Media Use and Political Predispositions: Revisiting the Concept of Selective Exposure

Abstract

Today, people have ample opportunity to engage in selective exposure, the selection of information matching their beliefs. Whether this is occurring, however, is a matter of debate. While some worry that people increasingly are seeking out likeminded views, others propose that newer media provide an increased opportunity for exposure to diverse views. In returning to the concept of selective exposure, this article argues that certain topics, such as politics, are more likely to inspire selective exposure and that research should investigate habitual media exposure patterns, as opposed to single exposure decisions. This study investigates whether different media types (newspapers, political talk radio, cable news, and Internet) are more likely to inspire selective exposure. Using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, evidence supports the idea that people’s political beliefs are related to their media exposure—a pattern that persists across media types. Over-time analyses suggest that people’s political beliefs motivate their media use patterns and that cable news audiences became increasingly politically divided over the course of the 2004 election.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that the test for moderators in the meta-analysis performed by D’Alessio and Allen (2002) narrowly missed marginal significance (p = 0.13). The studies included in the meta-analysis, however, warrant some qualification: D’Alessio and Allen only included experimental studies that involved making a choice (n = 16). In addition, 15 of the studies included in the meta-analysis had nothing to do with politics. Even if politics were an important moderator, therefore, it is unlikely that it would have been detected in this study.

  2. 2.

    Note that some questions were present on the survey for only parts of this period, as discussed in the appendix. When these variables are employed, the analysis covers only a subset of these dates.

  3. 3.

    This response rate is comparable to that obtained by others (e.g. Pew Research Center 2004). Controls (see the appendix) are incorporated throughout the analysis to help to take into account differences between the population and the sample.

  4. 4.

    Note that there is some debate about the accuracy of survey-based media exposure measures (Price and Zaller 1990; Prior 2007b). Two components of this study, however, may boost confidence in the measures. First, the media dependent variables measured content-based exposure (as opposed to frequency of exposure), which may be easier for respondents to accurately recall. Second, in most cases, respondents were asked open-ended questions about their media exposure, so they would have to recall the name of the media program or outlet in order to answer the question. If, however, the media use measures employed in this study did not reflect actual media use, a link between political predispositions and media use would continue to have import: It still would mean that people recognize and report media outlets matching their political predispositions.

  5. 5.

    The partisanship and ideology measures were combined to create a single measure of political predispositions. The rationale for this combination comes from work showing that these two variables have become increasingly consistent over time (see, for example, Abramowitz and Saunders 2006; Fiorina and Levendusky 2007). As noted in later footnotes, analyses were run to assess whether results changed if partisanship or ideology were included separately in the models or if respondent political leanings were included in the models as a categorical variable (with those not holding clear partisan or ideological attachments as the omitted category).

  6. 6.

    Results are unchanged if partisanship and ideology are included separately in the analysis. Analysis also was repeated using a combination of ideology and partisanship as a categorical variable. Results for conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are in line with Table 1, with the exception of liberal websites, where liberal Democrats were no more likely than those without partisan and ideological attachments to access them. Liberal and moderate Republicans followed conservative Republicans and were less likely to access liberal websites, to watch CNN/MSNBC, or to read newspapers endorsing Kerry and more likely to watch FOX and to listen to conservative talk radio shows. Conservative and moderate Democrats followed liberal Democrats and were less likely to watch FOX or to listen to conservative talk radio shows and more likely to watch CNN/MSNBC compared to those without partisan and ideological attachments.

  7. 7.

    It is possible that demographic variables, such as age and gender, may moderate patterns of partisan selective exposure. After all, Ziemke (1980) finds stronger evidence that younger individuals certain about their candidate preference engage in selective exposure compared to older individuals and Chaffee and Miyo (1983) find more evidence for selective exposure among adolescents compared to their parents. Further, Garrett (2006) shows that men are more familiar with the arguments of their preferred candidate than women. This potentially indicates that men are more apt to engage in selective exposure. To evaluate this, the analyses from Table 1 were run with the addition of an interaction between age and ideology/partisanship or an interaction between female and ideology/partisanship. Results were inconsistent. For age, younger liberal Democrats were more likely to listen to liberal radio compared to older liberal Democrats, older conservative Republicans were less likely to watch CNN/MSNBC compared to younger conservative Republicans, and older liberal Democrats were less likely to watch FOX compared to younger liberal Democrats. For gender, male liberal Democrats were more likely to watch CNN/MSNBC and less likely to watch FOX. Female conservative Republicans were less likely to access liberal websites compared to female liberal Democrats.

  8. 8.

    Additional analysis was run adding interactions between time, ideology/partisanship, age, and gender. There was little evidence that the over-time relationships between ideology/partisanship and cable news consumption were moderated by age or by gender. There was one significant three-way interaction such that over time, younger liberal Democrats were less likely to watch FOX and younger conservative Republicans were more likely to watch FOX in comparison to older respondents. When general political knowledge was excluded (see note in Fig. 1), however, the interaction was no longer significant.

  9. 9.

    When ideology and partisanship are entered separately in the cable news equations, results are similar, with one exception: in predicting watching FOX, the interaction between ideology and time is not significant (p = 0.11), though it remains in the same direction. When a categorical ideology/partisanship variable is used to evaluate the cable news findings, liberal, moderate, and conservative Republicans are more likely to watch FOX and less likely to watch CNN/MSNBC over time in comparison to those without partisan and ideological attachments. Without general political knowledge, conservative Republicans were less likely to watch CNN/MSNBC over time and liberal Democrats were less likely to watch FOX over time in comparison to those without partisan and ideological attachments.

  10. 10.

    When partisanship and political ideology are included in the panel analyses separately, results are similar. For accessing conservative Internet websites, however, ideology is not significant. Further, neither partisanship nor ideology significantly predicts reading Kerry or Bush-endorsing newspapers. A categorical ideology/partisanship variable produces similar results. Conservative Republicans are less likely to listen to liberal radio or watch CNN/MSNBC and are more likely to listen to conservative radio and watch FOX. The opposite holds true for liberal Democrats. Further, liberal Democrats also are less likely to access conservative websites. Liberal and moderate Republicans, following conservative Republicans, are less likely to consume liberal radio and more likely to watch FOX. Conservative and moderate Democrats, following liberal Democrats, are more likely to watch CNN/MSNBC and less likely to watch FOX compared to those with no partisan leanings and a moderate ideology.

  11. 11.

    Additional analysis was run incorporating interactions between ideology/partisanship and age and between ideology/partisanship and gender. For age, none of the interactions were significant. For gender, only one interaction was marginally significant: male liberal Democrats were more likely to read newspapers endorsing Kerry compared to female liberal Democrats. Overall, there is no evidence that either age or gender consistently moderates partisan selective exposure.

  12. 12.

    Similar panel analyses were conducted to examine the reverse causal direction; namely, whether partisan media use contributes to ideology/partisanship. In two instances—listening to conservative talk radio and watching FOX—media consumption was related to being a stronger conservative Republican. Further, watching CNN/MSNBC and accessing liberal Internet websites were related to being a stronger liberal Democrat. There are several interpretations for these results. It is possible that consuming congenial media helped people to learn what terms described their existing political identity (e.g. liberal, conservative, etc.). This is particularly possible considering that this study took place during a heated presidential campaign. It also is possible that viewing these media outlets changed or intensified people’s political identities.

  13. 13.

    Note that 46 percent of respondents were categorized as liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans. If the analysis is repeated to compare Democrats (including those leaning toward the Democratic Party) and Republicans (including those leaning toward the Republican Party), 90 percent of the respondents are included. Here, 68 percent of Democrats versus 48 percent of Republicans use at least one liberal outlet. Thirty percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans use at least one conservative outlet.

  14. 14.

    Two questions were combined to form this variable. The first read: how many days in the past week did you access information about the campaign for president online? The second read: how many days in the past week did you read information about the campaign for president online? Though the two had slightly different means (access information M = 0.93, SD = 1.95; read information M = 1.16, SD = 2.13), they had similar distributions and were combined throughout the analysis. Those without Internet access were coded as 0.

  15. 15.

    Only those respondents indicating that they consumed each of the various types of media were asked these questions. Those indicating that they did not consume each media type were coded as 0.

  16. 16.

    This item was removed from the survey between October 8 and October 10, 2004. The question read: “Some people seem to follow what is going on in government and public affairs most of the time, whether there is an election or not. Others are not that interested, or are interested in other things. Would you say you follow what is going on in government and public affairs: most of the time, some of the time, only now and then, or hardly at all?”.

  17. 17.

    General political knowledge battery was asked of a random two-thirds of respondents between July 16 and August 8; between August 20 and September 12; and between September 20 and October 24, 2004.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Vincent Price, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Joseph Cappella, the editors, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. I also thank Ken Winneg for his assistance with the content analysis. I am grateful to Kathleen Hall Jamieson for providing the resources for this project.

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Correspondence to Natalie Jomini Stroud.

Appendix: Control Variables

Appendix: Control Variables

Demographics

  • Education (recoded to interval level variable of years of schooling, M = 14.29, SD = 2.47)

  • Income (recoded to interval level variable of thousands of dollars, M = 64.84, SD = 49.96)

  • Race/ethnicity (8.2% Black/African–American, 8.0% Hispanic)

  • Gender (55.9% female)

  • Age in years (M = 48.23, SD = 16.50)

Media Use (Respondents were asked how many days in the past week (0–7) they used each media type)

  • Watched national network news (M = 2.57, SD = 2.62)

  • Watched a 24 h cable news channel (M = 3.06, SD = 2.84)

  • Watched local television news (M = 3.96, SD = 2.77)

  • Read a newspaper (M = 3.76, SD = 2.91)

  • Listened to National Public Radio (NPR, M = 1.17, SD = 2.21)

  • Listened to non-NPR radio shows that invite listeners to call in to discuss current events, public issues, or politics (M = 1.29, SD = 2.18)

  • Internet access (respondents were asked whether they had access (yes/no); 76.2% have access)

  • Used the Internet for political information (M = 1.00, SD = 2.02)Footnote 14

Media Attention (Respondents were asked how much attention they paid to stories/articles about the campaign for president in each media type with response options: no attention at all (0), not too much, some, and a great deal of attention (3))Footnote 15

  • Attention to national network or cable television news (M = 1.60, SD = 1.09)

  • Attention to local television news (M = 1.32, SD = 1.07)

  • Attention to newspaper coverage (M = 1.37, SD = 1.12)

Political Orientations

  • Political discussion in past week with friends/family (Range = 0–7, M = 3.22, SD = 2.53)

  • Political interest (Range = 1–4, higher values indicate more interest, M = 3.10, SD = 0.90)Footnote 16

  • General political knowledge (5 items asking about Cheney’s job, which institution has the responsibility to determine if a law is constitutional, the 2/3 requirement to override a presidential veto, the majority party in the House of Representatives, and the interviewer’s assessment of the interviewee’s knowledgeability (Zaller 1986) collapsed into a dichotomous measure where scores of A and B were coded as 1 and C, D, and F were coded as 0, α = 0.64, M = 3.21, SD = 1.47).Footnote 17 Don’t know and refused responses were coded as incorrect.

  • Strength of ideology/partisanship (Range = 0–4, higher values indicating stronger leanings, M = 1.83, SD = 1.12)

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Stroud, N.J. Media Use and Political Predispositions: Revisiting the Concept of Selective Exposure. Polit Behav 30, 341–366 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-007-9050-9

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Keywords

  • Selective exposure
  • Media
  • Presidential politics
  • Partisanship
  • Political ideology
  • 2004 election