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27 September 2019

Media as Friend and Foe in Time of Elections

When people have a strong adherence to a particular party (so-called ‘partisanship’), they see media through different eyes. Research suggests that they either perceive media as hostile or selectively turn to like-minded media, which entails a risk of political polarization. A study in Communication Research explores how people use media before and during the election for the European Parliament. It shows that people seek media that match their party’s viewpoint, but, surprisingly, often think that the content about the EU elections contradicts their ideas. In turn, this affects how people actually vote.

Take aways

  • People tend to use news sources that are in line with their opinion about the European Union (EU).
  • However, people believe that even these like-minded media cover the EU debate in an unfair manner.
  • People vote in line with their opinion about the EU to counteract the coverage about the EU that is believed to be unfair.

Study information

  • Who?

    1,223 participants (2 years after the EU elections around 70% participated again)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    Two years before the EU elections, participants filled out an online questionnaire to measure their preferences for political parties. In the months before the EU elections, participants described the media content they consumed of self-selected media. The researchers looked at media articles of different Dutch newspapers, that reported about the elections, to measure more ‘objectively’ how positive or negative they were about the EU. Just before the elections, participants answered questions about how hostile they thought the media were. Immediately after the elections, researchers asked participants if they had voted for a pro- or a con-EU party.

Facts and findings

  • Voters opted for like-minded media, which increased the likelihood that they voted in line with their previous ideas and opinions.
  • Interestingly, although like-minded media generally endorse the ideas of a person, voters perceived these like-minded media as hostile, just like the media they chose not to turn to. This hostility could have motivated them even more to vote precisely in line with previous preferences in a kind of ‘defensive action’.
  • Taken together, perceiving self-selected ‘friendly’ media as hostile did reinforce partisanship and increased the likelihood that people cast votes for their already preferred party.