Approximately two dozen individuals gathered Tuesday in North Quad for a lecture on how fragmented media outlets increase the political polarization of their viewers, and possible resolutions to the trend.
Magdalena Wojcieszak, associate professor of political communication at the University of Amsterdam, described to attendees why the rise of fragmented media — a trend in which modern viewers consume media that cements their own political beliefs — raises the chances of viewer selectivity and polarization. She said this concern is especially important in light of the current U.S. political environment and a modern influx of information sources.
“When we have this unprecedented choice (of sources), which we now do, we can be more selective in what we see and hear,” Wojcieszak said.
She noted that though the media tries to counter polarization by offering a wide range of viewpoints, the natural human tendency to process information with bias hinders that goal. Biased information processing, she added leads to people interpreting articles through their own prejudices.
“We have known for quite many decades that people see what they want to see,” she said. “We tend to interpret information in a way that reinforces our beliefs.”
Wojcieszak also discussed how viewer selectivity and polarization might be attenuated in the media, her primary topic of study. She highlighted data from two experimental studies she conducted which showed individuals were more willing to consider differing opinions when they realized they shared a common social identity with others who held these opinions. In particular, it encouraged viewer selection of balanced content, lowered hostility and social distance toward out-groups and increased individual acceptance of messages from outgroups.
“If we make this overarching shared identity salient, biased processing and polarization will diminish and also selectivity will be lower,” Wojcieszak said.
She said this research can be applied to the current state of media, as unlimited content and social media have profoundly changed the channels through which people receive their information. Wojcieszak offered several ideas on how to apply her findings to projects in the future, challenging media outlets to present information in a way that’s accessible to members of all social groups.
“So for instance, in the context of social networks, we can think of priming the in-group endorsement of an out-group and that’s also something that I would like to look at (in future research),” she said.
Rackham student Sage Lee said she attended the talk because the topic tied into her interests on the potential ways in which media can reduce polarization across various identities.
“My research is deeply related to what she’s trying to do, like intervening political spheres and finding the role of the media in terms of facilitating a more constructive public sphere that can motivate individuals to lessen the chasms or gaps among individuals when they’re categorizing themselves as in-groups and out-groups,” she said.
Lee added that she appreciated how Wojcieszak presented her research and findings in an organized, easily understood way.
“I think she showed a systematic approach in how her research, how her efforts and endeavors to this field, unfold over time,” Lee said. “I think those kinds of things were the biggest strengths of the conversation she presented to us.”