Selective Exposure Theories
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter provides an overview of the theory of selective exposure, the idea that people purposefully select messages matching their beliefs. After reviewing several psychological explanations for why the phenomenon occurs, the chapter turns to describing various forms of selective exposure. Selective exposure can be studied in terms of whether people select news or entertainment, the issues about which people seek information, which medium is selected in obtaining information, and the extent to which like-minded information is preferred. Numerous moderators of the links between citizens’ beliefs and their information selection are presented. Next, the chapter details four different methodological techniques that have been used to study selective exposure. Finally, the chapter outlines a host of unanswered questions about selective exposure for future researchers to tackle.
Citizens do not have the time, energy, desire, or ability to look at everything. Why do we gravitate toward some messages, some individuals, and some media and not to others? Investigations of selective exposure aim to provide some insight. Selective exposure is the motivated selection of messages matching one’s beliefs. The availability of so many choices makes selectivity likely in the modern communication environment. This chapter is dedicated to summarizing what we know—and what we don’t know—about what messages we select, why we select them, and what the consequences are.
Importance of Selective Exposure
The concept of selective exposure can be traced to the 1940 presidential campaign, when Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1948) noticed that partisans encountered congenial messages more often than uncongenial ones. This observation in many ways previewed what has become the most frequently cited rationale for selective exposure, Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory. Festinger theorized that the selection of like-minded information could help people to reduce cognitive dissonance, an undesirable feeling that can arise when one has contradictory cognitions. Those experiencing dissonance are not expected to seek consonant information in all instances. When they are inundated with information contradicting their views, for example, people may forgo their original view instead of trying to bolster it with congenial information selection. When faced with moderate dissonance, however, Festinger believed selective exposure would result.
Early research on selective exposure built on Festinger’s theory to explore the conditions under which it occurred (e.g., Abelson et al., 1968; Festinger, 1964). Research explored whether views held with a high degree of certainty, for example, would inspire (p. 532) less selective exposure than those less confidently held (Festinger, 1964). In the field of communication, selective exposure became a common explanation for why scholars had not uncovered more evidence of powerful media effects. According to this explanation, because people typically encountered like-minded perspectives, the media mainly reinforced attitudes rather than changing them (Klapper, 1960). In the mid-1960s, after nearly a decade of research on dissonance and selective exposure, reviews of the literature revealed mixed evidence, at best, of a preference for like-minded information (Freedman and Sears, 1965; Sears and Freedman, 1967). At least in part because of these critical reviews, research on selective exposure waned.
Selective exposure research was uncommon during the 1970s and 1980s. In the mid-1980s, however, several scholars advocated for a return to the intriguing hypothesis. Cotton (1985) and Frey (1986), for example, proposed that a number of methodological flaws may have been responsible for an inconsistent pattern of findings in earlier research. They called for more attention to moderators of selective exposure.
With a particular uptick over the past decade, selective exposure has received renewed research attention. The explosion of media choices (cable, Internet) has led to provocative theses about the possibility that the contemporary media environment may provide ideal conditions for selective exposure (Sunstein, 2001). Recent meta-analyses also document the existence of a selective exposure effect (D’Alessio and Allen, 2002; Hart et al., 2009). Although selective exposure is a phenomenon that extends beyond political communication research, stronger selective exposure effects have been found for political topics (Hart et al., 2009), making this subject especially relevant for this handbook.
Major Research Findings
Major findings about selective exposure can be divided into three categories: explanations of why selective exposure occurs, types of selective exposure, and moderators of selective exposure. I review each in turn.
Why Selective Exposure Occurs
Numerous explanations have been provided for why citizens may be motivated to select congenial messages. Below, I provide an overview of five different possibilities. The first and earliest explanation for selective exposure has been mentioned already: cognitive dissonance. Festinger (1957) proposed that when cognitions conflict, an individual can experience the highly undesirable state of cognitive dissonance. Selective exposure is one of several tools at an individual’s disposal to reduce the dissonant state.
The second explanation is that motivations beyond cognitive dissonance prompt the seeking of supportive information. Kunda’s (1990) theory of motivated reasoning suggests (p. 533) that people can be moved to select messages by accuracy goals and by directional goals. Those driven by directional goals should be more likely to seek like-minded information. Research by Kim (2007) provides support for the idea that accuracy and directional goals inspire different patterns of information search. Kruglanski’s (1989) theory of lay epistemics also proposes that certain motivations will inspire a preference for congenial information. According to this theory, those wanting to reach a specific conclusion, such as that a certain candidate is the best choice, should engage in selective exposure.
A third explanation is that selective exposure occurs because processing like-minded information requires less cognitive effort than processing uncongenial information. According to this idea, citizens may engage in selective exposure because it is cognitively easier (Ziemke, 1980).
A fourth explanation is that moods and emotions can affect information search. In particular, moods can influence the selection of information such that negative moods enhance selective exposure (Jonas, Graupmann, and Frey, 2006). Emotions such as anger and fear also affect selective exposure—with respect to information about the economy, anger and fear may prompt different patterns of selective exposure (Kim, 2010). Valentino et al. (2009) also document that emotions affect information search. They refine this idea, however, by showing that anxiety sparks more balanced search when individuals expect that they will be asked to defend their views as opposed to when individuals do not have this expectation.
A fifth explanation for the occurrence of selective exposure is that people may make information selections based on their judgments about informational quality. High-quality information will be preferred over that which is of low quality. Quality judgments may be influenced, however, by one’s beliefs (Fischer, Schulz-Hardt, and Frey, 2008). Selective exposure may occur, therefore, because people believe that like-minded information is more credible and of higher quality (Metzger, Hartsell, and Flanagin, 2015).
Although research suggests that all of these explanations can help us to understand why selective exposure occurs, we do not presently know which one best accounts for its occurrence. Several of these mechanisms may operate in concert or different explanations may account for selective exposure in different circumstances. Some have begun designing critical tests that pit one explanation against another. Fischer, Schulz-Hardt and Frey (2008), for example, evaluate whether the dissonance, conservation of cognitive resources, or information quality explanation best accounts for why having many options yields higher levels of selective exposure than having fewer of them. Their results suggest that information quality is the best explanation in this case, but because they tested only a subset of possible explanations and looked only at these explanations in relation to the number of options provided to a subject, more research is needed (see also Metzger, Hartsell, and Flanagin, 2015).
Types of Selective Exposure
Selective exposure occurs in many different forms. One way to organize this literature is to examine the types of beliefs that motivate exposure. Below, I review four types (p. 534) of selective exposure that have been emphasized in recent literature: the selection of (1) news or entertainment, (2) messages about different issues, (3) a certain medium (e.g., the Internet), and (4) like-minded messages. The last type is most classically connected with selective exposure. The other types, however, also may be prompted by the cognitive and motivational mechanisms outlined earlier. For example, watching the news if it is not of interest may arouse dissonance. To avoid dissonance, these individuals may avoid the news. Further, sources covering issues seen as unimportant may be perceived as lower-quality sources. This may lead people to spend more time with outlets covering issues perceived as important.
The first type of selective exposure examines whether people will opt for news or for entertainment when given the choice. When cable television diffused, the additional television channel options gave unengaged citizens more opportunities to avoid watching presidential speeches and debates (Baum and Kernell, 1999). The increased choice provided by cable enabled citizens to switch to entertainment if they so desired during these political moments. Prior’s (2007) extensive research confirms that as media choice has increased owing to cable television and the Internet, citizens have been empowered to avoid the news. Prior’s measure of “relative entertainment preference” shows that those preferring entertainment can and do opt out of news exposure when they have access to more media options.
The second type of selective exposure looks at which issues motivate people to gather more information. Some citizens are members of issue publics, or groups finding certain issues to be particularly important (Converse, 1964). These citizens select information relevant to their issue-public membership more frequently than information about other issues. Health-care workers, for example, are more likely than others to read health-care information (Iyengar et al., 2008). Those finding an issue personally important tend to select more information on the issue versus those who do not find the issue as important (Kim, 2009).
The third type of selective exposure places less emphasis on the content selected and more emphasis on the chosen medium. In particular, some hypothesize that because the Internet allows more choice, people prefer to go online for information when they disagree with or do not trust the reportage in more mainstream outlets (Best, Chmielewski, and Krueger, 2005; Hwang et al., 2006; Tsfati and Cappella, 2003).
The fourth type of selective exposure that has received attention is the degree to which citizens choose like-minded political information. In interpersonal contexts, people tend to discuss politics with those with whom they already agree (Mutz, 2006), although there has been some debate regarding how frequently people encounter disagreement (Huckfeldt and Mendez, 2008; Mutz, 2006). In the contemporary media environment, some outlets are recognized as left- and right-leaning. Partisans are more likely to select like-minded media outlets (Hollander, 2008; Iyengar and Hahn, 2009; Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2008, 2011). People also favor information consistent with their views on political issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, and gun ownership (Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009; Taber and Lodge, 2006).
(p. 535) To this point, I have categorized selective exposure based on the sorts of beliefs motivating exposure. Similar approaches have been taken by others, such as Bennett and Iyengar (2008). Yet there are other ways of parsing the literature that prove useful in highlighting different aspects of the phenomenon. First, we could distinguish between mediated and interpersonal selective exposure. Mutz and Martin (2001) embarked on just such an endeavor with interesting results: People encountered more diverse political views through their media use than in their interpersonal interactions. The authors anticipated that as media choices increased, however, people might encounter less diversity in the media. Indeed, in the years since their data were collected in the 1990s, there have been considerable changes in the media environment. Second, selective exposure could be divided depending on the nature of the choice—whether people are making a one-time selection from different articles or are habitually turning to a source for news and information. These selections require different levels of commitment—a variable that featured prominently in early work on cognitive dissonance (Abelson et al., 1968; Brehm and Cohen, 1962; Festinger, 1964). Reading an article or browsing a website requires little dedication. A habit of relying on a particular source demonstrates a greater commitment. Organizing the literature in this way may reveal different patterns of selective exposure.
Moderators of Selective Exposure
Through the years, many moderators of selective exposure have been examined. Rather than attempting to review all the possibilities, I provide several examples of prominent and recently analyzed moderators. These can be organized in various ways; I propose two categories below: individual characteristics and environmental characteristics.
Individual characteristics can affect the extent to which people seek congenial information. Some characteristics enhance selective exposure. As previewed earlier, the certainty with which an individual holds a position moderates selective exposure. Although there has been some debate as to whether certainty will increase or decrease selective exposure (Festinger, 1964), several recent studies have found that certainty enhances it (Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009; Ziemke, 1980). Strongly held attitudes also motivate greater selective exposure than weaker ones (Brannon, Tagler, and Eagly, 2007; Stroud, 2010). Another characteristic affecting selective exposure is political knowledge. The politically knowledgeable are more likely to select politically like-minded media sources (Stroud, 2011; Taber and Lodge, 2006). Mortality salience, making people think about their deaths, enhances selective exposure in some cases (Jonas, Greenberg, and Frey, 2003; Lavine, Lodge, and Freitas, 2005). Other variables have been shown to reduce selective exposure, such as defensive confidence (Albarracín and Mitchell, 2004) and need for cognition (Tsfati and Cappella, 2005).
In addition to individual characteristics, environmental ones also affect selective exposure. Message content, for example, can affect it. Information utility has been proposed as one reason that some studies have not shown evidence of selective exposure—information perceived as useful may be selected more frequently whether it is congenial (p. 536) or not (Frey, 1986). Indeed, research does show that informational utility does prompt more exposure to online news (Knobloch, Carpentier, and Zillmann, 2003) and can override a bias for confirmatory information (Knobloch-Westerwick and Kleinman, 2012). The nature of one’s choice also matters. When given more options from which to choose, people have greater opportunity to cater to their preferences. For example, those with a preference for entertainment are more likely to select entertainment as opposed to news when they have more options (Prior, 2007). People also are more likely to select like-minded information when given more choices (Fischer, Schulz-Hardt, and Frey, 2008). Constraints on how people select information also can affect selective exposure. When information is presented sequentially, as opposed to simultaneously, selective exposure is enhanced (Jonas et al., 2001). It also is heightened when people are limited in how much information they can select (Fischer, Jonas, Frey, and Schulz-Hardt, 2005). Beyond the messages and the nature of the choice, other people can influence selective exposure. More homogeneous groups are more prone to select like-minded information (Schulz-Hardt et al., 2000). Social media endorsements also can blunt selective exposure tendencies (Messing and Westwood, 2014).
A number of different empirical approaches have been utilized in the study of selective exposure. The increasing use of technology and improvements in experimental design promise new insights. Below, I describe four different approaches. The first two have been used since selective exposure was formally introduced in the 1950s. The latter two have been used more extensively recently.
Self-report studies typically analyze the relationship between message content and the beliefs of the audience. This method is not ideally suited to show that people have a preference for information matching their beliefs because of the presence of rival explanations (Freedman and Sears, 1965; Sears and Freedman, 1967). For example, people may encounter more like-minded information not because they prefer it but because they happen to encounter it in their environment. This is known as de facto selective exposure. Temporal order also is a question—do attitudes predict media exposure or vice versa? Studies that incorporate an over-time component allow for an examination of this issue (Slater, 2007; Sweeney and Gruber, 1984).
Measurement in self-report studies can be done in more or less direct ways. Some examine the correlation between participants’ stated beliefs and their self-reported media exposure (Sweeney and Gruber, 1984). Others directly ask respondents the extent to which they prefer like-minded information (Johnson, Bichard, and Zhang, 2009). Scholars looking to validate these approaches have found modest correlations among self-reported, selective exposure and selective exposure as measured based on behavioral indicators of where people go online (Dvir-Gvirsman, Tsfati, and Menchen-Trevino, 2014; Tsfati and Chotiner, 2015). Additional efforts to validate these approaches are needed.
(p. 537) Laboratory Studies
Quasiexperiments whereby all participants are given access to the same political choices and asked to make a selection have shown a preference for like-minded sources (Chaffee and McLeod, 1973; Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009) and messages about issues of interest (Kim 2009). Experiments have varied the source of information and found that sources attract ideologically similar readers (Iyengar and Hahn, 2009).
Great advances have been made in understanding the selection of information by unobtrusively tracking people’s online behavior and CD use (Iyengar et al., 2008; Kim, 2009; Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng, 2009), by observing their behavior in waiting rooms (Stroud, 2011), and by examining Nielsen television ratings (Webster, 2005) and Nielsen NetRatings (Tewksbury, 2005). These studies make it less likely that subjects will be able to guess the purpose of a study and they provide a way of observing behavior in more natural settings.
Forced Versus Selective Exposure
In typical laboratory experiments, subjects are exposed to media content and their reactions monitored. Several current projects have proposed ways to incorporate selective exposure into these designs. Gaines and Kuklinski (2011) and Arceneaux and Johnson (2013) demonstrate various ways in which researchers can randomly assign participants either to a choice condition whereby they can select their media exposure or to a forced exposure condition whereby they are required to use media without choice. This innovative research design holds promise for providing more information on media effects, which may vary based on (1) differences between the self-selected audience and the experimental participants and (2) differences between the effects of messages on a self-selected audience versus experimental participants forced to engage with media.
Unanswered Questions and Thoughts on Selective Exposure
The joy of doing research on selective exposure is that there are so many areas in need of additional research. In the paragraphs below, I pose questions and offer my thoughts on selective exposure. The first two questions probe the definition and boundaries of what we consider selective exposure. The next two ask about how message valence and the (p. 538) Internet affect selective exposure. I then turn to an examination of what types of beliefs affect selective exposure. The final three questions aim to complicate and expand our understanding of selective exposure by putting selective exposure in conversation with other approaches, including incidental exposure, the role of political elites, and effects research.
How Do We Know Selective Exposure When We See It?
The definitional debate in selective exposure research comes in (at least) two forms. The first asks whether selective exposure is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. As an all-or-nothing phenomenon, people either (1) solely use like-minded information and engage in selective exposure or (2) are not engaging in selective exposure. This dichotomous view makes sense in laboratory settings where research subjects have only two options: selecting the like-minded option or selecting another option. In reality, however, it is unlikely that anyone would always encounter like-minded views. If we accept this definition, selective exposure does not occur in reality. As a result, I find a second view far more compelling: that selective exposure means exhibiting a preference for like-minded information. How to best measure this, however, is not altogether clear. If a person spends one minute with a congenial source, does this count as selective exposure? Five minutes? Two hours? These questions may be best answered by looking at the outcomes of selective exposure—a topic covered shortly. There also are important questions about whether we should focus on time with congenial sources and time with uncongenial sources or just the former, a topic to which I now turn.
What Is the Difference Between Selective Exposure and Selective Avoidance?
Selective exposure is sometimes coupled with selective avoidance—the motivated avoidance of messages discrepant with one’s beliefs. Several scholars over the years have urged the separate consideration of selective exposure and selective avoidance (Chaffee et al., 2001; Frey, 1986; McGuire, 1968). In some contexts, selective exposure and avoidance are identical. When asked to choose between only two pieces of information—one congenial and one uncongenial—selective exposure and avoidance occur when a person selects the congenial information. The situation is more complicated, however, when people have the option to select multiple pieces of information and when information can contain both congenial and uncongenial perspectives. Garrett’s (2009a,b) work examines these sorts of instances. He finds that those gathering news via the Internet encounter arguments in favor of their preferred candidate more frequently. Yet their online news use does not reduce the frequency (p. 539) with which they encounter arguments opposing their preferred candidate (Garrett, 2009b). Garrett (2009a) also analyzes which websites people select on political topics of interest. Although sites believed to contain opinion challenging the viewer’s information are selected less frequently, the avoidance of dissimilar views is weaker than the attraction to similar views. Garrett’s work suggests that selective exposure and avoidance should not be combined. Although we may be prone to seek like-minded information, we may not be equally motivated to avoid information with which we disagree. Selective exposure and avoidance, however, may differ by individual characteristics and situational variables (Garrett and Stroud, 2014).
Additional work is required here, however, to understand how selective exposure and avoidance work in practice. People may encounter dissimilar views in contexts that primarily reinforce their views. After all, partisan sources do describe other views, even if only to inoculate their viewers and equip them with counterarguments (Jamieson and Cappella, 2008). Further, people’s motivations for looking at other views—to laugh versus to counterargue versus to gain an appreciation for another viewpoint—should be taken into account. As Garrett (2009a) notes, we need more information about how people process uncongenial information. As a host of studies remind us, views can be strengthened in their original direction even when challenged by contradictory information (Lord, Ross, and Lepper, 1979; Meffert et al., 2006; Taber and Lodge, 2006). Further, other psychological reactions such as selective perception and retention occur in response to oppositional views (Jacobson, 2010). In sum, even if we do not avoid contradictory views with the same intensity with which we seek confirmatory views, the effects of exposure to contradictory information may only reinforce selective exposure effects.
Why Are There Differences Between Selective Exposure to Negative and Positive Information?
Certain forms of information may inspire selective exposure and avoidance. On this topic, several studies have revealed an interesting pattern. People seem to conform to the predictions of selective exposure when asked to select from positive information about their own view and positive information about an oppositional view. When given negative information about one’s own view and the view of the opposition, however, selective exposure effects wane (Mills, Aronson, and Robinson, 1959). When people had access to both positive and negative information, Donsbach (1991) found clear selective exposure effects for the selection of positive information about a political figure but little evidence of selective exposure with respect to negative information. Meffert et al. (2006) uncovered a strong preference for negative information about one’s preferred candidate. The consistency of this finding seems to suggest that exposure decisions are affected by valence and perhaps, as Meffert et al. (2006) suggest, the negativity bias is simply a stronger and more automatic drive than a preference for like-minded information.
(p. 540) How Does the Internet Encourage and Discourage Selective Exposure?
Although some find that people use the Internet to find like-minded views (Bimber and Davis, 2003; Sunstein, 2001) and to pursue their own narrow issue interests (Althaus and Tewksbury, 2002; Nie et al., 2010), others note that the Internet allows exposure to diverse perspectives (Brundidge, 2010; Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2011; Stromer-Galley, 2006; Wojcieszak and Mutz, 2009). Although both of these effects are occurring, at least to some extent, the real trick may lie in discovering structural characteristics that facilitate or discourage selective exposure. Holbert, Garrett, and Gleason (2010), for example, note that certain design features may inhibit selective exposure. In this vein, some work has focused on selective exposure on particular sites. Gaines and Mondak (2009), for example, find some evidence of ideological clustering among Facebook friends. Tewksbury (2005) finds that distinct news websites attract demographically distinguishable audiences. The research could go farther, however, by examining characteristics that enhance or minimize selective exposure tendencies. More discussion of the relationship between the Internet and selective exposure can be found in Hindman’s chapter in this volume.
Which Beliefs Motivate Selective Exposure?
As previously reviewed, scholars have identified a host of beliefs that affect where people turn for information. These beliefs, however, do not capture everything that attracts audiences to political messages. Why do some beliefs affect message selection and not others? Or, as Holbert, Garrett, and Gleason (2010) ask, “When multiple attitudes have bearing on an issue, which one guides selectivity” (21)? Work on this topic has begun. Iyengar et al. (2008) looked at the extent to which issue-public membership and political predispositions predicted political information selection. Their results suggest that issue-public membership affects exposure decisions and provide some evidence that political predispositions matter. These patterns may be different today, however, as partisanship has taken a more central role in determining media selection (Bennett and Iyengar, 2008). In their meta-analysis, Hart et al. (2009) examine whether there are differences in patterns of selectivity across topics. Their results are suggestive: Politics and religion seem to inspire more selective exposure than other topics. Building on this, selective exposure may be particularly likely when the information content is about deeply held, chronically accessible, and emotionally charged topics. However, more formal testing of which beliefs matter most, when, and why, is needed.
How Do Selective Exposure and Incidental Exposure Operate?
Although people may prefer information consistent with their beliefs, it is unlikely that they always can screen out other views. There is a component of serendipity in message (p. 541) exposure. Known as incidental, or accidental, exposure, citizens sometimes encounter information that they were not seeking but happened across while doing other things. With respect to politics, citizens seem to learn about politics even when they are not looking for political information (Tewksbury, Weaver, and Maddex, 2001; Zukin and Snyder, 1984). Yet this sort of incidental exposure arguably is becoming rarer as more media choices enable better screening of information in which one has no interest (Prior, 2007). Indeed, incidental exposure to news is more common among those who already tend to seek news (Tewksbury, Weaver, and Maddex, 2001). We need to know more about the frequency and effects of incidental exposure in light of selective exposure.
How Do Elites, and Theories about the Role of Elites, Factor In?
In the study of political communication, research on selective exposure has focused predominately on the relationship between media and citizens. Yet the study of political communication often involves another important facet of the political landscape: elites. I discuss several ways in which elites can be and have been incorporated into the study of selective exposure. First, political elites can exacerbate selective exposure. Their cues direct citizens about which media outlets to use and which to avoid. When political elites criticize media coverage, educated and like-minded citizens base their opinions of the media on these comments (Ladd, 2010; Smith, 2010). Assuming that elites mainly criticize the media for expressing oppositional views (Watts et al., 1999), these critiques could reify avoidance of uncongenial outlets and the selection of like-minded media.
Second, just as some citizens respond to partisan news sources by relying upon like-minded sources, political elites also may be responding to a fragmented news environment. Instead of selective exposure, perhaps a form of selective production is occurring, whereby elites are more likely to give interviews to congenial outlets and divulge different information depending on an outlet’s partisan leanings. Elites also may change their behavior if they perceive that the electorate is being influenced by partisan media. Clinton and Enamorado (2014) show that US House members became less supportive of President Clinton in districts that gained access to Fox News.
Building on these two research trajectories, selective exposure can be added profitably to Zaller’s (1992) theory of elite leadership of public opinion. Zaller suggests that elite views transmitted via the media affect public views. Rather than measuring media exposure, he measures habitual news reception using political knowledge questions to account for whether people receive elite messages. Although selective exposure was not featured in the original version of his study and arguably was not as common when Zaller devised his conceptualization (Hollander, 2008; Prior, 2007), selective exposure could be incorporated into the model. In many ways, selective exposure findings underscore the utility of Zaller’s model. Elites still affect public attitudes and behaviors. Research on selective exposure adds that elites affect attitudes about the media and that this may, in turn, affect information selection. Habitual news reception and partisanship continue to predict attitudes and behaviors. Selective exposure research adds that those with higher levels of education are more likely to respond to like-minded elite cues about bias (Ladd, 2010) and to select like-minded media (Stroud, 2011).
(p. 542) A potential modification could come from the addition of a measure of which media outlets people use. Instead of figuring out which views in a balanced news report correspond with their own—a task that would be rather challenging for someone without the requisite political knowledge—congenial information sources can provide unambiguous information about like-minded elite beliefs. Media exposure patterns, therefore, might be profitably added into Zaller’s model. The seeds of this argument can be found in work by Lee and Cappella (2001), where they find that exposure has important effects in predicting political attitudes.
Should Selective Exposure Be Judged as Troubling or Not?
Although selective exposure research has been dominated by demonstrations of its occurrence and investigations of moderators, its consequences have attracted more attention recently. There are reasons to judge selective exposure as democratically troubling. After all, attending only or primarily to like-minded political content is related to polarization, different conceptions of the world in which we live, and heightened partisan reactions (Levendusky, 2013; Stroud, 2011; Taber and Lodge, 2006). The exodus from political life of those more interested in entertainment than the news also could be judged as troubling (Ksiazek, Malthouse, and Webster, 2010; Prior, 2007). On the other hand, selective exposure may not be terribly bad if it energizes the public and encourages participation (Dilliplane, 2011; Mutz, 2006; Stroud, 2011).
Although this is a normative question, more research into the consequences of selective exposure, particularly in today’s fragmented media environment, is warranted. If we find that selective exposure is troubling, what is the solution? One popular idea is to encourage more exposure to diverse points of view. Yet exposure to the other side could ultimately lead to boomerang effects (Taber and Lodge, 2006) or to public inactivity (Mutz, 2006). How to (1) motivate engagement with the news and (2) encourage respectful consideration of other perspectives without deterring political involvement remain two pivotal challenges facing those who worry about political engagement.
Although it has garnered uneven research attention over time, selective exposure is a cornerstone of political communication research. If we do not understand when and why people select news and information, we will have an incomplete understanding of communication effects. Understanding selective exposure seems particularly vital in considering the role of communication in a democracy, because it has implications for citizen engagement, for the appreciation of diverse views, and for the creation of communities where citizens can agree on basic facts, to name but a few.
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