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A Turn Toward Avoidance? Selective Exposure to Online Political Information, 2004–2008

Abstract

Scholars warn that avoidance of attitude-discrepant political information is becoming increasingly common due in part to an ideologically fragmented online news environment that allows individuals to systematically eschew contact with ideas that differ from their own. Data collected over a series of national RDD surveys conducted between 2004 and 2008 challenge this assertion, demonstrating that Americans’ use of attitude-consistent political sources is positively correlated with use of more attitudinally challenging sources. This pattern holds over time and across different types of online outlets, and applies even among those most strongly committed to their political ideology, although the relationship is weaker for this group. Implications for these findings are discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. We use the terms “partisan outlets” and “ideologically oriented outlets” interchangeably throughout, referring to political information sources that present themselves explicitly as advocates for a particular party or ideology. References to more politically diverse or less partisan “mainstream” outlets generally refer to news sources associated with major news organizations, what Sunstein (2001) calls “general interest intermediaries”.

  2. Groseclose and Miylo’s (2005) method for classifying research groups produces some potentially problematic results. For example, according to the scheme, the RAND Corporation is more liberal than the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The media bias estimates that result also sometimes lack face validity. Perhaps most notably, the Wall Street Journal is found to be among the most liberal of 20 outlets analyzed, more liberal than the New York Times, the LA Times, or CBS News. At the very least, however, their analyses illustrate that news outlets differ in terms of the sources they cite.

  3. For instance, the predicted probability of an anti-Republican story being featured on the Daily Kos was 48%, but an anti-Democratic story had a 0% probability of being featured. In contrast, an anti-Democratic story had a 37% probability of being featured on FOX News, making its front-page presence only marginally more likely than an anti-Republican story, which had a predicted probability of 29%.

  4. Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) and Abt SRBI are non-partisan public opinion research organizations, and both have been in operation since the 1980s. PSRA administers virtually all of the surveys conducted by Pew Research, while Abt SRBI has handled well known projects such as the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey.

  5. NewsMax (2011) has described itself as, “The #1 conservative news agency online”, while AlterNet (2011) refers to itself as “a key player in the echo chamber of progressive ideas and vision”.

  6. Several Pew surveys also included measures of blog use, but (a) the items did not specifically concern partisan blogs (e.g., “from blogs that cover news, politics, or media”) and (b) item wording was different in each of the three elections. We did, however, estimate models using these measures for comparison. Substituting blogs for partisan alternative news yields nearly identical results.

  7. An application of fixed-effects integrative data analysis or IDA (see Curran and Hussong 2009).

  8. The coefficient on the interaction term is −0.89 (0.66), p = 0.174.

  9. In studies of polarization, partisanship is sometimes considered a cleaner measure of political predispositions. In this study, however, ideology proved more effective. Strength of partisanship was not a significant predictor of attitude-discrepant site use on its own, or in interaction with attitude-consistent site use. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the survey asked about “conservative” and “liberal” news sites, not party-affiliated sites. Or perhaps it reflects the fact that strong ideology is a more direct measure of attitude extremity than partisanship. After all, ideology is only one of a variety of factors contributing to party affiliation (albeit an increasingly important one, see Bafumi and Shapiro 2009). Finally, it may be that, compared to partisanship, strong ideology simply sets a higher bar: for more than 30 years, the proportion of citizens identifying themselves as strong ideologues has been much smaller than the number who identify as strong partisans (see Bafumi and Shapiro 2009). Whatever the cause, we have opted to focus on ideology in these analyses.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to Paul Beck, Lance Holbert, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Brendan Nyhan, and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful criticisms and suggestions, to Jim Danziger for his support of and Debbie Dunkle for her assistance with data collection and preparation of the 2008 NSF-funded survey, and to Lee Rainie and the Pew Internet and American Life Project for providing the other datasets. This research was supported by NSF (SES 0121232).

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Correspondence to R. Kelly Garrett.

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Garrett, R.K., Carnahan, D. & Lynch, E.K. A Turn Toward Avoidance? Selective Exposure to Online Political Information, 2004–2008. Polit Behav 35, 113–134 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-011-9185-6

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Keywords

  • Selective exposure
  • Media
  • Polarization
  • Online news
  • Elections