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Media policy and political polarization

Does media policy impact the rising political polarization in the United States? The US Congress passed The Telecommunications Act of 1996 that comprehensively overhauled US media policy for the first time since 1934, resulting in relaxed ownership regulations intended to spur competition between cable and telephone telecommunications systems. This deregulation allowed for more television channels on cable TV systems, including the inception of partisan news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC.

In today’s media environment, people have a wealth of information at their disposal. The increase in the number of television channels means people can select any number of programs to watch, particularly what political content they want to consume. A number of studies have shown that partisan news outlets draw distinct audiences, with conservatives consuming Fox News and liberals consuming MSNBC. The availability of this content is important because research has shown that watching content on these outlets contributes to political polarization. Furthermore, increased niche programming allows non-partisans who are not interested in politics to tune out altogether.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created favorable conditions for a dramatic expansion in the number of media channels available to viewers, resulting in a rise in partisan television news channels among others. In turn, partisan television channels have been proven to contribute to political polarization. Does this then mean that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 inadvertently led to increased political polarization? In our recent article, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, we conducted a study which suggests that structural changes to media systems such as the Telecommunications act of 1996 can change the nature of media effects.

Our study found that the relationship between media and polarization changed after 1996, with TV news contributing more to polarization following the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 than it did before. After 1996, frequent consumers of TV news showed greater increases in polarization on a year-to-year basis than individuals who spent less time watching TV news (as illustrated in the figure below).


In this case, the policy changes may have encouraged the introduction of partisan media outlets (such as Fox News) and contributed to the increase in horse race coverage that focuses on the positive and negative traits of candidates instead of digging into policy debates. Many people claim that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped perpetuate increasing levels of media consolidation – for instance, companies like the Disney Corporation could now purchase major TV networks like ABC. Critics also argue that decreased competition among cable companies following the law led to hikes in cable prices, which incentivized media companies like Fox to create their own cable networks. As a result, there was an increase in the number of cable stations owned by big media companies.

Indeed, the addition of partisan news sources to the media system provides viewers with an opportunity to seek out information that supports their extant view of the world. Scholars have also noted that when these media conglomerates took control of networks such as ABC, news coverage suffered. News is now seen as an additional source of profit instead of a public service for viewers. This is important because the decreased funding of news departments may have contributed to increasing levels of cheap, conflict oriented programming, which has the potential to increase people’s level of polarization. As a result, watching TV news has become more polarizing for those who choose to watch.

Featured Image: Watch TV, CCO via Pixabay

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