How balanced news increases polarization

The New York Times

A human quirk called “biased assimilation” can undo the most painstakingly balanced presentation of facts, Cass R. Sunstein writes:

When people get information that supports what they initially thought, they give it considerable weight. When they get information that undermines their initial beliefs, they tend to dismiss it.

One way forward? Present skeptics with someone they identify or agree with, or even better, a traitor (or as Sunstein would have it, "surprising validators").

[T]urncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

You can put Sunstein's theory into action right now. For instance, if you're politically conservative, do you see this blog post, which bounces off a piece by a former Obama administration official in The New York Times, a guy married to Samantha Power no less, as hopelessly compromised? If you're politically liberal, are you chagrined by Sunstein's tenure as the nation's top vetter of government regulations or do you wince, thinking about The Times' coverage of the runup to the Iraq War, when Sunstein writes, "A few years ago, for example, both liberals and conservatives were provided with correct and apparently credible information showing that the George W. Bush administration was wrong to think that Iraq had an active unconventional weapons program"?

Well, sorry, partisans. Sunstein doesn't cite any particular research, but recently the Pew Research Center for People & the Press noted that perceptions of economic news are greater than ever along partisan lines. "Epistemic closure" and "motivated reasoning" are other ways to describe this phenomenon.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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