Communication Hostile Media Effect
by
Lauren Feldman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0079

Introduction

The hostile media effect occurs when supporters or opponents of an issue perceive identical, balanced news coverage of that issue to be biased against their own side. Nonpartisans, on the other hand, would view this same content to be relatively unbiased. The hostile media effect exemplifies notions of the active media audience, in demonstrating that audiences do not passively receive media content but, rather, selectively interpret it in light of their own values and predispositions. Despite journalists’ best intentions to report news in a fair and objective way, partisans are motivated to see neutral content as harboring a hostile bias. The hostile media effect, also referred to in the literature as the “hostile media perception” and the “hostile media phenomenon,” was first empirically confirmed by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper in 1985 (see Vallone, et al. 1985, cited under Primary Texts) in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Subsequent studies, using both experimental and survey methods, have documented hostile media perceptions in a variety of domains, including primate research, genetic modification of food, physician-assisted suicide, election campaigns, global warming, and a UPS strike, among others. Much of this research has focused on identifying the conditions under which hostile media perceptions occur and the psychological mechanisms that explain these perceptions. More recently, scholars have begun to examine the attitudinal and behavioral consequences of hostile media perceptions, demonstrating that the hostile media effect has implications for perceived public opinion, news consumption patterns, attitudes toward democratic institutions, and political discourse and participation.

Primary Texts

Although Vallone, et al. 1985 was the first text to reliably demonstrate the hostile media phenomenon, the classic case study “They Saw a Game” (Hastorf and Cantril 1954) provided an important predecessor, showing that fans of opposing football teams can come away with dramatically different interpretations of the same game. Perloff 1989 and Giner-Sorolla and Chaiken 1994 offer early replications of the findings in Vallone, et al.1985, focusing attention on explanations for the hostile media effect. Each of these studies is extremely useful for understanding the origins of research on the hostile media effect.

  • Giner-Sorolla, Roger, and Shelly Chaiken. 1994. The causes of hostile media judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 30.2 (March): 165–180.

    DOI: 10.1006/jesp.1994.1008E-mail Citation »

    This study examines hostile media perceptions in response to news coverage both of the Middle East conflict and abortion. Unlike in earlier studies of the hostile media effect, in which the researchers recruited participants from partisan student groups, here students were recruited from university classes. Although hostile perceptions were found to be weaker for the abortion issue than for the Middle East issue, this study provides an important replication of the hostile media effect among less extreme partisans. Available online for purchase.

  • Hastorf, Albert H., and Hadley Cantril. 1954. They saw a game: A case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49.1 (January): 129–134.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0057880E-mail Citation »

    Although not a test of the hostile media effect per se, this classic study was one of the first to demonstrate that partisans engage in selective perception. The study finds that Dartmouth and Princeton students perceived stark differences in a football game played between the two schools’ teams. The authors conclude that people’s partisan attachments provide unconscious filters through which they interpret events. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Perloff, Richard M. 1989. Ego-involvement and the third person effect of televised news coverage. Communication Research 16.2 (April): 236–262.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365089016002004E-mail Citation »

    This study provided the first replication of Vallone, Ross, and Lepper’s original investigation of the hostile media effect (Vallone, et al. 1985) and, like that earlier study, focuses on news about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Findings confirm hostile media perceptions among partisans and also demonstrate that partisans both attribute hostile coverage to journalists’ bias against their respective groups and, consistent with the third-person effect, believe that hostile coverage is capable of persuading neutral audiences. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Vallone, Robert, Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. 1985. The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49.3 (September): 577–585.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.49.3.577E-mail Citation »

    This is the seminal study on the topic. An undergraduate sample was shown a selection of US network-news coverage detailing the events leading up to a 1982 massacre of Palestinians by a Lebanese militia group, and the questions of Israeli responsibility in its aftermath were discussed. Students who characterized themselves as pro-Israeli saw the news as biased against Israel, whereas pro-Arab students saw it as biased in favor of Israel. Neutral viewers perceived the coverage as relatively balanced. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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