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Observers and media pundits often argue that the growing polarisation in American public discourse can be traced back to the media landscape and the effects of selective exposure to news messages. New research by UvA communication scientist Carlos Brenes Peralta now challenges this view, and instead suggests that a large majority of American news media and media consumers prefer balanced reporting on key issues. Brenes Peralta will obtain his doctorate from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on Tuesday, 19 September.

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Much has been made about the deepening political divide in American public life. Contentious issues like climate change, health care reform and immigration often present a country where existing beliefs and opinions are entrenched and little room seems to exists for opposing viewpoints or counter arguments. To explain this phenomenon, some observers and media pundits point to so-called selective exposure, in which individuals favour information that reinforces their pre-existing views (pro-attitudinal arguments) while avoiding contradictory information (counter-attitudinal arguments). This tendency for selective-exposure is thought to be facilitated and amplified by news outlets across the ideological spectrum.

A more balanced picture

Although the current media environment facilitates selective exposure by offering partisan news, the majority of media outlets in the U.S. and in other Western democracies still favour balanced reporting, and substantial numbers of media consumers attend this information. To get a better understanding of the causes and consequences of balanced news exposure, Brenes set out to discover which groups in American society seek balanced media information and to identify how different individuals interpret balanced messages – those which argue two sides of a story. He also looked at how these messages affect individuals’ opinions about an issue.

To do so, he designed several online experiments in which American participants were presented with news stories that were either balanced, pro-attitudinal or counter-attitudinal and which dealt with contentious issues like climate change, refugees and healthcare reform. He then observed how the participants chose and read different news stories and analysed whether this information was interpreted in a biased or open-minded manner and whether these stories made their opinions more extreme. He also examined news articles to find out whether the evidence presented were based on verifiable facts and figures or rather on personal stories.

Not so one-sided

‘To our surprise, the groups who took part in our experiment chose to read stories that contained pro-attitudinal information noticeably less and instead preferred balanced messages that presented arguments that both confirmed and refuted their prior opinions’, says Brenes Peralta. This also applied to participants who were personally invested in an issue, such as climate change, and who clearly preferred balanced stories that use factual evidence rather than personal stories to make claims. ‘This preference for balanced reporting was observed among people who both were and weren’t personally invested in an issue, as well as among individuals who had strong opinions and sought to defend their views and those who tried to hold a more objective opinion.’ Although this preference for balanced news seemed to prevent attitudes from hardening further, however, it didn’t lead to a change of opinion, Brenes Peralta adds.

Brenes’ findings are important because they seem to dispel ongoing concerns that Americans only prefer news stories that confirm their existing beliefs and actively avoid disconfirming information. This concern has become more pronounced as a result of the recent rise in online technologies and partisan media. Brenes: ‘My research shows that even in a fragmented, personalised and highly competitive media environment, different groups of media consumers still prefer balanced messages that meet core principles of journalistic practice.’ 

PhD details

C.M. Brenes Peralta, Two Sides to Every Story: Causes and Consequences of Selective Exposure to Balanced Political Information. Supervisor: Prof. C.H. de Vreese. Co-supervisors: Dr M.E. Wojcieszak and Dr Y. Lelkes.

Time and location

The PhD defence ceremony will take place on Tuesday, 19 September at 10:00. Location: Agnietenkapel at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 231, Amsterdam.