Assessing the effect of radical news exemplifications on perceived polarization : the role of emotions, partisanship, and hostile media perception

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Amidst the growing concern over political polarization in the United States, which is characterized by a divergence of political attitudes toward different ends of the ideological spectrum or to a singular extreme (Wojcieszak, 2015), research has shown that individuals perceive these divisions among people to be even more substantial than they actually are (Enders & Armarly, 2018). This dissertation examines the impact of ideologically extreme and uncivil news exemplification, which I refer to as “radical exemplification,” featuring ordinary citizens, specifically how it affects individuals’ perception of how much division there is amongst American citizens. While journalists use quotes highlighting ideologically extreme or uncivil views because of their news values (e.g., Wagner & Gruszczynski, 2018), news audiences tend to believe that news exemplification of laypeople reflects public opinion, I argue that radical news exemplifications influence people to perceive that there is a great distance in issue attitudes between partisans as well as partisans’ animosity towards each other. To understand the role of anger, anxiety, and enthusiasm in people’s information processing, I also test if and how these emotions mediate the effect of radical exemplification on perceived polarization. Moreover, I draw upon social identity theory to explore the influence of partisan strength and hostile media perception in intensifying the effect of radical exemplifications on perceived polarization. In Study 1, I conducted a content analysis of 502 news articles, revealing that ideologically extreme exemplification is relatively prevalent, accounting for approximately 29 percent of the exemplification within the sample, whereas the exemplifications’ level of incivility was not very high. News stories from digital native outlets presented higher incivility scores than news from traditional newspapers. In Study 2, using an online experiment, I found that radical exemplification can further deepen individuals’ perception of polarization within American society and decrease people’s perceptions of news credibility. However, the effects of radical exemplifications varied depending on whether they featured right- or left-leaning ideology. Anger can make people perceive greater polarization, and radical exemplifications can fuel anger and decrease enthusiasm. Hostile media perceptions weakened the effect of exemplifications on people’s emotions and perceived polarization. I conclude that journalists bear at least some responsibility for shaping people’s perceptions of political polarization. This responsibility is particularly evident when journalists prioritize highlighting the voices of individuals with ideologically extreme and uncivil views. Implications of the findings and suggestions for future research are discussed.


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