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Partisan Media Consumption Tied to Election Legitimacy Perception

December 6, 2021 by Reece Nations
Partisan Media Consumption Tied to Election Legitimacy Perception

SAN ANTONIO — Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder found viewers’ consumption of Fox News was connected to lowered perceptions of election legitimacy while consumption of other outlets led to higher perceptions of election legitimacy.

The study, published on Friday in the journal PLOS ONE, was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election when Fox News coverage focused sharply on former President Donald Trump’s unfounded assertions that election fraud was prevalent and led to his defeat at the hands of President Joe Biden. The experiment ran from the first to the second week following Election Day and found election legitimacy perception increased among Democrats and decreased among Republicans.

The researchers studied whether cognitive dissonance played a role in the public’s perception of election legitimacy and contributed to a decline in the phenomenon known as “loser’s consent,” whereby the supporters of the losing candidate of an election accept the outcome as legitimate. The lack of loser’s consent lends itself to widespread questioning of election legitimacy and inhibits the healthy functioning of democracies.

After calculating their findings, the researchers concluded that the increase in Democrats’ perception of election legitimacy was larger in magnitude than the decrease in Republicans’ perception of election legitimacy. Similarly, Democrats and Republicans were polarized in their trust and consumption of media outlets in general.

“Indeed, political scientists have examined the phenomenon whereby partisans from the losing party perceive elections as less legitimate than partisans from the winning party,” authors Marrissa Grant, Alexandra Flores, Eric Pedersen, David Sherman and Leaf Van Boven wrote in their analysis of the study’s findings. “Although political scientists have linked polarized perceptions of election legitimacy to theories such as cognitive dissonance theory, the methods tend to confound before versus after voting with before versus after results become known because those two factors are closely intertwined in most elections.”

Trump’s contentions with the election results stemmed from the collection of mail-in and absentee ballots sent out in many states due to COVID-19 pandemic safety precautions. Trump and his campaign mounted subsequent legal challenges to the election results, the majority of which were filed in pivotal battleground states won by Biden.

In the study, the researchers contend that perceptions of the election by both Democrats and Republicans were likely influenced by partisan media coverage. Because the media outlets provided the reactions of fellow Democrats and Republicans and provided rationalizing information consistent with dissonance reducing claims about the election, the researchers deduced that the partisan nature of the outlets served only to further polarize beliefs surrounding the election.

The researchers conducted their experiment by measuring the participants’ trust and consumption of media by asking them about their outlook of 15 media outlets: Fox News, ABC News, AOL News, CBS News, CNN, Huffington Post, MSNBC, NBC News, NPR, The New York Times, PBS, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo News. The researchers decided to exclude a broader assortment of conservative media outlets — like One America News Network, Newsmax and Breitbart News Network — because they lacked full-text databases.

They then asked the participants how much they trusted the accuracy of reporting of each outlet on a numeric scale from one to five. For each participant, the researchers computed the average correlation between trust and consumption ratings for each of the media outlets.

This observed increase in polarized views not only suggests a weakening in public trust in the country’s democratic process but also can lead to a variety of unintended consequences stoked by one-sided media coverage. In November, an ongoing research project by the Kaiser Family Foundation published findings that viewers’ trust in news sources correlated with their belief in COVID-19 misinformation, leading to a rise in mistrust among Republicans of official findings related to the pandemic.

Polling data collected by the KFF found that Republicans are the largest demographic group of unvaccinated individuals in the United States, and members of the party are more likely to hold conspiratorial views of the pandemic than their already-vaccinated or Democratic counterparts. Further, partisan affiliation was found to play an outsized role in initial vaccination uptake as well as one’s intention to get a booster dose, according to the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.

“Previous research in political science demonstrates that the tendency for winners to perceive elections as more legitimate than losers increases from before to after elections, consistent with predictions derived from cognitive dissonance theory,” the authors wrote. “However, those studies necessarily confound whether people have learned the election outcome with the possibility of voting in the election, leading to theoretical imprecision in what drives polarized perceptions of election legitimacy.” 

Reece can be reached at reece@thewellnews.com

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