Why perceived political bias on TV does not inevitably lead to a polarized audience. The case of NRK and TV2 in Norway

Anders Todal Jenssen 1  and Toril Aalberg 2
  • 1 Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
  • 2 Toril Aalberg, Department of Sociology and Political Science, Trondheim, Norway
Anders Todal Jenssen
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  • Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
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and Toril Aalberg
  • Toril Aalberg, Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
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This paper investigates whether political polarization of the TV audience is emerging also in a typical democratic corporatist system. The study is motivated by the claim put forward by several US scholars, who argue that in today’s high choice information environments, partisans tend to see mainstream media as ‘hostile’ and therefore seek out and select broadcasters who confirm and deepen their worldview (Arceneaux and Johnson, 2013; Iyengar and Hahn, 2009; Tewksbury and Riles, 2015). This demand, they argue, expands the market for partisan TV and contributes to growing political polarization. We ask if there is evidence of a politically polarized Norwegian TV audience, by exploring the relationship between partisan preferences, perceived political bias and selective exposure to TV news. We find that many Norwegians believe that both the public broadcaster and the leading commercial broadcasters are politically biased. Consistent with the “hostile media hypothesis”, people on the right accuse the broadcasters of favoring the parties on the left, whereas people of the left tend to see the broadcasters as favoring the parties on the right, albeit not to the same degree. By using a survey experiment, our study also demonstrates that given the opportunity, the audience does select news stories consistent with their political beliefs from a politically ‘friendly’ broadcaster. However, they also choose news stories consistent with their political beliefs from a perceived hostile news source over politically inconsistent stories from a friendly source. This suggests that ‘friendly’ content triumphs perception of broadcaster bias. Despite widespread perceptions of partisan favoritism in the Norwegian TV market, we find few traces of a politically polarized audience. The main reason for this is that the public broadcaster still draws a wide audience across the political spectrum, as even critics consider this news source as too important and relevant to be ignored.

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