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What’s the Appeal of Angry, Polarized Media?

A new sociological study suggests watching or listening to shows that confirm our political prejudices help us feel like part of a community.
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As we embark on yet another political crisis, many Americans will be getting their information from sources with a strong ideological bias. While this is hardly a new phenomenon, the proliferation of cable networks and websites that refract the news through a left- (or right-) leaning lens has made it easier than ever to avoid opinions that differ with your own.

What, exactly, is the appeal of these programs, which are so often driven by real or faux outrage? Psychological research has generally pointed to our desire to avoid cognitive dissonance—that is, information that conflicts with our strongly held (and emotionally based) convictions. But in a recently published paper, a trio of Tufts University researchers led by sociologist Sarah Sobieraj provides an alternative analysis.

“The data suggests to us that outrage-based programming offers fans a satisfying political experience,” they write in the journal Poetics. “These venues offer flattering, reassuring environments that make audience members feel good. Fans experience them as safe havens from the tense exchanges that they associate with cross-cutting political talk they may encounter with neighbors, colleagues, and community members.”

Discussing politics with your colleagues or neighbors comes with the fear of saying something unacceptable, and subsequently being excluded from the next barbecue or water-cooler conversation.

In other words, being a part of, say, the community of Rush Limbaugh listeners—an identification talk-show hosts regularly attempt to instill in their fans—is a comforting social experience. It’s a way of feeling like part of a community that shares your values (or, perhaps, prejudices).

Sobieraj and her colleagues came to this conclusion after a two-pronged research project. They first analyzed the content of 10 “outrage-based radio and television programs” for six weeks during the summer of 2010, “to examine the techniques that the most successful hosts employ to connect with members of the audience.”

They then conducted in-depth interviews (ranging from 45 to 80 minutes) with fans of these shows. The programs in question included those hosted by conservatives Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, as well as liberals Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.

Their content analysis found many examples of hosts who “offer social connections by building a sense of intimacy.” With their informal, conversational style, these media-savvy men and women create “what feels distinctly like a one-on-one relationship between the individual fan and the host.

“Whereas political conversation generates fear of social exclusion, outrage-based programs incorporate and even include viewers and listeners,” the researchers report. “The host presents as a kindred spirit who ‘gets you’ even when other folks do not.”

Discussing politics with your colleagues or neighbors comes with the fear of saying something unacceptable, and subsequently being excluded from the next barbecue or water-cooler conversation. In contrast, “the comfort zones provided by the shows we studied present no such risk,” Sobieraj and her colleagues write. “In fact, they offer imagined and, in some cases, tangible social connections.”

But why is their pull apparently stronger among conservatives, who gravitate to such programming in much greater numbers than liberals? Based on their interviews, the researchers believe the answer lies in the fact those on the right have more to fear in terms of social condemnation for their views.

In conversation with conservatives, liberals risk being called naïve or willfully blind to potential threats—not very pleasant labels, but not especially damaging ones, either. In contrast, conservatives risk accusations of racism—and “being called a racist carries a particular cultural force,” the researchers write.

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans (we interviewed),” they report. Every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without even being asked.

“What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised,” the researchers add. “We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs, and may partially explain the overwhelming conservative dominance of outrage-based political talk media.”

Now, there are voluminous amounts of psychological research suggesting a link between social conservatism and racism—or at the very least, an intense distrust of outsiders, which often manifests itself in racial or ethnic terms (or homophobia). Social norms have shifted over the past couple of generations, making openly racist thoughts unacceptable. But there’s plenty of evidence these prejudices have merely retreated into the unconscious parts of people’s minds, where they still influence feelings and behaviors.

That said, this research strongly suggests that labeling people as racists for their political views is counterproductive. Even if there is some truth there, admitting as much would destroy their self-image as well as their social standing.

So that argument is a non-starter. All it does is drive people to the safe confines of friendly media, and help fuel the ongoing outrage machine.