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Posted 06.29.05

MU Researchers Point to 'Polarization Effect' Among Radio Listeners

COLUMBIA, MO -- Recent studies indicate that Americans are becoming increasingly extreme in their political, ideological and cultural views. From issues such as stem cell research to the environment, Americans are clinging to viewpoints that are increasingly opposed to one another, a phenomenon that some researchers attribute to the highly contested 2000 presidential election. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism have completed a study suggesting that it is the type of media a person consumes, not necessarily the message, that determines how polarized people are on a certain issue.

Journalism professors Wayne Wanta and Stephanie Craft and journalism doctoral student Mugur Geana used data from a telephone survey administered nationally to 2,528 adults in the United States. Survey respondents answered a series of questions on the government, religion and a combination of those areas, and then their polarization scores were calculated. The researchers then compared variables such as income level, main news source and interaction time with the media to the polarization scores.

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The study found radio listeners were the most polarized news consumers, due in part to shows hosted by conservative political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh. Conservative listeners have their ideals reinforced by the shows, which ultimately lead to even more extreme views, Wanta said. Newspaper readers were the least polarized news consumers. Since newspapers do not have the same space and time constraints as television or radio, newspapers are able to provide readers with more information on both sides of an issue. As a result, Wanta said, readers are less likely to adopt extreme attitudes about certain issues.

"Overall, our findings point to radio being a possible reason for the increasing polarization of the U.S. public," Wanta said. "This apparent polarization effect of radio is probably not caused by the amount of information radio listeners receive. If respondents had been using media content as an information source to crystallize their own opinions, we would likely see the same--if not stronger--effect with newspapers or the Internet--media that have information that is more in-depth than the content on radio."

Internet news consumers were also some of the least polarized citizens, which the researchers say is surprising since the Internet users could have easily received their news from outlets that matched their existing views.

"By narrowly concentrating their information consumption on content that reinforces their views, Internet users potentially could experience the same reinforcing process that could be taking place with conservative radio listeners," Wanta said, noting that Internet users are actually become less polarized in their views. "One plausible explanation is that Internet users are seeking breadth as well as depth in the information they get from the Internet. This breadth of information shows both sides of political issues, leading to a wider acceptance of differing political views."

The study was conducted by Princeton Research Associations and sponsored by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It was presented to the Political Communication Division at the International Communication Association annual convention in New York City in May.

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