American politics is polarized, and the media often takes a lot of the blame, for stoking partisanship and feeding people only the facts they want to hear. Last year, however, the field of economics conferred one of its highest honors on an economist who’s found that many of these claims are overblown.
The American Economics Association awarded its most recent John Bates Clark Medal, which honors the work of an economist under the age of 40, to Matthew Gentzkow, a Harvard-trained economist now on the faculty at the University of Chicago. As an article by economist Andrei Shleifer in the current issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives explains, Gentzkow is credited with almost single-handedly creating the sub-field of media economics.
In 2006, Gentzkow published the first in a series of papers that tried to explain why media outlets take on a partisan slant. He found that for newspapers, it’s less about trying to manipulate public opinion, and more about what is simply a good business strategy.
“Everything we can see is consistent with a world in which [newspapers] just care about profits,” Gentzkow says. “That means they’re going to slant the news to match the preferences of their readers.”
In this view, partisan differences among print and online media outlets are largely just a reflection of partisan differences among readers. Gentzkow’s research has also undermined another conventional idea about media consumption: that the Internet produces self-reinforcing echo chambers in which people only ever encounter news which supports their political views. In a paper published in 2011 with economist Jesse Shapiro of Brown University, Gentzkow looked at Internet data from 2009 and found that people of all political stripes tend to get their online news from the same small group of outlets — Yahoo, AOL, CNN. While the study did not assess whether readers of different political persuasions looked at different kinds of articles on those sites, Gentzkow says that the fact that so many people get so much of their news from the same mainstream sites “kind of bounds how much people could be in echo chambers.”
Overall, Gentzkow’s research suggests that our current media environment is less debilitating than we tend to think. “People see this kind of media effect everywhere they look,” he says. In fact, he adds, “It’s not the case that newspapers are pushing people’s views around and it’s not the case the Internet is having a huge effect.”
The one exception to this is cable news. Other economists have found persuasive evidence that outlets like Fox News and MSNBC are effective at changing people’s political views. Gentzkow says it’s unclear why partisan television stations have an effect so much greater than partisan newspapers or partisan websites. “That remains one of the most surprising facts in this line of research,” he says. “It would be a great thing for someone to sort out.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.