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The Importance of Selective Exposure

- June 5, 2008

bq. Uncivil exchanges in political debate shows do not diminish confidence in public officials, government institutions, and the media among those who choose to watch them.

That is from a recent paper by Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson. There has been growing concern that contentious political programming “hurts America.” That, of course, is Jon Stewart’s famous line when he went on “Crossfire” to take down “Crossfire.” Some political science research — discussed by Lee in this previous post — also finds that exposing people to shows like “Crossfire” makes them less trusting of government.

The problem, as Arceneaux and Johnson note, is that previous research randomly assigns people to watch specific kinds of programs, but in reality, our television habits are far from random. So Arceneaux and Johnson set up an experimental design in which people were either forced to watch a political debate show (“Hannity and Colmes”), or could choose among “Hannity and Colmes” and two other, non-political programs. This is a small pilot study, but the results are noteworthy.

The people who spent the most time watching “Hannity and Colmes” were not sensitive political naïfs. They were partisans interested in politics. Unsurprisingly, then, those subjects who were allowed to choose their program did not emerge from the experiment less trusting in government: those who might have been turned off by “Hannity and Colmes” tended not to watch it. However, even those who chose to watch “Hannity and Colmes” emerged somewhat less sure of their own ability to affect politics — an attribute political scientists call “internal efficacy” — as did subjects forced to watch “Hannity and Colmes.”

Given this research, and that of Markus Prior on increasing media choice, the next wave of media effects research will likely have to incorporate people’s tendency toward selective exposure.

The Arceneaux and Johnson paper is here. Recommended.

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