Learning from the news in a time of highly polarized media

Prof Marion R. Just

Professor Emerita of Political Science at Wellesley College. She has published widely on elections, media and political behavior.

Her current research focuses on social media, populism, and misinformation.

Prof Ann N. Crigler

Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Public Policy at the University of Southern California. She has published numerous books and articles on political communication, elections, and political behavior. Her current research focuses on social media in U.S. elections, misinformation, and emotional messaging.

Section 4: News and journalism

It is not surprising that in in a highly polarized system, people seek out the media most congenial with their views. Few people consume a “balanced diet.” The American right follow a diet consisting almost entirely of Fox News. Liberals lean heavily on a few outlets, such as the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC. Most people, however, are media omnivores, taking in local as well as network television news, news websites, social media and some newspapers. What kinds of messages and meanings are constructed and how and what does the public learn from news in this polarized media environment?

President Trump is an active participant in the consuming and making of news, especially Fox News. He often quotes Fox News, calls directly into Fox shows, and is chummy with several of Fox News personalities. President Trump has three main outlets for his views – the “bully pulpit” of the presidency when he speaks directly to the American people as he does in news conference or coverage of his rallies, his Twitter account, and the bullhorn of Fox News. The presidency and a dedicated news channel are a powerful combination. The evidence is overwhelming that Trump/Fox affects opinion, values, beliefs, and most importantly, the behaviors of their adherents. In the current pandemic, the Trump/Fox alliance has spread false information, underplaying the risks of COVID 19 with deadly consequences. The alliance has also mobilized followers in ardent support of the President.

The President is on record, actually on tape, purposely down-playing the coronavirus pandemic. Although a member of Trump’s inner circle sent a memo to the President about the potential seriousness of the disease, in an interview with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in January of 2020, the President admitted that he held back information from the public because he did not want to “panic” people. Initially he even praised President Xi of China for handling the Covid outbreak. In hindsight, it appears that President Trump was mostly worried about panicking the stock market which was running strongly – a good sign for his reelection campaign. In any case, President Trump ignored the virus and spent time travelling. Trump did not begin to communicate concern about the virus until mid- March, when he established a Covid Taskforce. Analysis of the President’s remarks during the Covid Taskforce briefings showed a consistent pattern of downplaying the seriousness of the virus and claiming credit for his administration’s handling of the public health crisis1. It is widely believed that the President and his Administration had little to be proud of in their management of the Covid epidemic. States and municipalities were forced to compete for scarce personal protective equipment, testing was delayed and inadequate, and first responders faced severe risks. The U.S. has the worst record in the world for numbers of cases and deaths. The U.S. is currently in a third virus peak with no end in sight.

The complicity of Fox News in downplaying the seriousness of the virus and denigrating the appropriate public health measures to contain it, especially social distancing and mask wearing, cannot be underestimated. The Fox audience was encouraged to ignore protective measures and to belittle public health mandates. It is not a surprise that there was a significant virus outbreak in the White House itself that eventually included the President and people at Fox News. A single Presidential gathering celebrating the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court – with no social distancing or masks and topped by an indoor party — turned into a “super-spreader event” — affecting several members of the Congress and Senate, including key players on the Senate Judiciary Committee that was scheduled to hold hearings on the nomination. The viewers of Fox News more than any other media audience believed conspiracy theories about the virus, such as its origination in a Chinese laboratory and that it was purposely spread. Fox viewers believed that the other media exaggerated its seriousness and thought the President managed the Covid crisis well. They were the only ones to praise the President and Fox News.

People do learn from the media, as we found in Common Knowledge, but what they learn in a polarized media environment is not the same thing. In a major pandemic, a minority who are encouraged by the President and a major news outlet to disregard expert advice are not only deadly to themselves but a great danger to everyone else.

1 Just, Marion, Joseph Saraceno and Ann Crigler. Forthcoming (2020). “Presidential Home Style: Trump in the Era of COVID-19.” The Forum 18(3).