Recent events made me think about a particular chicken and egg problem: What comes first, political polarization or media polarization? And how much damage can media polarization do in a political system? The answer to the first question is probably: they’re mutually reinforcing, but the media wouldn’t be polarized if there wasn’t a polarized audience to begin with. The answer to the second question is less obvious, but relevant to all political systems where the media can tip the scales toward one side or the other, or possibly one extreme or the other.
It is a commonplace by now that the fragmented media landscape in many countries, much amplified by online media, allows members of the audience to get exposed only to political content that they actually agree with. There is so much out there, you never really need to listen to the other side. In the recent Presidential elections in the United States, this led to a curious phenomenon. The media on the right, and also voters on the right that mainly focused on those media, were convinced that their candidate would win and were genuinely surprised when he didn’t. The media on the left played the same trick on its audience. The media in the middle covered the election as if it was a close race, which it wasn’t, in order not to scare part of their audience away. Overall, one had to turn to foreign media to lose some of the bias.
The media is going with their audience: if the audience is highly polarized and doesn't find common political ground, the media is likely to serve them by portraying politics in just that way. The “mainstream” media in the middle doesn’t dare take sides in a polarized world for fear of losing a part of their audience. Economically, this probably makes sense. Politically, this may cause substantial damage.
Polarization is a significant problem in societies that are strongly divided along ideological, religious, or ethnic lines. The media, by serving the preferences of their audiences – but possibly not their needs – exacerbate conflict by confirming each side and rejecting compromise. Citizens then expect their politicians to be uncompromising themselves, voting (if they have a vote) those into office who reflect the uncompromising stance. Political culture, in turn, becomes a battlefield, far away from the ideal of a democratic public sphere.
This is not a problem limited to the United States. Radical and extremist media have caused damage all over the world. The role of talk radio in the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya is just one example. The question is: what to do?
The answer here again is not simple, but I would like to suggest an approach that may at least provide an attempt at balanced coverage of politics: public service broadcasting. In many countries, where public service broadcasting is not state-owned broadcasting, statutes and governance structures ensure a certain balance of representation in the coverage. While it's a challenge to establish a truly independent public media system, it’s probably worth it, providing at least a little bit of a bulwark against a spiral of extremism between a polarized audience and their polarized media.
Picture: Flickr user filmhirek