How Popular Media Impact Political Polarization: An Historical Study

June 14, 2013
by Doug Gavel, HKS Communications

Many blame the current media landscape with exacerbating the political divisions in this country, but a new paper co-authored by two Harvard Kennedy School associate professors, suggests that previous media revolutions in the U.S. are actually associated with a lowering of political polarization.

In "Media and polarization Evidence from the introduction of broadcast TV in the United States," published by the Journal of Public Economics, co-authors Filipe Campante, associate professor of public policy, and Daniel Hojman, associate professor of public policy, analyze national political attitudes during two critical times in American history -- during the 1920s and 30s when broadcast radio first gained popularity, and during the 1940s and 50s when television news coverage became ubiquitous.

"These constitute a particularly propitious context to study those effects, since they represented massive changes in media technology and consumption patterns, and coincided with a period over which there was a substantial drop in measured partisan polarization," Hojman and Campante write.

The authors present a theoretical framework which, they argue, helps explain how both political motivation and ideology can be impacted through mass media.

"Our framework suggests that TV and radio may have decreased polarization both because they affected the level of political motivation of its viewers and/or because they influenced their ideological views," Hojman and Campante argue. The authors also analyzed the different ways in which the two media affected voter turnout.

"Our evidence...shows that the evolution of media technologies between the 1930s and 1950s had a significant role in the drop in polarization observed over that period. A natural interpretation is that radio worked in favor of depolarization by bringing new, more moderate voters to the polls. When TV arrived, that effect was somewhat exhausted, but depolarization was further enhanced by the new medium's direct impact on citizens' ideological preferences," they conclude.

Filipe R. Campante, Associate Professor of Public Policy, is interested in political economy and economic development, with special emphasis on understanding the constraints that are faced by politicians and governments beyond elections and formal "checks and balances."

Daniel A. Hojman
, Associate Professor of Public Policy, teaches microeconomics. His main research areas are theoretical and applied microeconomics and political economy. His current research interests include behavioral economics, corruption, and deliberation processes.

Filipe Campante

Associate Professor Filipe Campante

"Our framework suggests that TV and radio may have decreased polarization both because they affected the level of political motivation of its viewers and/or because they influenced their ideological views," Hojman and Campante argue. The authors also analyzed the different ways in which the two media affected voter turnout.

Daniel Hojman

Associate Professor Daniel Hojman


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