An Experimental Investigation of News Source and the Hostile Media Effect

Article excerpt

This study examined the interaction among different news sources, individual levels of partisanship, and the hostile media effect in sports news. Two hundred and three participants read a balanced story about their home-town college football team in one of three newspapers: the home-town, the cross-state rival university's town, or a neutral-town paper. The study found differences in the hostile media effect across conditions, suggesting the importance of news source in the phenomenon. Further, findings indicate strong support for the hostile media effect among sports news consumers.

Audience perception of credibility is considered vital to success of a given news outlet. News consumers who consider news outlets more rather than less credible tend to rely on those media, and such reliance can lead to greater media exposure.1 However, American audience evaluations of reporter and news-outlet credibility have generally been less than favorable over the past few decades. A recent poll found that, although general perceptions of media credibility had improved during the past decade, almost half of those surveyed thought the American news media usually report inaccurately, while just over half said they thought members of the press were "moral."2

The American Society of Newspaper Editors responded to rapidly eroding public trust in the news media in 1982 with a study that began to address and define credibility as it pertained to perceptions of media outlets, particularly newspapers.3 More recent research shows, however, that a news outlet's ability to be perceived as credible may stem less from reporting efforts and more from issue involvement and cognitive processes of audience members.4 Specifically, news stories intended by reporters and considered by uninvolved parties to be neutral can be perceived as biased, and therefore lacking in credibility, by highly involved news consumers. The current study used the experimental method to integrate both perspectives-source characteristics and audience involvement-to further explain the hostile media effect.

Literature Review

The process by which some news consumers rate ostensibly neutral stories as biased against their point of view (and/or in favor of someone else's point of view) has been termed the hostile media effect.5 Studies of the hostile media effect (HME) are informed by two classic studies of biased assimilation of information, which have shown that people with opposing views can read identical pieces of inconclusive evidence regarding an issue, yet conclude that the evidence favors their own existing opinions. One study6 found that two groups, differing in support for capital punishment and reading the same scientific statements on the efficacy of the death penalty in deterring future crime, each felt the data confirmed their prior attitudes and beliefs. Additionally, participants tended to discount the source of evidence when it was contrary to their initial beliefs and more strongly approved of the source when the evidence supported their initial beliefs. Similarly, another early study found that rival football fans who viewed the same close, penalty-ridden game came to radically different conclusions about how many infractions were assessed for each team.7

The tendency to interpret information in a manner that supports one's existing attitudes and beliefs is well documented.8 Vallone, Ross, and Lepper explain how selective perception contributes to news processing and subsequent judgments of the news media:

Partisans who have consistently processed facts and arguments in light of their preconceptions and prejudices (accepting information at face value, or subjecting it to harsh scrutiny, as a function of its congruence with these preconceptions and prejudices) are bound to believe that the preponderance of reliable, pertinent evidence favors their viewpoint. Accordingly, to the extent that the small sample of evidence and argument featured in a media presentation seems unrepresentative of this larger "population" of information, perceivers will charge bias in the presentation and will be likely to infer hostility and bias on the part of those responsible for it. …