PULLMAN, Wash. – A recent study by a Washington State University researcher suggests intense media coverage of highly polarized and contentious political issues tends to reinforce partisan views, creating “belief gaps” between Democrats and Republicans, which grow increasingly pronounced over time.
Directed by Associate Professor Douglas Hindman of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU, the study focused on the distribution of beliefs and knowledge of self-identified Democrats, Moderates and Republicans about the Affordable Care Act of 2010. It marks a significant departure from similar research performed nearly a half century ago, which showed heavy media coverage of science news contributed to “knowledge gaps,” or growing disparities in knowledge between those with different levels of educational attainment.
Proposed in 1973 by the Minnesota team of Phil Tichenor, George Donohue and Clarice Olien, the previous “knowledge gap hypothesis” challenged traditional views in which the news media were seen as promoting democracy and self-government through the equal distribution of public affairs and science knowledge. Instead, the Minnesota team determined, news media were unintentionally distributing knowledge in ways that both developed and maintained social power.
Hindman’s research, however, suggests that, in an era of sharp political polarization, self-identification as a Democrat or Republican has become a better predictor of peoples’ knowledge or beliefs about politically contested issues like health care reform than is their educational level.
“What my latest research shows is that knowledge is replaced by beliefs when social problems enter the political fray,” said Hindman. “The ‘knowledge gaps’ of the previous era have become ‘belief gaps’ in an era of political polarization. Voters’ positions on such contentious issues as health care reform are no longer best predicted by educational level, but rather by indicators of partisanship. As such, they reflect differences in subjective political beliefs, rather than objective differences in individual knowledge.”
Data for the study were taken from five probability-based tracking surveys, comprised of nationally representative samples sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and fielded by Princeton Survey Associates, before the health care reform legislation passed in March 2010 and two tracking surveys fielded after the bills were signed into law.
The data showed that belief gaps regarding the value of health care reform for families and the country developed between liberals and conservatives during the months leading up to the March 2010 passage of the health care legislation. The gap between Republicans and Democrats grew significantly during the five months of the study. Republicans were less likely than Democrats to see value in the legislation for either their families or for the country and saw significantly less value in January 2010 than in September 2009.
The study also showed that the belief gaps applied not only to the participants’ perceived value of the legislation, Hindman said, but also to more traditional indicators of knowledge, such as what specific components of health care reform were actually addressed by the legislation.
“It doesn’t seem like whether you are a Republican or Democrat would have any bearing on whether you really understand what’s actually contained within the legislation,” said Hindman. “But in fact, party affiliation proved the best predictor of how familiar respondents were with its components. Educational attainment was not a significant predictor.”
Although it was not tested directly in this study, Hindman said his findings are consistent with prior research indicating that media coverage of political controversies serves to transmit social identification cues to citizens, and that group identification may override knowledge that is contrary to those beliefs.
“But I’m definitely not faulting the media for the effects my study shows,” he said. “Politicians and their party leaders have stated their primary objectives as political gain, not solving problems – to gain a majority in Congress, to defeat an opponent, to make sure the opponent cannot celebrate any victories in legislation, etc. So it is not the news media that are creating the partisan climate.”
He said citizens naturally come to view major social problems as choices between Democrats and Republicans because that is how elite politicians want them to think.
“News media are accurately reflecting those agendas, but are perhaps falling short on including nonpartisan authorities, such as scientists, in the coverage,” he said.
Hindman’s study was published online this month by Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. The full text of the article, entitled “Knowledge Gaps, Belief Gaps, and Public Opinion about Health Care Reform,” is available online here.