It's not just the presidential race that makes it seem like there are only two viewpoints—liberal and conservative—in America. Newspaper coverage of issues such as abortion, gun control, gay rights, and economic issues have become increasingly polarized, according to a new analysis by researchers at Ohio State University.
Interest groups that identify as either liberal or conservative are more likely to be covered by newspapers than groups that identify as bipartisan or moderate, according to the analysis, which looked at more than 4,300 newspaper articles in 118 newspapers. Michael McCluskey, author of the study, says that a newspaper's desire to get "both sides of the story" leads journalists to interview people who clearly fall along partisan lines.
"I can remember my days as a journalist and hearing an editor saying about my story 'I don't see two clear sides,'" he says. "Well, I think there's a tendency to try to keep the sides as crystal clear as possible. If you think of it like that, there's conflict, and if there's very clear conflict, they think it's more newsworthy."
The study found that groups who were self-identified as either conservative or liberal were, on average, featured on more prominent pages of newspapers and were mentioned earlier in articles than moderate groups. McCluskey says the trend may be influenced by the fact that politics itself seems to be getting more polarized, but more likely it's a sort of "spiraling effect," where both trends push each other.
A study by the PEW Research Center released earlier this year found that about a quarter of people prefer to get news from sources that share their particular point of view. Newspapers, cable news channels, and blogs may be beginning to cater to readers who want news with a particular slant, McCluskey says.
"That traditional mass audience is going away to some degree," he says. "Instead of aiming for as large an audience as possible, news [organizations] are trying to find a segment of that audience. We're heading towards that traditional partisan press we had in the revolutionary times."
The recent party conventions may suggest that people are more likely to tune into cable news stations that share their political ideologies. Fox News, which is generally favored by conservatives, won the ratings battle during the Republican convention, but lost during the Democratic convention to MSNBC, which is generally favored by liberals.
With the Internet, readers have the chance to get their news from a seemingly endless supply of blogs and news sites, but that doesn't mean they're any more likely to find ones that cater to the middle, McCluskey says.
"Ironically, I'd say newspapers are probably the closest to providing balanced viewpoints … online, you're going to find more ideologically-targeted news sources," he says. "Having broad-based news sources that are extremely balanced would be ideal. But I'm not sure we're going to see that era again."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org