Study: Pundits thrive by exploiting viewers’ distaste for political opponents

Sean HannityThose who think the growing popularity of highly-partisan opinion shows is tearing the United States apart now have some empiric evidence on their side.

Research published in the September issue of Political Research Quarterly has found pundits on political opinion shows influence attitudes toward presidential candidates — and in a way that is entirely negative.

“An increasing number of Americans engage in selective exposure to ideologically consistent news sources. This fact has caused some scholars and pundits to worry that partisan news sources such as Fox News are making their audiences more polarized,” Glen Smith of the University of North Georgia and Kathleen Searles of Augusta State University wrote in their study.

The researchers found Fox News viewers became more favorable of McCain and less favorable of Obama over the course of the 2008 presidential election. Both Fox’s news programs and opinion shows made viewers more favorable of McCain and less favorable of Obama, but the effect was stronger for those who watched the opinion shows. The study also found MSNBC’s opinion shows had the converse effect, viewers became more favorable of Obama and less favorable of McCain.

Opinion shows on both news networks adopted an “attack mentality” during the 2008 election season. Pundits on MSNBC and Fox News attacked the candidate they disagreed with far more often than they voiced support for the candidate they agreed with.

This tendency to attack the opposition influenced how viewers perceived the candidates. Watching Fox News opinion shows made viewers more likely to think Obama was extremely liberal. Conversely, watching MSNBC opinion shows made viewers more likely to think McCain was extremely conservative.

But watching Fox News opinion shows had little impact on how viewers perceived McCain’s ideology, and watching MSNBC opinion shows had little impact on how viewers perceived Obama’s ideology.

The study suggests that “viewers’’ attitudes are shaped predominantly by vitriolic coverage of the opposition,” Smith and Searles wrote. “Rather than viewers consuming news from a source that confirms their support for their in-party candidate, viewers are consuming news from a source that seems to confirm their distaste for the opposition. The result is not only more polarized partisans but also partisans who are polarized because they hate the other side rather than because they are card-carrying supporters of their side.”

The findings have worrisome implications for American politics.

“If a large segment of the base of either party believes the president is ideologically extreme, they are likely to attach that extreme label to any policies the president supports,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Perhaps the rise of partisan news outlets, and consequently the increasing influence of opinion show hosts on the right and left, has contributed to polarization of the two political parties.”

>>> Get the latest psychology research updates in your inbox. Click here to subscribe to our mailing list for weekly updates