Research & Insights

Hostile Media Moves Some People to Action

By Ashley Lombardo

As a society we often call out media as the culprit behind seemingly growing political polarization.

Researchers are now looking at the effect of polarizing media on our activism, particularly around climate change.

Hostile media coverage – coverage of an issue or event that people feel is biased against their side – may boost climate activism in liberals while decreasing it in conservatives, according to researchers Lauren Feldman and her colleagues.

These findings come from a study published online in the January 2015 journal Communication Research. The study measured how hostile media coverage of climate change can impact people’s willingness to take action on the issue.

The study involved a survey of a thousand American citizens who answered questions about their political beliefs, beliefs about the political system and perceptions of the media.

For instance, media perceptions were measured by asking participants whether they felt that the media was biased against their opinions of climate change. They were also asked whether they felt that politicians care about their opinions of climate change and whether they as citizens were “qualified to participate in politics.” Finally, participants were asked about their climate activism, including whether they’d donated money to or volunteered with climate organizations, or contacted their elected officials about the issue.

The researchers found “that hostile media perceptions mobilize some groups while deactivating others.” In particular, liberals were more likely to engage in climate activism when they believed the media was biased against them, while conservatives were less likely to speak up on the issue. Hostile media perceptions didn’t appear to impact people who are politically moderate.

Media coverage that is perceived as biased against conservative views on climate change may “exacerbate feelings among conservatives that their interests are underrepresented or ignored by the government.” In other words, because many conservatives oppose the Obama administration’s support of climate action, media coverage discussing climate change can feel like an extra slight to conservatives. This makes them less likely to engage in climate activism, suggest the researchers.

Liberals, on the other hand, are often more supportive of governmental action and also tend to be more worried about climate change. This means that in general they are more supportive of governmental actions to address the climate crisis. Even when the media seems against them, this may provide liberals with something to rally against.

“If the media are viewed as hostile and capable of influencing the public at large, this creates a greater perceived need for issue-focused partisans to get involved and take actions such as contacting public officials, joining a demonstration, or signing a petition,” the researchers explain.

Communication Research

Lauren Feldman, Rutgers University
Sol Hart, University of Michigan
Anthony Leiserowitz, Yale University
Edward Maibach, George Mason University
Connie Roser-Renouf, George Mason University

Ashley Lombardo is a senior studying journalism at the University of Florida. Follow her on Twitter.

Posted: May 3, 2016
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