Hostile Media Effect

us media bias

The hostile media effect refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality.

Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue rate the same coverage as biased against their side and biased in favor of the opposing side. The phenomenon was first proposed and studied experimentally by Robert Vallone, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper.

In the first major study of this phenomenon, pro-Palestinian students and pro-Israeli students at Stanford University were shown the same news filmstrips pertaining to the then-recent (1982) Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Lebanese militia fighters in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. On a number of objective measures, both sides found that these identical news clips were slanted in favor of the other side. Pro-Israeli students reported seeing more anti-Israel references and fewer favorable references to Israel in the news report and pro-Palestinian students reported seeing more anti-Palestinian references, and so on. Both sides said a neutral observer would have a more negative view of their side from viewing the clips, and that the media would have excused the other side where it blamed their side.

It is important to note that the two sides were not asked for subjective generalizations about the media coverage as a whole, such as what might be expressed as ‘I thought that the news has been generally biased against this side of the issue.’ Instead, when viewing identical news clips, subjects differed along partisan lines on simple, objective criteria such as the number of references to a given subject. The research suggests the hostile media effect is not just a difference of opinion but a difference of perception (selective perception).

Studies have also found hostile media effects related to other political conflicts, such as strife in Bosnia, and in U.S. presidential elections. This effect is interesting to psychologists because it appears to be a reversal of the otherwise pervasive effects of confirmation bias: in this area, people seem to pay more attention to information that contradicts rather than supports their existing views. This is an example of disconfirmation bias.

An oft-cited forerunner to Vallone’s et al. study was conducted by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril in 1954. Princeton and Dartmouth students were shown a filmstrip of a controversial Princeton-Dartmouth football game. Asked to count the number of infractions committed by both sides, students at both universities ‘saw’ many more infractions committed by the opposing side, in addition to making different generalizations about the game. Hastorf and Cantril concluded that ‘there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ … For the ‘thing’ simply is not the same for different people whether the ‘thing’ is a football game, a presidential candidate, Communism, or spinach.’

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