The politic news field encompasses the ways in which journalism covers public issues and political power. The field is shaped by four quintessential concepts: politicization and polarization, interpretive versus straight news, conflict framing and media negativity.
Consistent liberals volunteer a wider mix of main sources for political news than do conservatives, but some outlets earn higher shares of distrust than trust among these groups.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, a movement within journalism emerged variously known as civic or public journalism. This movement sought to meld reporting and democracy by engaging journalists with their communities in the discussion of critical local issues and problems. Journalists and their organizations would sponsor months long civic journalism projects that combined fact finding efforts with deliberative public processes.
While the movement did find some success, it was not without controversy. Some in the news media decried it as “local boosterism.” More traditionally minded editors and reporters worried that the practice would discourage hard-hitting investigative journalism and undermine the independence of newsrooms.
However, the rise of citizen journalism and the increasing importance of social media in news dissemination has brought new hope for civic journalism’s future. These new forms of communication are fostering a new type of engagement between citizens and the news media, a dialogue that can help restore democracy’s values and rebuild trust in journalism.
For example, the nonpartisan organization Public Insight Network encourages news audiences to share their insights with journalists. And the nonprofit media company Spaceship Media is “refining a journalistic process that begins with lightly facilitating online dialogue.” These projects show how citizens can engage in a civic dialogue on important political issues and provide valuable feedback to news outlets. Studies have shown that this kind of dialogue can lead to increased civic participation and more informed citizen voters.
New media embodies the evolution of traditional communication systems and new digital technology that allows people to interact in ways never before possible. Its potential for providing greater access to information, facilitating wider-ranging political discourse and encouraging participation has generated excitement among scholars and observers.
Scholars have offered a variety of perspectives on the role of new media in democratic societies. Some view it as enabling a postmodern public sphere where citizens participate in well-informed and nonhierarchical discussion of issues that affect them. Others view new media as enhancing democratic accountability by increasing the number of voices and the speed with which they can be communicated.
Another important aspect of new media is its capacity to facilitate a two-way flow of information. People can comment on news items and blogs or share them through their personal social media accounts. In addition, many can upload their own content as a form of activism. This has been referred to as the “prosumer” effect.
While new media can enhance the ability of journalists to fulfill their watchdog role, it also increases the possibility that politicians will do an end run around the press by using the platform to direct their own messages to the public. A recent example was the government’s slow response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, which was quickly surfaced by local residents and first responders who documented their experiences on their own social media channels.
Despite headline-grabbing stats about declining media readership, traditional news outlets still play an important role in raising (or lowering) the quality of public debate and containing misinformation. They also serve as a trusted source of information for many people.
But a number of factors have weakened their ability to perform these textbook functions, particularly in the case of legacy media. The most obvious problem is that they are often owned by large corporations that prioritize profits over editorial independence and community outreach. As a result, they may promote views that are out of step with a significant segment of the population.
The problem is exacerbated by the growing influence of new media. A typical politic news story on Facebook may be seen by hundreds or even thousands of people within seconds, while it can take days for the same piece to appear in a newspaper or TV show.
There are a few ways that governments can encourage a more responsible and democratic media sphere. One approach is to increase funding for public service media, which is often more independent from political or business interests than private-sector counterparts. Another is to foster greater transparency of private media ownership to safeguard pluralism and track undue influence. This can be achieved by requiring that shareholders disclose their shares or by introducing independent media support or innovation funds that are tied to specific quality criteria.
The polarization that pervades political news grabs Americans’ attention and dwells in memory. It inspires aversion to politics that makes it harder to form bipartisan coalitions or pass legislation, and fosters social isolation among those with opposing worldviews. This sour political environment is bad for democracy.
Fortunately, a few policy reforms can ease the negative effects of polarization. First, citizens must be able to debate and discuss multiple policies to challenge undesirable status quos. And they need pluralistic news sources to inform them of their options.
Polarization can be good for a democracy as long as the quality of political discussion is high and it doesn’t lead to uncivil or violent behavior. When politicians behave rudely toward one another or their supporters, Americans are more likely to dismiss these politicians and disidentify from their parties [6,7]. They also become less tolerant of co-partisans who reject other views, even socially excluding those who display dogmatism and disrespectfulness to their peers.
The present study examines the extent to which newspaper and network news coverage of COVID-19 was politicized and polarized in March through May 2020. Politization refers to the prominence of political actors in a story, such as mentions of Democratic and Republican leaders, and it can result from biased newsroom norms or a desire to attract audience attention. A high degree of politicization can amplify partisan differences in risk perceptions and responses to a public threat (Bolsen et al., 2014; Chinn & De Vreese, 2020).