Tuning in to politics

Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud (Ph.D., Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 2006) is an assistant professor of communication studies and assistant director of the College of Communication's Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. She teaches courses in public opinion, media effects and politics and quantitative research methods. Her recent book, "Niche News: The Politics of News Choice" (Oxford University Press, 2011) explores the causes, consequences and prevalence of partisan selective exposure, the preference for like-minded political information.

Natalie Stroud
Stroud's research on media choice and political behavior has earned several awards, including the K. Kyoon Hur Award from the International Communication Association.Photo: Marsha Miller

Last Tuesday afternoon, presidential candidate Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, clearing the way for Mitt Romney to grab the Republican nomination. This makes it all but official: general election season is upon us.

If prior research is any guide, the approaching presidential election will serve an important function: bringing people back into the fold of politics, the news and partisanship.

Although some of this is decidedly good news, we should be mindful of the potential pitfalls and what we might do as we get closer to Election Day.

First, some good news. As the presidential election draws near, attention to politics surges. Citizens spend more time with the news. Major campaign events, such as the debates, attract significant audiences and allow the American public to see the candidates for the highest office side-by-side. Politics permeates the air and even those with little interest can encounter political conversations, ads and media coverage.

Even non-political media outlets contribute to the buzz. Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight, for example, interviewed Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama during the 2008 campaign season. Research confirms that one effect of presidential elections is to put politics squarely atop our national agenda.

The 2012 election season is promising to be one of the most unpredictable cycles in recent history.

In the Elections 2012 coverage on Know, experts from across The University of Texas at Austin weigh in on the politics and the issues, from the economy, the environment and demographics to immigration, energy, social change and more.

Visit a complete list of elections experts at the university.

In addition to focusing public attention on politics, the general election also leads citizens back to their partisan homes. Republicans and Democrats are constantly reminded of partisanship by a barrage of news coverage telling the campaign story by pitting one party against the other.

This return to partisanship manifests itself in our media consumption patterns. If prior presidential elections are any guide, not only does exposure to news and politics increase over the course of the general election campaign, attention to partisan news also sees a spike.

In previous research, I found that over the course of a general election, citizens' media diets changed. Republicans increasingly turned to Fox News and Democrats increasingly turned to CNN and MSNBC. Seeing the political world via the lens of partisanship isn't necessarily good news, however.

Although the use of partisan news can motivate political participation, I have found that it also can lead to polarized political attitudes about the candidates and fragmented opinions about important political issues. These are potential pitfalls.

As citizens are energized by the impending presidential election, how can we also be mindful of the potential consequences of focusing on a preferred partisan perspective?

The quick solution is a pledge to seek out diverse political viewpoints. Exposure to another view, however, is not enough.

How we engage with other views matters. Numerous studies confirm that we're willing to give our partisan side the benefit of the doubt. Yet we're quick to jump to less charitable interpretations of the other side's words and actions.

Engagement with other views, therefore, requires citizens to keep their partisan habits of reasoning in check a considerable challenge. As the 2012 election approaches, therefore, caution is warranted in falling into the pattern of thinking one side has a monopoly on truth, good intentions and reason.

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