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date: 21 October 2018

The Hostile Media Effect

Abstract and Keywords

The “hostile media effect” occurs when opposing partisans perceive identical news coverage of a controversial issue as biased against their own side. This is a robust phenomenon, which has been empirically demonstrated in numerous experimental and observational studies across a variety of issue contexts and has been shown to have important consequences for democratic society. This chapter reviews the literature on the hostile media effect with an eye toward the theoretical explanations for it, its relationship to other psychological processes, and its broader implications for perceived public opinion, news consumption patterns, attitudes toward democratic institutions, and political discourse and participation. Particular attention is paid to how the hostile media phenomenon can help explain the public’s eroding trust in the news media and the recent polarization among news audiences. The chapter concludes with several suggestions for future research.

Keywords: active audience, biased assimilation, hostile media phenomenon, hostile media perception, media bias, perceived bias, persuasive press inference, polarization, partisan involvement, selective exposure, selective perception


Throughout the history of communication research, scholars have alternated between conceptualizations of the media audience as passively subject to media influence or active in its use and interpretation of mediated messages—although the latter view has come to predominate. Abundant evidence suggests that audiences, particularly those with strong prior beliefs and attitudes, are instrumental in determining when then will pay attention to a message and what meaning they will take away from it. A prominent example of this is the “hostile media effect,” where opposing partisans perceive identical news coverage of a controversial issue as biased against their own side. To be sure, the hostile media effect is not an effect of the media per se but rather a response to media content, although this response has the potential to influence attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. For this reason, the hostile media effect is probably better referred to as a hostile media perception or hostile media phenomenon, but the terms are typically used interchangeably in the literature.

The hostile media effect was first demonstrated reliably by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper (1985) in the context of news about the ongoing Middle East conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. In the study, Stanford University undergraduates—who self-identified as either pro-Arab, pro-Israeli, or neutral—were shown a selection of US network news coverage that detailed a 1982 massacre of Palestinians by a Lebanese militia group and raised questions about Israeli responsibility in its aftermath. Results demonstrated that students who characterized themselves as pro-Israeli saw the news as biased against Israel, whereas pro-Arab students saw it as biased in Israel’s favor. Thus, both groups saw the same news coverage as hostile to their own position, whereas neutral viewers perceived the coverage as relatively balanced.

Using both experimental and survey methods, the hostile media phenomenon has been replicated in both its original (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994; Perloff, 1989) and other issue contexts, including those surrounding primate research (Gunther, Christen, (p. 550) Liebhart, and Chia, 2001), genetic modification of food (Gunther and Schmitt, 2004), election campaigns (Dalton, Beck, and Huckfeldt, 1998; Huge and Glynn, 2010), a UPS strike (Christen, Kannaovakun, and Gunther, 2002), and global warming (Kim, 2010). The hostile media effect even persists in a restricted press system, such as that of Singapore, where news coverage is highly regulated and people are aware of the government’s control of the media (Chia, Yong, Wong, and Koh, 2007).

This chapter reviews the literature on the hostile media effect with an eye toward the theoretical explanations for this effect, its relationship to other psychological processes, and its broader implications for journalism and political behavior. The hostile media effect is more than just a perceptual phenomenon; it has important consequences for democratic society. Notably, recent national surveys paint a picture of a highly skeptical news audience, with wide disparities in liberals’ and conservatives’ perceptions of the credibility of various news organizations (Riffkin, 2015; Pew Research Center, 2014). Accordingly, a key objective of this chapter is to better understand the extent to which the hostile media phenomenon can help explain the public’s eroding trust in the news media and the polarization among news audiences as well as to identify how future research can inform this discussion.

Explanatory Factors

Partisan Involvement

Stronger, more involved partisans are more likely to see news content as hostile (e.g., Choi, Yang, and Chang, 2009; Christen et al., 2002; Eveland and Shah, 2003; Vallone et al., 1985), suggesting that the hostile media effect is a situational response emerging from individuals’ identification with a partisan group or issue (Gunther, 1992; Hartmann and Tanis, 2013). Many studies of the hostile media effect have recruited partisan participants from interest groups, although some have relied on general population samples, categorizing partisans based on their attitude extremity. The latter method tends to locate weaker hostile media perceptions (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994); however, there is some evidence that hostile media perceptions manifest even among the general population (Dalton et al., 1998; Gunther and Christen, 2002) and moderate partisans (Huge and Glynn 2010). A recent meta-analysis (Hansen and Kim, 2011) concluded that the hostile media effect persists regardless of whether participants are highly involved or not, although the effect is stronger with greater involvement.

To address concerns that “involvement” has been inconsistently conceptualized and operationalized in earlier work (Choi et al., 2009), recent studies have tried to determine precisely what type of involvement contributes to hostile media perceptions. For example, Choi et al. (2009) found that value-relevant involvement, which occurs when concern about an issue is closely connected to one’s personal and social values, was predictive of hostile media perceptions among South Korean students, whereas (p. 551) outcome-relevant involvement, which arises when an issue has future consequences for an individual, was not. And Gunther, Miller, and Liebhart (2009) found that group identification was associated with relatively unfavorable media perceptions, whereas attitudinal extremes were associated with relatively favorable media perceptions. Although there are conceptual parallels between value-relevant involvement and group membership on the one hand and outcome-relevant involvement and attitude extremity on the other, ambiguity remains about which aspects of involvement underlie the hostile media effect and whether this varies by issue, media source, or other factors. Complicating this question further is a study by Matthes (2013), which found that affective involvement—measured as emotional arousal or as the experience of discrete emotions—is able to predict hostile media perceptions above and beyond any influence of the cognitive involvement factors previously considered by Gunther et al. (2009). Understanding the precise role of different types of involvement and their relationship to one another in predicting hostile media perceptions remains an important area for future research.

Message-Processing Mechanisms

Efforts to explain partisans’ hostile media perceptions have generally coalesced around three psychological mechanisms (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994; Schmitt, Gunther, and Liebhart, 2004). The first, selective recall, assumes that unfavorable content is more salient to partisans and therefore disproportionately remembered. With selective categorization, opposing partisans attend to, process, and recall the same content but interpret the valence of this content differently, classifying it as hostile to their own position. As suggested by Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken (1994), this second explanation is drawn from social judgment theory (Sherif and Hovland, 1961), which holds that highly involved partisans have wider “latitudes” of message rejection and will thus find more of the views expressed by the media to be disagreeable or biased than will weaker partisans, for whom the news is likely to fall into a latitude of acceptance or of noncommitment. Whereas selective recall and categorization assume a perceptual bias on the part of news consumers, scholars have also considered whether partisans might be vulnerable to an evaluative bias. This third explanation, dubbed the different standards mechanism, proposes that opposing partisans agree on the content and valence of a news story but have competing criteria for what constitutes a fair representation (Vallone et al., 1985). Specifically, only news stories that exclude information relevant to their opponents’ claims would be deemed appropriate; an even-handed treatment would constitute bias. While early studies found evidence for different standards (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994; Vallone et al., 1985), in recent research, using a more stringent test, selective categorization emerged as the most viable explanation (Gunther and Liebhart, 2006; Reid, 2012; Schmitt et al., 2004).

Source Heuristics

Scholars have also advanced a heuristic processing mechanism to explain the hostile media effect (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994). Several studies suggest that existing beliefs about general media bias can contribute to hostile media perceptions (Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994; Chia et al., 2007; Choi et al., 2009). Indeed, given the persistent claims (p. 552) leveled by conservative elites about liberal media bias (Watts, Domke, Shah, and Fan, 1999), this could explain why Republicans are more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than are Democrats (Eveland and Shah, 2003). Moreover, as Eveland and Shah (2003) have demonstrated, Republicans’ perceptions of bias follow directly not only from conservative elites’ assertions that the media are biased against them but also from their discussions with like-minded others, who likely spread and reinforce these claims. Thus, elite cues, social networks, and individual partisanship appear to interact in complex ways to produce hostile media perceptions.

Also consistent with a heuristic processing mechanism, several studies indicate that hostile media perceptions are reduced when a media source is presumed to agree with one’s own group and are heightened when the source is presumed to be disagreeable. For example, Arpan and Raney (2003) found that sports fans perceived a balanced news story about their town’s sports team to be less hostile when it came from their hometown newspaper than when it came from either a neutral-town or rival-town paper. Likewise, Baum and Gussin (2007) demonstrated that the cable news channels Fox and CNN triggered perceptions of bias based on their assumed partisan leanings. For example, election news attributed to Fox was perceived as more hostile by liberals than conservatives, with the reverse true for an identical story from CNN. Kim (2015) found similar results in a study of audience perceptions of bias in partisan news sources. Ariyanto, Hornsey, and Gallois (2007) further demonstrated that the perceived alignment of a media source factors into people’s judgments of bias. Specifically, Indonesian students believed that an article was biased against Christians when it appeared in a Muslim newspaper, but when the same article was credited to a Christian newspaper, it was seen as biased against Muslims.

Thus, a news source’s real or imagined partisan loyalties may undermine its ability to convince opposing partisans that it reports current affairs fairly. Still, it is not entirely clear whether this is, in fact, a function of heuristic processing, whereby individuals forego careful message processing and instead base their judgments of bias solely on assumptions about the source or if expectations of bias trigger the selective interpretation of message content. In the language of social judgment theory, it is quite possible that anticipated source bias creates wider latitudes of message rejection, thereby leading partisans to classify news content as hostile.

Perceived Reach

Not all information sources stimulate perceptions of a hostile bias. In fact, robust evidence exists in the social psychology literature for the opposite phenomenon, biased assimilation, whereby partisans interpret mixed evidence on an issue as supportive of their own point of view (Lord, Ross, and Lepper, 1979). To address this apparent contradiction, recent research has localized the hostile media effect to information sources that are perceived to be able to reach a wide audience and thereby exert a broad influence on public opinion. In this case, the perceived reach of the media content—and concern about its sway over a vulnerable public—are (p. 553) assumed to trigger defensive processing that makes otherwise benign information seem disagreeable (Gunther and Liebhart, 2006). Consistent with this explanation, studies have found that a newspaper article but not a student essay produces hostile media perceptions (Gunther and Liebhart, 2006; Gunther et al., 2009; Gunther and Schmitt, 2004) and that a national newspaper generates less favorable perceptions than does a regional one (Gunther et al., 2009), although the effects of perceived reach on hostile media perceptions disappear among nonpartisans as well as when partisans see favorably slanted content (Gunther, Edgerly, Akin, and Broesch, 2012). What’s more, in these studies, the student essay generated assimilation effects, such that readers perceived it as supportive of their beliefs. Findings such as these prompt Gunther et al. (2009) to argue that hostile media perceptions and biased assimilation are “two ends of the same continuum” (760). This is perhaps best understood as a matter of dueling motivations. Assimilation effects are produced by information sources perceived to have limited reach, ostensibly because here, audiences interpret the information only relative to their own opinion, and their motivation is to protect their opinion by privileging supportive evidence. With greater perceived reach, the audience’s outlook shifts to the influence on others, whom they are now motivated to guard from potentially harmful information. Theoretically, then, as perceived reach increases, partisans’ latitudes of message rejection widen, triggering perceptions of bias in neutral news.

Questions remain, however, as to how finely audiences distinguish between the reach of sources: Will a front-page story generate more hostile perceptions than a story on page ten? What about a network television news story versus the same story on cable? It is also possible that issue dynamics alter the influence of perceived reach. For example, Huge and Glynn (2010) found that hostile media perceptions during an election campaign weakened as the race became less competitive. In other words, when people were confident that their candidate would win, they were less worried about the media’s influence on others.

Democratic Consequences of Hostile Media Perceptions

While the tendency for individuals to perceive news coverage differently depending on their partisan orientation is of intrinsic theoretical interest, an emerging body of research suggests that the hostile media phenomenon also has important democratic consequences. As social psychologists and communication scholars have long recognized, “perceptions of reality, rather than actual observations of it, guide human beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors” (Hoffman and Glynn, 2008, 2945). Thus, although the hostile biases that partisans project on media coverage are, in many cases, not objectively real, these perceptions—justified or not—have been found to influence how people perceive the public opinion climate, the way they consume news, and their participation in political life.

(p. 554) Implications for Perceived Public Opinion

Several studies have found that hostile media perceptions lead partisans to also perceive public opinion as weighted against their own or less similar to theirs (Choi et al., 2009; Gunther and Chia, 2001; Gunther and Christen, 2002; Gunther et al., 2001). This is explained by the persuasive press inference model (Gunther, 1998), which posits that individuals infer public opinion from their perceptions of news coverage because of their assumption that it has substantial reach and influence on others. Thus, if people see news coverage as biased against their own point of view, they will likewise perceive others’ opinions to be at odds with their own. Moreover, to the extent that individuals infer bias on the basis of balanced news coverage, their inferences about public opinion could be incorrect (Gunther and Chia, 2001). These perceptions then have the potential to influence actual public opinion, as theories such as the spiral of silence predict (Noelle-Neumann, 1984). Moreover, as Gunther et al. (2001) have observed, the connection between perceived media bias and perceived public opinion expands the role presumably played by the media in the spiral of silence. Specifically, it suggests that the media can cue audience impressions of the opinion climate even if they do not report on public opinion directly.

However, the persuasive press inference is at odds with the projection bias, also known as the looking-glass perception (Fields and Schuman, 1976), whereby people project others’ opinions from their own. Some studies have found that the effects of projection on perceived public opinion overwhelm the effects of hostile media perceptions (e.g., Christen et al., 2002; Huge and Glynn, 2010). As Christen et al. (2002) have explained, because we are social animals, our motivation to validate our opinions by projecting them onto others is stronger than our motivation to see hostile media coverage as a persuasive force. In contrast, other scholars have found evidence for both projection and the persuasive press inference (e.g., Gunther and Chia, 2001; Gunther and Christen, 2002). According to Gunther and Christen (2002), the persuasive press inference helps mitigate projection effects, and the countervailing influences of the two phenomena end up producing more accurate perceptions of public opinion. Understanding the conditions that make projection and the persuasive press inference more or less influential on perceived public opinion is an important area for future study, as is the effect of hostile media perceptions on actual public opinion.

Implications for Journalism

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of the hostile media perception is its impact on the news media as an institution. The hostile media effect gives news organizations and professional journalists an impossible job—as even fair, balanced coverage of controversial issues is perceived as biased and antagonistic by members of the groups being covered. Indeed, content analyses have failed to find evidence for a systematic media bias (e.g., D’Alessio and Allen, 2000), yet claims of its existence—albeit divergent ones—abound. (p. 555) Moreover, the perceived credibility of US news organizations on the whole is staggeringly low. In 2010, no more than a third of Americans said they believe all or most of the reporting by any one of fourteen major news organizations (Pew Research Center, 2014). While there are many reasons for this, it is plausible to assume that hostile media perceptions play some role, likely in interaction with other factors (see Ladd, 2010). For one, audiences tend to extrapolate from their perceptions of a hostile bias in a small sample of issue-relevant news coverage to the media’s coverage of that issue in general (Kim, 2010) as well as to the media as a whole (Gunther et al., 2001; Tsfati and Cohen, 2005). Perceptions of bias in news coverage at one point in time also predict perceived bias at a later point (Huge and Glynn, 2010). Moreover, if the recent explosion of available media content has prompted involved partisans to consume more news (Prior, 2007) and they are apt to see that news as hostile, this too could explain rising negativity toward the press.

One potential result is that partisans reject useful news content that exposes them to diverse viewpoints and instead find biased or like-minded content more appealing. This helps create a market for partisan news, which, in turn, may fuel the polarization of attitudes. Indeed, on cable television, by strategically catering to partisan audiences, both Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left have met with considerable success—particularly relative to the more neutral CNN (Pew Research Center, 2015). Several studies confirm that perceptions of a hostile media drive news consumers to alternative, ostensibly more friendly or ideologically similar media. Morris (2007) has demonstrated that individuals who perceived hostile bias in the mainstream media were more likely to use Fox News as their primary news source. Kim (2010) concluded that, among climate change believers and deniers, hostile media perceptions predicted selective exposure to like-minded news about global warming. Choi, Watt, and Lynch (2006) found that opponents of the Iraq war perceived the Internet as less aligned with the government’s prowar position and as more credible than magazines, radio, newspapers, and television. Moreover, war opponents saw the Internet as significantly less prowar and therefore less hostile than did war supporters and nonpartisans; all other sources were seen as more antagonistic by war opponents. The Internet thus provided war opponents with an alternative, “nonhostile” channel. More recently, Borah, Thorson, and Hwang (2015) found that political blog readers who perceived a hostile bias in mainstream media were more likely to selectively expose themselves to like-minded online sources. If hostile media perceptions lead people to reject independent, balanced coverage as biased and, in so doing, drive them to news sources that reinforce their views, such partisan selective exposure could exacerbate gaps in public opinion and knowledge between opposing partisans (Stroud, 2010). To date, just one study has explored this possibility, finding that hostile media perceptions are directly related to more polarized opinions about climate change policy (Hart, Feldman, Leiserowitz, and Maibach, 2015).

Implications for Political Behavior

A third consequence of the hostile media effect is its influence on political behavior. The hostile media effect has been linked to feelings of indignation toward the media (Hwang, Pan, and Sun, 2008), generalized distrust of media and government institutions (Tsfati (p. 556) and Cohen, 2005), social and political alienation (Tsfati, 2007), and greater willingness to engage in “corrective actions” (Rojas, 2010), ranging from political discussion (Hwang et al., 2008; Rojas, 2010) and activism (Barnidge, Sayre, and Rojas, 2015; Feldman, Hart, Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf, 2015) to violent protest (Tsfati and Cohen, 2005). In the best-case scenario, these findings offer encouraging evidence for deliberative democracy, seeing that hostile media perceptions motivate people to engage in political discussion and participatory actions. On the other hand, these results may be worrisome for democracy, in that hostile media perceptions appear to foster widespread contempt for democratic institutions and contribute to emotionally charged, polarizing discourse. Indeed, people are more likely to participate in the public sphere when they perceive the media as hostile and themselves as marginalized. Hostile media perceptions also contribute to the belief among partisans that media coverage leads both sides of a political conflict to make increasingly extreme claims and in turn promotes greater acceptance of an uncivil and uncompromising style of public debate (Post, 2015). In some cases (Tsfati and Cohen, 2005), hostile media perceptions undermine faith in the democratic process and engender opposition—even violent opposition—to democratic decision-making.

Strategies to Reduce Hostile Media Perceptions

The implications of hostile media perceptions raise an important normative question regarding whether efforts should be made to reduce them. Although the literature points to certain conditions that minimize the hostile media effect, such as low reach and agreeable sources, these are not modifications that can realistically be made to naturally occurring news content. To date there has been limited research examining practical ways to minimize hostile media perceptions, although a recent study (Vraga, Tully, Akin, and Rojas, 2012) suggests that media literacy training can do so by signaling the importance of balanced news in a democratic society and deepening the audience’s understanding of the journalistic process. A focus on shifting the perceptual processes that underlie hostile media perceptions (e.g., Gunther and Liebhart, 2006) and, in so doing, narrowing partisans’ latitudes of message rejection is a productive area for future research.

Understanding Hostile Media Perceptions in a Changing News Environment

Hostile Media Perceptions in Biased News

When Vallone et al. (1985) first documented hostile media perceptions, their assumption of neutral news content was a logical one, given the journalistic paradigm of objectivity. In today’s media environment, however, news outlets—particularly on cable—have begun to appeal to particular audience segments with targeted political messages. As journalistic norms of balanced reporting give way to overtly partisan (p. 557) and opinionated news, the question of how news that is biased is perceived by partisan audiences arises. However, the original hostile media phenomenon, with its inherent assumption of balanced coverage, lacks applicability to opinionated journalism. The relative hostile media effect (Gunther, Christen, Liebhart, and Chia, 2001) relaxes this assumption, extending the hostile media perception to content that is slanted in favor of or against a particular issue. In the presence of a relative hostile media effect, supporters and opponents of an issue perceive bias in a consistent direction (i.e., leaning toward one side), but each group perceives coverage as significantly more unfavorable to its own position relative to the other group. Put slightly differently, partisans perceive less bias in news coverage slanted to support their view than do their opponents on the other side of the issue.

Interestingly, then, whereas the implication of the original hostile media effect is a partisan public perceiving media bias where none exists and thus potentially discounting valuable information, the implications of the relative hostile media effect are somewhat different. Instead, in instances when a bias is congruent with their preexisting views, partisans may fail to fully recognize it in news that actually is in fact biased. Partisans for whom the news is attitudinally incongruent will overestimate bias. This phenomenon is concerning. Americans’ trust in news sources has become deeply divided in recent years—with conservatives, for example, attributing more credibility to Fox News and less to most other news organizations than liberals (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Several studies have documented a relative hostile media effect in response to opinionated cable news (Arceneaux, Johnson, and Murphy, 2012; Coe et al., 2008; Feldman, 2011), whereby opposing partisans identified a consistent directional bias but differed significantly in their perceptions of its extent. That is, those exposed to counterattitudinal news perceived more bias than those exposed to pro-attitudinal coverage. Arceneaux et al. (2012) call this “oppositional media hostility” —which occurs when people become suspicious of news content from outlets other than their ideologically preferred sources and make relative hostile judgments about them. When news—particularly on cable TV and online—is infused with ideologically driven commentary, partisans may find it easier to validate their personal political beliefs by embracing information that reinforces their views and rejecting counterattitudinal advocacy. Thus the relative hostile media effect may reflect not only partisan divides in news perceptions but may also contribute to the polarization of political attitudes and knowledge (see Hart et al., 2015).

While the mechanism that produces the relative hostile media effect is not entirely clear, it probably results from a combination of selective processing of message content and heuristic processing of source cues (e.g., Baum and Gussin, 2007). Feldman’s (2011) finding that relative hostile perceptions of opinionated news stories were less pronounced than hostile perceptions of the opinionated news anchor raises the possibility that obvious news bias washes out partisan differences in story perceptions, whereas relative hostile perceptions of the anchor, or host, persist. This explanation is consistent with the notion that the latter involves making a personal inference about the host—an ostensibly more subjective judgment than assessing favoritism in a blatantly opinionated news story. Alternatively, perceived host bias may not be a hostile media effect (p. 558) per se—whereby partisans categorize ambiguous news content as contrary to their own position—but rather a form of motivated reasoning, in which audiences attempt to protect their preexisting beliefs by discrediting the source of a counterattitudinal news story.

Selective Versus Forced Exposure

The strongest evidence for the hostile media effect comes from experimental studies that randomly assign subjects to view or read particular news content. This conclusion raises the possibility that hostile media perceptions will not persist in a high-choice media environment where audiences have agency over their media consumption. After all, with the proliferation of information outlets on cable and the Internet, citizens uninterested in politics can avoid news altogether (Prior, 2007), while partisans can confine their exposure to like-minded sources (Stroud, 2008). Thus, although maximizing internal validity, traditional experimental designs undermine external validity by failing to account for the fact that, in the real world, audiences self-select the media content to which they are exposed (Bennett and Iyengar, 2008). Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the “forced choice” approach used in traditional experimental studies can artificially inflate hostile media perceptions. Arceneaux et al. (2012) found that the opportunity for selective exposure—specifically the ability to opt out of counterattitudinal programming or of news programming altogether—blunted but did not eliminate hostile media perceptions in response to opinionated cable news. Under conditions of forced exposure, hostile perceptions were especially strong among those who indicated a preference for entertainment over cable news programming, suggesting that this group is driving the reduction in hostile media perceptions under conditions of choice. Mende (2008) likewise demonstrated that opposing partisan groups each saw a hostile bias in a balanced news article they were forced to read; but when they selected the article themselves, the groups did not differ significantly in their perceptions of bias.

Although these studies suggest that the hostile media effect could be a methodological artifact, it is important to recognize that selectivity did not completely erase hostile media perceptions. Moreover, if, as Arceneaux et al. (2012) attest, selectivity reduces hostile media perceptions primarily by permitting those who are disinterested in politics to opt for entertainment instead of news, this says nothing of the highly involved partisans who will continue to select news even in a high-choice environment, nor does it account for evidence of the hostile media effect identified by survey methods. Still, future studies should continue to probe the consequences of selectivity for hostile media perceptions. It will also be important to better clarify the mechanism by which selective exposure reduces hostile media perceptions. Explanations exist beyond those proposed by Arceneaux et al. The theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), for example, suggests that once people choose to consume—or pay to subscribe to—a particular media outlet, perceiving that outlet as biased would undermine that choice, thereby creating dissonance. Under those circumstances, selectivity may narrow one’s latitude of (p. 559) rejection or, conversely, widen one’s latitude of acceptance, thereby decreasing hostile media perceptions.

Conclusions and Unanswered Questions

By proving to be robust, the hostile media effect offers compelling evidence for the active audience paradigm. Audiences do not passively receive media content but rather actively interpret it in light of their own values and predispositions. Despite journalists’ best intentions to report news in a fair and objective way, partisans are motivated to see balanced content as harboring a hostile bias. These hostile media perceptions emerge from a complex constellation of factors—including partisan involvement and the related impulse to protect a vulnerable public from undue media influence, a source’s perceived like-mindedness, elite cues, discussion networks, and individuals’ agency over their media consumption—all of which interact with the news message itself. Of course the hostile media phenomenon is of concern primarily because of its effects on political attitudes and behaviors. More than just an instantiation of selective perception, the hostile media effect has implications for perceived public opinion, news consumption patterns, attitudes toward democratic institutions, and political discourse and participation. Its very existence raises questions about whether media bias is something that can ever be objectively assessed. Still, it was only a few decades ago that the hostile media effect was first documented, and it generated sustained research attention only in the last several years. Thus, as highlighted throughout this chapter, a number of questions have yet to be answered, offering a productive agenda for future research.

First, deeper attention should be given to individual differences in hostile media perceptions. In addition to better clarifying the role of involvement, it would be beneficial to study other individual-level moderators of the hostile media effect. For example, political sophistication has generated mixed findings as a moderator of hostile media perceptions (e.g., Dalton et al., 1998; Vallone et al., 1985).

Whereas recent empirical research supports selective categorization as the psychological mechanism accounting for the hostile media effect, it is unclear whether this notion can account for the influence of prior beliefs about the media in general or about a particular media source on hostile media perceptions, or whether heuristic processing—or some other, unidentified mechanism—is at play (see Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken, 1994; Gunther and Liebhart, 2006). Similarly, the mechanisms at work in relative hostile judgments about biased news are as yet poorly understood. In seeking to clarify the processes by which people develop hostile media perceptions, the possibility of moderated mediation effects (Preacher, Rucker, and Hayes, 2007)—whereby the mechanism depends on the level of partisan involvement, the news source, or other contextual factors—should be explored. A fuller understanding of the mechanisms underlying the hostile media (p. 560) effect would, in turn, inform ways to encourage more accurate perceptions of media bias among news audiences—an area of research that has thus far been relatively ignored.

Ultimately the hostile media effect is only one of several perceptual phenomena that influence how citizens relate to and participate in a democratic society. Efforts to integrate the hostile media perception with associated processes—including projection, the persuasive press inference, biased assimilation, and the spiral of silence—will undoubtedly continue, with an eye toward better specifying the conditions under which these sometimes competing processes occur.

Importantly, the hostile media phenomenon seems to offer a critical tool for understanding the changes in and consequences of the contemporary media environment. For example, hostile media perceptions encourage selective exposure to like-minded news. Partisans, in turn, respond to opinionated and biased news by making relatively hostile judgments. In some cases, hostile media perceptions activate retaliatory communication and action. However, the conclusions that we can ultimately draw about the polarizing effects of hostile media perceptions are at this point quite tentative (but see Hart et al., 2015). Thus an important objective for future research is to probe the attitudinal and behavioral outcomes of hostile media perceptions in order to better understand the extent to which partisans’ perceptual biases are serving to polarize news consumption, political attitudes, and discourse.

It is also important to consider how changes in our media landscape implicate hostile media perceptions. Research has only begun to explore whether the increased opportunity for media choice reduces hostile media perceptions; while the results are suggestive, replication of these studies in different contexts, using different messages and research designs, would be helpful, as would a broader exploration of the mechanisms by which selectivity weakens hostile media perceptions. Moreover, in today’s media environment, audiences are not merely active but interactive—responding to, sharing, and producing new content from the media they consume. Thus audiences’ interpretations of media content are shaped not only by their partisan motivations or elite cues but also by how their online social networks and the broader news audience reacts to the news in real time. Understanding the implications of these social influences for hostile media perceptions is an important area of future research. Finally, although scholars have begun to study the hostile media effect in nonwestern countries (e.g., Chia et al., 2007; Ariyanto et al., 2007), more research is needed to determine the generalizability of and variations in this phenomenon across cultures and media systems, particularly in news media traditions where the expectation is for bias instead of objectivity.

With trust in the US news media at a historic low (Riffkin, 2015) and the media audience deeply fragmented across partisan and ideological lines (Pew Research Center, 2014), understanding how audiences perceive news content, as well as the reasons for and consequences of these perceptions, has never been more critical. Fortunately, empirical and theoretical efforts to elaborate the hostile media effect are well underway. With continued attention, this area of scholarship should yield fruitful insights into the implications of the active news audience for democratic life.


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