Strategy news is good news: How journalistic coverage of politics reduces affective polarization

Alon Zoizner, Shaul R. Shenhav, Yair Fogel-Dror, Tamir Sheafer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


What role does news content play in explaining inter-party hostility? We argue that affective polarization is influenced by exposure to one of the most dominant ways to cover politics: strategy or horserace coverage. Previous studies have pointed to the negative consequences of covering politicians’ strategies—such as increasing political cynicism and eroding citizens’ political knowledge. Without underestimating strategy coverage’s problematic implications, we posit that exposure to it is expected to decrease out-party hostility and ease affective polarization.
The reason for this expectation is rather straightforward: strategy coverage highlights the similarities, not the differences, between opposing parties. It stresses both parties’ commonalities, which are depicted as driven by the same strategic electoral motivations rather by rival ideological positions. Therefore, partisans will perceive rival parties as more similar to each other, which is expected to result in less inter-group hostility.
To test this question, we used two complementary research designs: (1) a cross-sectional analysis that combines survey data with computational content analysis of all the articles to which respondents were exposed by their primary news sources throughout the 2016 US presidential campaign (415,604 articles from 157 outlets) and (2) a survey experiment that compares the effects of strategy- and substance-based articles during a non-election period.
We find evidence that exposure to strategy coverage decreases out-group hostility. Our findings, therefore, emphasize the potential implications of strategy coverage for the democratic process. On the one hand, it is widely expected that journalists will focus more on issues and policies rather than on strategies as this enables voters to make rational political decisions. On the other hand, it is precisely the emphasis on political strategies that attenuates partisan hostility, thus potentially benefitting democracies. Therefore, instead of continuing to make the common criticism of journalists’ tendency to focus on political strategies, we suggest that journalists should find the right balance between strategy and issue coverage since both have social and political benefits.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe 15th ECPR General Conference
PublisherEuropean Consortium for Political Research (ECPR)
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


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