Since 2016, one of the main buzzwords in political media has been polarization. Voters have been polarized over various topics, the last one being the Supreme Court nomination, which is palpable when reading the news. But media outlets are not just a reflection of today’s polarization; they have played a fundamental role in creating that polarization by appealing to identities with their reporting. The death of the admired Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) and Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett is the latest example of how media outlets further polarize politics.
The expectation of unbiased reporting by news outlets has not always existed. In the 19th century, outlets were expected to publish partisan news and persuade readers to vote for one candidate. They were financed by the readers themselves, who connected with the outlets as voters, writes Jill Lepore for The New Yorker. With time, news outlets sought to increase the number of readers and thus reduced their bias to appeal to a broader public. Facts and dry news became a priority.
Soon, the popularity of radio and television brought a new change to print news outlets. As facts were already being reported—and faster—over radio or television, print journalism started producing more analytical and interpretative pieces. Facts were still important, but they needed an angle so print news could differentiate among themselves and from radio and TV. Still, there was an expectation of unbiased reporting, featuring the outlets as guardians of the truth and the fourth power to keep politicians in check.
Print news has changed vastly since. With the birth of the Internet and social media, we have more information and viewpoints at hand. It is easy to pick and choose deciding only to read perspectives that one already agrees with. Scholars call this confirmation bias. Simultaneously, news outlets must fight for the reader’s attention, loyalty, and—hopefully—money. To win, readers must care for their content at a deep level, that is, it must be entrenched with their identity—in a similar fashion as in the 19th century partisan media.
In his book, “Why we’re polarized,” the founder of US publication Vox, Ezra Klein comments that the number of choices in political media makes it possible for journalism to be an expression of identity, more than an account of the facts. He notes that the question it tries to resolve is why one side should win and the other lose, with polarized media weaponizing voters’ differences. As such, political media outlets are organized around identity, so when a news story is reported, the question the outlet must always answer is why are they attacking you? Why is your identity under threat? Or why isn’t it? News stories goes viral because people care about them as their identity is impacted. Identity is all that matters to gain traction, and as a consequence, it matters a lot in journalism. But that also poses a problem, notes Klein, as identities are hard to change, while opinions can be shifted.
At the same time, news outlets are businesses with bottom lines and the capacity to be agenda-setters. News organizations decide what’s newsworthy, what deserves coverage, and what doesn’t. If the news that impact identity will get more views—and views lead to ad dollars—it’s natural to think that news organizations will cover more of those stories. A news outlet’s viewpoint will be revealed in the amount of coverage it gives to a topic, the tone, the words. The media’s power as an agenda-setter was evident in 2016 when news outlets decided to cover Trump more and more because he was outrageous, entertaining, and a clickbait. He received more coverage than any other candidate, which propelled his campaign.
Identity journalism has led to polarization, but not all outlets and readers are the same. A survey by Pew Research Center found that Democrat-leaning readers tend to get information from a wider variety of news sources like CNN, NPR, or The New York Times, than Republican-leaning, who mainly trust Fox News. Fox News is the primary source for 47% of those who consider themselves consistently conservative. Also, we cannot pretend that Fox News and the New York Times are the same but on different sides of the aisle.
The most recent example of how journalism can trigger an identity and thus lead to further polarization is the Supreme Court nomination. The battle over the Supreme Court seats began in 2016 when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing to Obama’s candidate in 2016. Justice Antonin Scalia had died, and Obama nominated the moderate Merrick Garland to the position. However, the process was thwarted before it could even start. The reasoning was that presidents should not nominate judges in election years, said the Republican leadership. The obstruction infuriated Democrats and put further pressure on the nomination process. A few months later, newly-elected Donald Trump appointed judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court to replace Scalia. In 2018, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill the position left by Anthony Kennedy. By then, the process was extremely polarized, infuriating Democrats who believed Kavanaugh did not merit the appointment as he was accused of sexual assault.
This year’s nomination is likely to be similarly contentious for other reasons. With less than two months left before the elections, Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett to replace RBG after she passed away. The appointment comes four years after Republicans did not even give Garland a hearing because it was an election year, which Democrats cannot forgive.
On one side, Fox News and its reporters have talked about the topic with a tone reminiscent of the term “culture wars.” For example, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson decries on a tweet that the left despises Barrett because she “represents everything that made our country great.” Carlson has also claimed on the channel that “Democrats hate Christianity because it acknowledges a power higher than the DNC.” Other headlines include “Liberal women’s group slam Amy Coney Barrett.” With that coverage, the outlet is trying to appeal to its readers’ conservative, religious identity. They will be triggered and will defend more arduously the nomination against those who are threatening their identity.
On the left, the coverage has intensely focused on Barrett’s religion and her views on abortion. The comments go back to Barrett’s confirmation hearings in 2017, when Senator Dianne Feinstein said: “The dogma lives loudly within you.” At the time, conservatives saw the comment as proof of anti-religious bias among Democrats. Headlines among liberal-leaning outlets include The Nation’s “Amy Coney Barrett’s extremist religious beliefs merit examination” and the Times’ “Some worry about judicial nominee’s ties to a religious group.” The coverage appeals to liberals who believe in Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act . They will be rallied to defend their belief system, which feels under attack. As a consequence, both liberals and conservatives will be more willing to pay and remain loyal to those outlets, which confirm their beliefs, worries, and fears. Confirmation biases appear with maximum force.
When identity is the measure of journalism, it’s a question of emotions over politics. Media outlets contribute to polarization with their coverage, which appeals to one or another identity. Taking a look back at 19th-century journalism, sometimes we have to wonder whether we are going back to partisan media and whether readers connect to news outlets more as voters that want to reinforce their biases than as consumers of news.