Our Polarized Media

The gap between the two narratives drives our country apart.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The American people have never fully known the truth. The golden era of objective journalism to which many harken back never really existed, and lies, slander, and the shunning of important stories for the maintenance of a narrative have been staples of the American fourth estate through its history. However, over the last 20 years, the American media landscape has become even more partisan and even less trustworthy. Even though the old-school media had been on the wrong side of history many times and had hidden many injustices from the public, the media’s current decay is dangerous for our democracy and for truth itself.

Before the expansion of national media in the 1990s, high profits in mainstream media created a single non-partisan narrative. Newspapers used to be the major form of media. They mostly covered local issues and were far less partisan if only due to the fact the entire country was less polarized. Beginning in the 1960s, political parties began their gradual separation along racial, geographic, religious, and ideological lines, but were nowhere near as distinct as they are today. People got much of their national news from one of the few television channels. The main channels shared an oligopoly that allowed them to disregard the market forces of partisan specialization and sensationalism; they made half-hour news segments designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible. The few channels did largely keep heterodox opinions out and could conceal certain issues the media elite didn’t wish to publicize. But whatever one’s problem with their journalistic narrative, it was a shared narrative. Our media didn’t undermine, but instead strengthened the bond between Americans.

The shared American narrative began to unravel with the expansion of broadcast news. By the end of the 1980s, CNN had established itself as the first 24-hour news station and right-wing talk radio became a major staple of the media landscape. Then, in 1996, two full-time news channels, Fox News and MSNBC, joined the market to compete with the existing media outlets. With more competitors in the field, the incentives for each company began to favor a model that targeted partisan viewers rather than the average American. The shift didn’t happen immediately, but eventually mainstream media became polarized. The most popular channel, Fox News, supplies right-wing opinions and narratives in the journalism it presents to its Republican audience, while CNN and MSNBC do the same to their Democratic audience to a lesser extent. The evidence of this polarization of media can be gauged by Pew Research data on trust in American media. Pew’s 2019 poll found that 75 percent of Republicans trust Fox News, while 77 percent of Democrats mistrust it. The same poll found that the Democrats’ most trusted news source, CNN, trusted by 70 percent of Democratic partisans, was distrusted by an equal percentage of Republicans. The President of the United States himself constantly accuses the television media of being “fake news” and even calls them the “enemy of the people.”

The distrust of opposing news sources isn’t just a sign of a skepticism of certain outlets on the part of American media consumers, but for the dual narratives they push. Nothing shows the contrast in reporting between right and left-wing sources better than the coverage of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Day after day, Democratic news sources put forward images of massive protests against police brutality, while Fox News highlighted videos of burning buildings or blackclad Antifa members sowing chaos. This polarization has manifested again after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where both sides have accused the other of seeking to undermine our democracy. The two narratives have become disconnected, which becomes a force for further two party polarization: the media becomes polarized by the public and in turn, acts to polarize the public more.

This phenomenon occurs on steroids on the internet. Instead of just a handful of outlets, scores of websites compete mostly on social media for clicks. People tend to share articles that confirm their preexisting identity as a good Democrat, Republican, or Independent by showing outrage with actions of the other sides. This incentivizes outlets to write stories and headlines that stretch the truth and in some cases are made-up. A famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that fake news spreads six times faster on Twitter than real news. The stories that circulate online tend to reinforce partisan narratives even more than the cable media environment.

The American media landscape is more partisan than ever. While actively fake news does thrive, fake news by omission is more common: when outlets ignore some newsworthy stories while emphasizing others to support a narrative. The end result is the creation of two large media ecosystems that are only trusted by roughly half of politically active Americans. This division in media isn’t about which one is more right (though distinctions between them are important), just that the two sides collectively serve to divide us from each other in a time when the country sits dangerously on the edge of collapse.

Our media will soon be put to the test. We are mere weeks away from the election when one or both parties may challenge the outcome. Each station will have to choose whether they will be loyal to their party or the truth. For our election to resolve smoothly, America must be able to reach some sort of bipartisan popular consensus, like the kind we made during the Watergate scandal.

Despite the partisanship social media fosters, technology can also help us craft a system that favors unity and reconciliation. The internet in America democratizes the sharing of truth. This key feature of the digital age could lead to great positive change or terrible disaster. We might stand against titanic forces of polarization, but each individual can do their best to seek out narratives of the other side and to skeptically seek the truth no matter how hard it is to find.