But NOT Fox News! – In an era when ideologically based news programs are proliferating, media scholars and political observers have expressed concern that television programming may be polarizing American voters. But the increased availability of entertainment options may be a bigger problem.

Political scientist Kevin Arceneaux says, “We should be less concerned about Fox or MSNBC turning us into polarized voters and more concerned that with the fragmentation of the media, people can wall themselves off from news completely and just watch entertainment.” In other words, they can tune out–By allowing people to insulate themselves from divergent viewpoints, cable television is polarizing the mass public into opposing camps.

Arceneaux, along with fellow researcher Martin Johnson, set out to test this theory. In one experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to either a situation where they were only allowed to watch a 15-minute segment from The Rachel Maddow Show or The O’Reilly Factor or a choice of either a segment of Hardball with Chris Matthews or one of two entertainment options, The Dog Whisperer or Dhani Tackles the Globe. The self-identified ideology of the subjects was identified prior to the experiment.

Arceneaux found that in the forced scenario people tended simply to reject or ignore programming that went against their own political viewpoints, whereas programming that conformed to viewers’ political opinions caused them to adopt more extreme positions. In other words, the biased broadcasts did indeed further polarize their viewers, but only by reinforcing their currently-held beliefs.

However, once the research subjects were allowed to choose what they watched, the polarizing effects dissipated. Arcenaux says, “By self-selecting out of political information entirely, rather than choosing to watch an ideologically congenial news source, the effects of biased communication in the media are diluted. Politically-biased news shows cannot directly affect those who refuse to watch them, and in real life no one is forced to watch them.”

In earlier days, when there were just three television networks, the nightly news set the national conversation: What Walter Cronkite talked about, everybody was talking about. “Now with the explosion of entertainment options, we’ve created a problematic cocktail with a mix of declining knowledge, increasing voter turnout and election choices that are cast in black and white terms.”

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