity Breeds Contempt: How Partisan Selective Exposure Sustains Oppositional Media Hostility,” published on Jan. 25 in the American Political Science Review, was co-authored by assistant professor Erik Peterson and doctoral student Ali Kagalwala of Texas A&M University.

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