11/12/2013 08:44 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Chicken or the Egg? Polarized Media in an Increasingly Polarized World

Continuing with my "Blog Blog Project," I am publishing student voices from my classes at the University of Delaware. This blog was voted best by her peers in the class Media & Politics and comes from senior Political Science major Emiley Conboy. She examines the complicated relationship between our own political identities and what we see on cable news.

Lately, steering clear of religion and politics at dinner parties seems a wise way to live. Deadlocked political opinions and the disappearance of the elusive Moderate may have less to do with an increasingly argumentative electorate, and more to do with the nature of the media and our own personal political identification.

While one can make the argument that media economics has led to less diversity and more prepackaged news, the rise of cable networks and various online outlets leaves news open to interpretation like never before. Long gone are the days of gathering around the television at night to hear one of the big three networks' nightly broadcasts in which the choice of B-roll material may be the only distinguishing factor. Americans now have a "home base" of sorts, to which they turn for all of their news, and as a result, their opinions.

Framing has proved to be a powerful tool in shaping the views of the electorate. What's important is not always story itself, but how the story is told. All it takes is a quick toggle between MSNBC and FOX for it to become apparent that there are many sides to the same issues. Feeling disenfranchised by uppity corporate America? The liberal slant of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow may be for you. Tired of the socialist hippie idealists? You may want a serving of FOX and Friends with your morning coffee.

In 2012, Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all had 46, 55, and 85% opinion reporting respectively. When this much of cable news information has diverted from hard facts, it is bound it have an effect on viewers.

These polarizations in the media are only leading to increased ideological distance among the electorate. Talking points, political knowledge, and an idea of the most important issues of the day are gained from one's source of information. Purposeful filtering results in a public that is not only unaware of opposing thoughts and views, but will never be forced to confront them as a result of the increasingly diverse media.

The media function as interpreters of news, and socializes the electorate, which allows for liberty in reporting. The same story on two different news outlets could be presented so differently one could almost believe they were listening to two different series of events. Living in a world of instant gratification where how many "likes" something gets becomes a status symbol; being vindicated is key in society. As a result, we seek media outlets that appeal to our own ideological compass. This type of gravitational sorting leaves the electorate not only polarized, but on two different pages entirely.

This tale of two Americas epidemic was especially apparent in the recent federal government shutdown. Being able to discern the true consequences of the shutdown was difficult. Fox news called the shutdown simply a "slim down," while opposing liberally slanted outlets were emphasizing the negative aspects of furloughed federal workers, and runners not being able to take their daily jog in the local national park. I, like many Americans, rely on the media to tell me what is happening, so it is understandable that without a home base media outlet on which one's true faith rests, we would not only have a polarized electorate, but a very confused one.

So why does one person rely on one news outlet and not another? It goes back to the issue of political identification. Aaron Weinschenk describes the running tally theory, which assumes that everyone starts out as a neutral palette and everything they hear about each party ads or subtracts from their opinion. Eventually people will settle on a position on the liberal-conservative scale as they collect more information.

This theory is an overly idealized concept of the capabilities of the electorate. Marjorie Hershey demonstrates that political identifications take root surprisingly early in life. People are generally not interested in absorbing opinions from all sides and adjusting their political identity accordingly. Not only would this mean more work, but it may lead to a challenge of their long-established party preference. The reality is that we interpret information through a "partisan perceptual screen" (see an explanation here). This suggests that all information one receives is filtered through already established beliefs. This could explain why there are so many news outlets that cater to a certain clientele. If people will discard any information that is not in line with their ideology, then why waste the time hearing any opposing views in the first place? Should one hear others' opinions, it may not be used to adjust one's political slant, instead it will be rationalized away or forgotten, as it does not fit with their screen.

So, which came first? Did the media become so individualized and then people realized they never had to hear an opposing opinion again? Or was it the inflexibility of the perceptual screen that forced the media to cater to a closed-minded demographic?

Next time you are trying to hold a political discussion with someone, there are two things working against the possibility of either you or your friend conceding: the highly partisan media of today, and the perceptual screen of our own political identification. The present media atmosphere means people can avoid hearing anything they don't want to. While the media serve as an easy target on which to cast blame for the trend of a polarized closed-minded populate, let's face it, they are only responding to what we all want.

-- Emiley Conboy, University of Delaware