Pew Research Center Study on political polarization in media itself is polarizing

October 29, 2014
Political Polarization Pew Research

For the past week, I have been returning to the recently published Pew Research Center study on political polarization and the media in an attempt to understand its conclusions clear of third-party media filters.

To me, much of the reporting simply doesn’t jibe with what the report itself conveys. In general, the media hailed the Pew study as confirmation of conservative close-mindedness and distrust. But that’s not exactly its conclusions. Rather, its findings are broader and more apolitical.

Its greatest takeaway: one’s politics heavily influence media habits and perceptions of trustworthiness. Certainly, not new ground nor very sensational. To fix the problem, the media manufactured its own salaciousness.

Even the study’s seemingly controversial conclusion that 47 percent of consistent conservatives cluster around a single news source, Fox News, in and of itself just isn’t that newsworthy. Not when you consider that the same study found that 35 percent of consistent liberals cluster around only three left leaning media sources: The New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR. Hardly a condemnation of conservatives considering that liberals are nearly as guilty of consuming only that with which they agree.

Perhaps, what’s most interesting in the study is its Rorschachian ability to elicit a response appropriate to the audience. Consider some headlines that could have easily been written according to the shine of the political ax:

“Liberals consider Arab-backed Al Jazeera America to be a trusted news source”

“Conspiracy theorist conservatives distrust two-thirds of media sources”

“Capitalism rings true: Wall Street Journal now most trusted U.S. news source”

“Liberals mistake comedy for news according to latest Pew findings”

“MSNBC and Fox News equally trusted by American public”

“Conservatives not only ones trusting of fringe media, liberals trust Mother Jones, Daily Kos, and Jon Stewart for news”

“Buzzfeed the most distrusted U.S. news source”

“ABC News more trusted than NBC, CBS, or CNN news”

“Conservatives twice as likely to have their own opinions played back on Facebook”

“Liberals less tolerant than conservatives on Facebook: More likely to de-friend someone for beliefs”

So are any of these headlines true? Kind of. They simply suffer from the same flaws we all share. Increasingly, we like our biases protected, whether they be political or economic. And we love it when they are fed back to us in a hardening echo chamber of self-held beliefs.

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