With polls showing that America is more politically divided than ever, a new study of the polarization has identified who is to blame and it's not Donald Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It's the media.
A scholarly study in the authoritative journal Political Communication found that the media has harped so much on political division that the nation now feels polarized. In fact, the reporting has changed the meaning of the word "polarized," which 16 years ago referred most to sun glasses not politics.
"We find that depictions of a divided populace transmitted through the mass media can increase perceived polarization," said the study, co-authored by Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University.
"At the same time, it increases affective polarization, thereby increasing the potential for partisan discord," the duo wrote, adding that it also "heightens negative affect toward the other party."
The scholars studied news reports over 12 years and found an explosion of references to polarization in recent years. Thus, they conclude, it's the media's fault.
"How journalists cover polarization shape how citizens respond to it," they wrote.
They also found another result: Some react by becoming more moderate and compromising.
"We show how media coverage can moderate issue positions, reinforcing the idea that some voters, especially those in the center, are 'turned off"' by depictions of polarized politics," said the study.
But, they concluded, "our results also make clear that polarized media coverage causes citizens to view the opposing party less positively. While we are not the first to describe and document affective polarization, we are the first to show how media coverage exogenously increases it. Our findings offer one mechanism for explaining the increased discord and disagreement seen in contemporary American politics."
In reviewing the study, Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center pulled out these key takeaways:
— Media coverage of polarization increases the belief among voters that the electorate is polarized.
— In response to these increased feelings that society is polarized, voters soften their own positions, seeking to compromise and see themselves as more centrist. "When media depict the mass public as polarized and divided, citizens moderate their issue positions."
— Amid this awareness of polarization, voters increase their dislike for those with extreme views on the opposite end of the spectrum from their own — what the authors call "affective polarization" — and come to see these voters as representative of members of the opposition party. These individuals are perceived as "violating the norms of moderation" and compromise. That leads voters to respond more viscerally and dislike members of the opposing party more on a personal level.
— Voters respond slightly negatively to members of their own party whom they perceive to be polarizing, but far less than they do to "opposing partisans."
— The media's discussion of political polarization has "increased dramatically" since the contested 2000 U.S. presidential election.
— The meaning of the word "polarization" has changed, too. In 2000, it referred to political positions less than half the time; instead it often described a feature of optical lenses used in sunglasses and cameras. By 2012, it was about politics almost 80 percent of the time.
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org