Media Literacy and Perceptions of Biased Political Content

I’ve been saying for months that I want to try a new experiment in promoting new articles. Scholars are often encouraged to share their knowledge outside the “ivory tower” – something that academic publishing doesn’t always make easy. So I’m going to try to blog about – and maybe eventually do short videos about – my new articles and their relevance to issues of public debate.

The first article I’ve selected is one that I co-authored with Melissa Tully, at the University of Iowa. We’ve long been interested in questions of how media literacy trainings – which usually encompass an understanding of how news is produced, its value in a democratic society, and the importance for audiences to overcome their own biases – can be used to limit hostile media effects, in which audiences with a passionate position on an issue see unbiased news content as hostile to their view. Thus far, most media literacy education occurs in the classroom, which provides a valuable backdrop to understanding these complicated issues. But this necessarily leaves out broad expanses of the population, and also creates distance between the media literacy values we are taught in class and our real-world media consumption.

Our previous work with Hernando Rojas and Heather Akin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had suggested that a media literacy presentation of about three minutes could be effective in reducing hostile media perceptions for unbiased content, although in one study it was more effective among liberals. However, we felt this previous research was limited in two ways: (1) a three minute presentation is not a very realistic way to engage with media literacy “in the wild” and (2) a lot of media content isn’t unbiased, but instead has a partisan viewpoint.

In our current study, we created a 30-second media literacy “PSA,” which briefly described the value of the press in representing diverse viewpoints, and the need for audiences to be critical news consumers. We paired this PSA with one of three political talk shows, created by the Mass Communication Research Center team in 2011, which at the time was led by D. Jasun Carr: one with an unbiased host moderating a debate between two partisan guests on immigration reform, one where the host explicitly favored the conservative guest and his arguments, and one in which the host explicitly favored the liberal guest.

Our study had mixed results. First, response to the PSA differed by ideology. Liberals said they liked the PSA more, but it never influenced their attitudes towards the political program that they saw. Instead, the PSA shifted perceptions of the program only among conservatives. Second, the PSA appeared to “work” among conservatives who saw an unbiased program – they were less likely to say it was hostile to their views, and more likely to believe the program and host are credible. This is good news, if it leads people to be more fair towards unbiased programming. However, the news for partisan programs is less positive. Conservatives who saw the PSA said that the conservatively-biased program (which favored their viewpoints) was even more credible and trustworthy, while also saying that the liberal program (which they disagreed with) was even less credible. Therefore, the media literacy PSA exacerbated differences for conservatives in ratings of partisan programs, making an agreeable program look even better and a disagreeable program look even worse.

This study of course raises some questions: why did liberals say they like the PSA but not change their attitudes in viewing the program? Why was the PSA effective in limiting hostile media perceptions for unbiased programming for conservatives, but worsen divides in perceptions of biased programming? Are there certain components of media literacy – for example, the value of representing diverse views – that appeal more to one political group than another? We believe our article shows that media literacy can be successful outside the classroom, but its effects depend on the audiences, their beliefs, and the media content that it is paired with; questions we plan to continue to explore.

Please click here for a PDF of the Accepted Manuscript for this study, which is available online from Mass Communication and Societyor contact me if you want a copy.

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