When the shootings in Arizona occurred, various pundits in the media jumped on 'right ring radio' and 'culture of hate' (meaning conservative news programs) despite the fact that the shooter was not political and did not even watch shows like Fox News.
If your prism is left, you tend to view even the center as the right, so mainstream media can be somewhat forgiven for demonizing all qualities they dislike as being right wing (it happens in science also - various scientists and bloggers have no idea there are left wing anti-science positions but can recite entire volumes of anti-science right wing issues) but is it really the case that the right is 'meaner' than the left?
They're both pretty mean, say social scientists at Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences, but they say that while 'outrage' talk is endemic among commentators of all political stripes, it is more prevalent on the political right, and is overall more prevalent than it was even during the the war in Viet Nam and the Watergate scandal.
Now, first you have to calibrate social science a little. There is no objective measure of 'outrage talk' in the science sense readers here will accept as valid, so instead Tufts Assistant Professor of Sociology Sarah Sobieraj and Professor of Political Science Jeffrey Berry basically watched TV, listened to the radio and read political sites (take that for what you will, since their bias is unclear) for what they call 'outrage talk' in leading talk radio and cable news analysis programs, political blogs and newspaper columns.
The term 'outrage talk' refers to a form of political discourse involving efforts to provoke visceral responses, such as anger, righteousness, fear or moral indignation, through the use of over-generalizations, sensationalism, misleading information, ad hominem attacks and partial truths about opponents. If you are left wing, think Michael Savage. If you are right wing, think Keith Olbermann.
Their examination of both ideologically conservative and liberal content revealed that outrage talk, often infused with hateful terminology and imagery, is pervasive, not just an occasional emotional eruption. During a 10-week period in the spring of 2009, four researchers reviewed evening cable TV, national radio talk shows, ideological political blogs and mainstream newspaper columns for 13 variables, such as insulting language, name calling and mis-representative exaggeration. Researchers also judged overall tone of each sample and proportion of outrage language.
Almost 9 out of 10 cases sampled, or 89.6 percent, contained at least one outrage incident. One hundred percent of TV episodes and 98.8 percent of talk radio programs contained outrage incidents, while 82.8 percent of blog posts incorporated outrage writing. In some cases, outrage speech or behavior occurred at a rate of more than one instance per minute.
Who's Meaner: Progressives or Conservatives?
When it comes to inflammatory language, was one side really worse than the other during that 10-week period? Yes, they claim: "Our data indicate that the right uses decidedly more outrage speech than the left. Taken as a whole, liberal content is quite nasty in character, following the outrage model of emotional, dramatic and judgment-laden speech. Conservatives, however, are even nastier."
Their analysis of media during that 10-week period found them seeing the political right engaging in an average of 15.57 outrage acts per case, while the left engaged in 10.32 acts per case. However, as Sobieraj and Berry noted, although the left and right do not use outrage equally, they use it in ways that are remarkably similar.
"Whether it's MSNBC's Keith Olbermann spitting out his coffee because of some conservative transgression or radio host Michael Savage venomously impugning the character of immigrants, cable television, talk radio and blogs overflow with outrage rhetoric, and even mainstream newspaper columns are not above the fray," they said.
It isn't just television and radio. They found outrage language is now common among the nation's leading newspaper columnists also. But is it different now, or do older people in journalism and the population simply romanticize the past? Sobieraj and Berry studied 10 widely syndicated columnists during 10-week periods in both 1955 and 1975. They chose these dates to see if the tumultuous period of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests and the Watergate scandal led to greater outrage in newspapers at that time. They found the answer was no.
"Outrage is virtually absent from both the 1955 and the 1975 columns, in contrast to the columns of 2009 which contain, on average, nearly six instances of outrage per column," said the Tufts scholars. "The titans of American journalism in 1955 and 1975 remained restrained in their language despite the impassioned politics of protest."
Interestingly, this calmer period in journalism had a swing toward both right and left in that time. Journalism in the mainstream media was primarily right until the mid-1960s and then swung to the left yet the outrage talk remained low, likely due to the consistency of editorial policy which helped level out the personal commentary.
The researchers blame today's model of outrage-oriented political commentary on content providers facing an incredibly competitive environment who are desperate to attract audience members and advertisers. If Rush Limbaugh is successful, it must be because of 'outrage', product planners insist, so they hire people of both sides to be more outrageous.
Citation: Sarah Sobieraj, Jeffrey M. Berry, 'From Incivility to Outrage: Political Discourse in Blogs, Talk Radio, and Cable News ', Political Communication, Volume 28, Issue 1 January 2011 , pages 19 - 41 DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2010.542360
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