We talk a lot about polarization of free media in the U.S. and around the world. In doing so, we mostly focus on how we consume news — for example, through preferential viewing of cable channels or echo chambers in social media. This is a valuable perspective because it allows us to measure media polarization quite well. However, limiting the discussion to news consumption robs us of a sense of agency. To get an idea of how we may counteract polarization in the news media, we should ask: how does editorial policy contribute to this alarming trend?
Editorial policy is a set of guidelines by which a news media company operates. Explicit or implicit, these rules help editors decide what material to prioritize, how to frame it, and in what proportion to display the different kinds of content. Functionally, editorial policy is what distinguishes the right-leaning Fox News from the left-leaning MSNBC.
On the issue of media polarization, editorial policy is especially important — from a utilitarian perspective, more so than audience preferences. Admittedly, production and consumption of news media can comprise a positive-feedback loop, where audience preference for biased coverage pushes editors farther to the left or to the right. However, unlike audience reactions, editorial guidelines are actionable. Therefore, to proactively break the vicious cycle of increasing bias in the media, we must start with how we produce news, not how we consume it.
To be fair, people talk about editorial policy as part of the issue with media polarization, a little bit. In the 136-page report on digital news trends by the Reuters Institute from 2017, you can spot a relevant paragraph from Melissa Bell, a publisher and a co-founder of Vox Media. In her opinion piece, “We broke the news media, how can we fix them?”, Melissa wrote:
“… the media once had a monopoly on information and the means to distribute it, but that made us a bit too comfortable, sinking us into a sanctimonious belief that we were the truth holders instead of truth seekers. We used ‘editorial judgement’ as a code for ‘what we think is important and think you should know’. Particularly in the US, this notion of objectivity allowed Roger Ailes to stroll right in and tell half the US audiences that his Fox News network would offer up ‘fair and balanced’ news, setting off a battle between news organisations over who had the more accurate facts.”
Summary: in broad strokes, editorial policy contributes to media polarization in two ways. First, by reinforcing the role of its outlet as a truth-holder rather than a truth-seeker; and second, by framing the market competition as a zero-sum game over the right to tell the truth.
It is possible to quantify these general mechanisms, using the results as proxies for media polarization. And unlike the results of studies on media consumption, these findings can also help us understand what we need to do to mitigate media polarization. As an example, consider two features of editorial policy: the distribution of airtime over different types of content, and the TV format of news reporting and commentary.
Distribution of Airtime
A special study from the 2013 Pew Research Center report on the news media found that “overall, commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%).” The same study also found that the programming structure between three major cable news channels — Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC — had become much more similar between 2007 and 2012. In 2007, MSNBC spent a lot more time on interviews that its competitors, whereas CNN devoted more airtime to edited packages. Over the course of the next 5 years, the distributions of airtime of the three companies have converged.
Considering the dichotomy of truth-holding vs. truth-seeking, you would expect the prevalence of commentary and opinion over direct news reporting. Similarly, the zero-sum game paradigm can explain the convergence of airtime distributions across the three channels. Think of a contrapositive: viewing different styles of reporting as complementary ways of truth-seeking allows for greater variations in programming structure.
Of course, a three-day analysis of a few cable news channels is insufficient. To draw reliable conclusions, a long-term study of airtime distributions is necessary. Unfortunately, Pew Research Center has not repeated the 2013 special study in the following years. Given that the data necessary for the study is easily obtainable, it does not seem like editorial policy has been a major focus of research on news media.
TV Format of News Delivery
Last spring, Vox published a video piece on the TV format of CNN news, describing the role the channel had played in “mainstreaming and normalizing” Donald J. Trump’s political message. The video claimed that CNN “treats politics like a sport”, highlighting the similarities between its news reporting and sports programming on ESPN. Vox argued that employing the politics-as-sport format lead CNN to hire pundits like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany. It concluded that “in many cases, CNN’s Trump supporters repeat the same lies and talking points that CNN’s serious journalists spend all day trying to debunk.” In other words, the TV format of news reporting, dictated by editorial guidelines, diminishes the journalists’ role of truth-seeking.
It isn’t just CNN, however: other channels’ editorial policies can also be at odds with the objective of truth-seeking. Consider the inconsistencies in reporting on the Uranium One scandal between Shepard Smith and Sean Hannity on Fox News. The channel has eschewed addressing the issue by claiming Hannity is an “opinion host”, not a journalist, yet the format of Hannity’s show is very much that of a news segment.
This observation invites a question: can changes in TV formats of news reporting and commentary explain media polarization? If this observable holds up under scrutiny, it offers an explanation that is not only viable but is also actionable. By changing TV formatting, we may be able to mitigate media polarization.
In summary, the impact of editorial policy on media polarization is significant, measurable, and relatively underappreciated. Moreover, the results of studying news production are more actionable than those of studying news consumption. If democratic backsliding is really happening in the U.S. and if media polarization has a big role to play in this alarming trend, then actionability is an important criterion in assessing future studies on media polarization, theoretical and empirical.