Hostile Media Perception

An Overview of Current Research

Religion and politics — it is often said that these are the two things one should never discuss in public. Variants of this advice have been quoted since the mid-1800s; an especially popular version was voiced by Linus, the Peanuts cartoon character, who famously said “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people…religion politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

The reason, presumably, is that these discussions usually result in heated arguments because the topics are especially contentious. People have diverse and strongly held opinions and beliefs, particularly about religion, and their differences have led to conflict in many forms.
Our interest in this project is particularly focused on the intersection of religion and science. Many people have strong feelings about the compatibility of these two institutions. Can science explain away religion? Are these two essentially complementary ways of understanding life and our universe? Are there important questions that only religion can answer?

Despite injunctions to avoid the topic of religion, there is a sea of information and opinion about the science-and-religion debate across a wide range of sources, from academic publications to news sources to Internet websites authored by everyday people. This abundance gives interested and engaged people a wide array of views to consider but it also raises a question about just how receptive people are when they already hold a particular point of view.

It has been noted that people with strong prior beliefs and attitudes tend to determine how to interpret the meaning of the message based on own beliefs and attitudes. For example, when balanced news coverage on a controversial issue, such as disputes about the proper role of religion and science in everyday life, is given to strong partisans on either side of the fence, they view that news coverage through their own perceptual filter and judge the story to be biased in favor of the rival point of view. Nonpartisans, on the other hand, would consider the same content as more neutral. The hostile media perception refers to this perceptual bias in which partisans – people highly involved with an issue or a group – tend to see the identical media coverage of that issue or group as slanted against their own position.

This hostile media perception is a phenomenon familiar to journalists – reporters and editors – since the infancy of mass media. What follows here is a general summary of empirical research, dating back to the mid-1980s, that has explored this perceptual bias and sought to understand its causes and consequences.

An important central aspect of hostile media perception is that it emphasizes audience’s active interpretation of a media message. This ‘active audience’ paradigm suggests that mass media do not have direct, uniform effects on an audience as early media effect studies assumed; instead, audiences reconstruct media messages in light of their own values and predispositions. Most hostile media perception studies assume that partisans are active audience members who are highly involved in the issue and motivated to process the message.

A seminal study by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper

The first scholarly attempt was made by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper (1985) in the context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Middle East. The study conducted a simple experiment in which a selection of network news coverage of the Beirut massacre – the slaughter of mostly Palestinians by a Lebanese Christian militia group- that raises questions of Israeli responsibility in its aftermath were shown to undergraduate students. Students who described themselves as pro-Israeli saw the news as biased against Israel whereas pro-Arab students evaluated the same news as biased in favor of Israel. Also, students with stronger attitude on the issue also perceived that the media report had more negative references to their sides and each expected that the coverage would sway nonpartisans in a hostile direction, whereas neutral students perceived it as relatively balanced.

Partisans see the same news as biased against their own opinion. This tendency gets stronger among more knowledgeable partisans. (From Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985)

Subsequent studies have found similar hostile media perception using both experimental and survey methods across various topics, including justification of primate research, genetic modification of food, religious conflict, contentious politics and election campaigns, and global warming.

Predictors of hostile media perception

Research has tried to develop a theoretical explanations for hostile media perceptions. A number of predictors, such as partisan involvement, message processing mechanisms, and traits of news media are related to hostile media perceptions.

Partisan Involvement

Early studies mostly focused on partisan involvement as a main predictor of the hostile media perception. As described above, Vallone and his colleagues found hostile media perceptions among the students with strong attitude either toward Israel or Palestine and the effect was more pronounced among the more knowledgeable students (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985). Later, Perloff (1989) replicated Vallone et al.’s (1985) seminal study and confirmed that partisans on both sides believed that neutral viewers would primarily recall facts that cast their side as the aggressor and their enemies as the victim and subsequently be influenced against their own position.


Protests often related with group identity

Gunther (1992) similarly found that, among a number of other factors, an individual’s own group identification is the strongest predictor of hostile media perceptions. If a person identified with a particular group, the person was significantly more likely to say the media gave unfavorable coverage to that group. This effect is stronger than the effects of other media attributes and participant’s demographic traits. Later on, Gunther, Miller, Liebhart (2009) showed that the effect of group identification on hostile media perception appeared to be stronger than that of attitude extremity. In sum, people’s strong attitude toward a conflicting issue or strong group identity cause people to project their own interpretations of news coverage onto neutral individuals and thus overestimate the ‘undesirable’ impact that media coverage exert on others.

The members of Native American group (who are more involved in the issue) see news less favorably than non-members of the issue, especially when they read news from friendly source (From Gunther, Miller, and Liebhart, 2009)

Message processing mechanisms

Scholars also suggested more detailed psychological mechanisms that might occur when partisans process media messages with their own bias. First, selective recall explains that partisans tend to recall unfavorable information more easily and therefore they are likely to perceive the media content as biased against their opinion. So, they perceive media coverage as more hostile – unfavorable to their own position. Second, selective categorization suggests that opposing partisans tend to interpret the same information differently even when they recall the same information. In other words, strong partisans have a heightened tendency to interpret messages or aspects of a message as unfavorable, whereas non partisans take them as unbiased. This process is related to social judgment theory, which argues that stronger attitudes of partisans are related to their wider latitude of message rejection. The third mechanism, often-called different standards or motivated reasoning, relates to another evaluation bias. Scholars suggest that even when opposing partisans agree on the content and valence of a media coverage, they often consider only favorable information as valid whereas they see unfavorable information as invalid or irrelevant and therefore that it should be excluded. Because that invalid information is included, they see the overall content as biased when they make a judgment.

Source heuristics

Some researchers have pointed out that the hostile media perception could be stimulated by message context, such as perceived reach and media credibility, as much as by message contents. When people make judgments, they sometimes draw a conclusion based on heuristics. Gunther and Schmitt (2004) argue that hostile media perception can be found when information sources are perceived to be capable of exerting a broad influence on public opinion. They compared partisan evaluations of a newspaper article and a student essay (with identical contents) and found that only the newspaper article produced hostile media perception. The student essay failed to induce hostile media perceptions and, on some measures, partisans saw the essay as favorable, rather than hostile, to their own point of view. Gunther and Liebhart (2006) also showed that a national newspaper generates stronger hostile media perception than a regional paper. Based on these findings, they conclude that the broader reach and unfavorable influence of a media message trigger defensive processing and thus a hostile media perception.

As perceived media reach increases, hostile media perception gets stronger (From Gunther and Liebhart, 2006)

Giner-Sorolla & Chaikan showed another case in which hostile media perception may be generated by heuristics. Their study showed that hostile media perception also could be influenced by prior beliefs in a general media bias. That is, people who believe media are biased in general are more likely to experience hostile media perception. This judgmental heuristic is distinct, unrelated with perceptual bias such as selective recall or selective categorization processes.

Consequences of hostile media perception

Another important set of questions is how the hostile media perception may affect downstream elements of public discourse. There is some evidence, for example, that the perception of undesirable media content can lead people to perceive public opinion in a biased way. For example, strong partisans who believe ‘hostile’ media coverage will affect public opinion against their own opinion may perceive opinion climate as less favorable than it actually is. This, in turn, may lead to increased perceptions of polarization and a stronger sense of alienation, which might be harmful to robust public discussion and other essential democratic process.
Also, the hostile media perception may erode the credibility of responsible, professional journalism. Since strong partisans from opposing sides tend to perceive news as unfavorably slanted, it is impossible for journalists to produce news coverage that will appear unbiased or ‘balanced’ on controversial issue. When this happens for extended period, journalistic institutions’ credibility may be harmed.