The press is also responsible for the current political/ideological polarization

(This is an English version of the Portuguese original text)

The absolute majority of the press reports on the growing political and ideological polarization in Brazil and in the world as if the media were mere observers of the phenomenon. A more detailed analysis reveals, however, that newspapers, magazines, television news, and digital influencers are participants in the polarizing process by conditioning public opinion using as a guideline the agenda of politicians and government officials.

Illustration originally published in the blog Carlos Santos

This is because journalism plays a key role in the so-called perception gap, that is, the difference between what Side A believes Side B thinks and what Side B actually thinks. Perceptions mostly arise from information published in the press and the greater the perception gap, the more distorted is the way a person sees those who do not share the same worldview.

This is extremely worrying because it shows how the press is a participant and partially responsible for the process of political polarization underway in Brazil, the United States, and several other countries in the world. A survey (1) carried out jointly by two British institutes, More in Common and YouGov, found a three times greater tendency for the development of distorted opinions among daily readers of the same newspaper than among those who only occasionally access the news or consult more than one publication.

The extremist bubbles

The increase in radicalized perceptions is the result of two simultaneous processes that have become more intense lately: the tendency of readers to form information bubbles and the fact that the press continues to ignore the increasing complexity of the published facts and data. Bubbles form when people consume only newspapers, TV news, and social networking sites that share the same worldview. In most cases, it is a natural reaction to the uncertainties generated by the information cacophony of the internet.

In the case of bubbles formed by right-wing extremists, the main driver for the formation of political bunkers is the fear of the changes that technological innovation has been causing in people’s daily lives. Hence the appeal to the past as a way of reassuring themselves and giving their followers the expectation that nothing fundamental will change. The past has become a refuge for thousands of fearful and insecure people in the face of the failure of social democracy and socialist movements to respond to the economic and political dilemmas of contemporary society.

The logic of political polarization of “us” versus “them” has already become irreversible, despite the defeats suffered by right-wing extremists linked to former President Donald Trump in the United States, and the possible frustration of president Jair Bolsonaro followers in the October presidential elections. The North American case clearly indicates that the perception gap will continue to widen, as another result of the survey carried out by More in Common and YouGov shows.

Interviews with 2,100 Americans made it possible to identify that today 30% of Republican and Democrat voters showed extremist positions in relation to those who do not share the same political views. Worse still, they indicated that antagonism could contaminate 55% of US citizens eligible to vote in the 2024 presidential election when Donald Trump will try to return to power.

Here in Brazil, there is little doubt that radical Bolsonarism will not disappear, even if it is defeated at the polls, indicating that polarization is likely to continue. It is very possible that political pockets of the extreme right will emerge, especially in the south, southeast, and central west of the country, which should complicate the political debate and put the press in front of a huge dilemma.

Complex responsibility

There are two alternatives to this dilemma: to continue with the editorial strategy of lamenting polarization and operating only as an observer of the political/ideological conversation or to assume that the avalanche of information on the internet has enormously increased the complexity of the news and opened up the responsibility that journalism has in reducing the perception gap.

The press tends to treat issues that affect ordinary people as items on the politician’s agenda. A typical case of this trend is the debate over the legalization of abortion. The politicians’ agenda is structurally built around the transformation of the political debate into a dispute between two factions, those for and those against, where the most important thing is to know who wins and who loses. This simplification of the electoral debate ends up being passed on to the news-consuming public that incorporates into their daily lives the polarization created by the politician’s agenda.

For the press to stop being complicit in ideological polarization, it needs to decouple its news agenda from the concerns and strategies of politicians and candidates and focus it’s news agenda on what ordinary people think and want (2).

Taking the example of abortion, coverage concerned with reducing the perception gap would have to focus less on the parliamentary and legal battle around the approval or not of a project legalizing the termination of pregnancy, to focus more on what people feel about the issue. and how it affects your relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. Encouraging the diversification of opinions and experiences of ordinary people tends to reduce the impact of polarization, as shown in an article written by American journalist Celeste Katz Marston.

In addition to abandoning the polarizing agenda of politicians and parties, the press needs to set aside the rule of listening to both sides, because this procedure has become obsolete in the face of the growing complexity of the reported facts and events. Newspapers, magazines, TV news, and digital influencers, in order not to be dragged into the dead end of polarization and radicalization, will have to lead their respective audiences to reflect on how the world around us has become too complex to be reduced to an endless battle between “us” and them”. It is not an easy or quick change, but it is urgent because the risks created by information bubbles threaten the survival of democracy.

(1) Research cited in Political Coverage is Changing to Get Beyond ‘Us Versus Them’ (14/09/2022)

(2) More details on the issue of the citizen’s agenda in the Portuguese text: Cobertura Eleitoral ignora a agenda do cidadão comum” (Electoral coverage ignores the common citizen’s agenda)

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Carlos Castilho

Jornalista, pesquisador em jornalismo comunitário e professor. Brazilian journalist, post doctoral researcher, teacher and media critic