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Oct. 26, 2021, 3:08 p.m.
Audience & Social

Non-mainstream news sites erode people’s interest in politics, study finds

“Alternative media tends to negatively portray politics and so [people] might turn away from it.”

The results of a new study published in Digital Journalism suggest that exposure to alternative media sites — which are often extremist in nature and say they exist to correct perceptions being projected by mainstream outlets — can erode interest in politics.

With the explosion of digital media in recent years, alternative outlets — which often bill themselves as being contrarian to mainstream outlets — have also emerged. According to the study, “alternative digital media — either left-wing or right-wing — challenge and also aim to overcome the power and authority of mainstream media in portraying social reality.” (One well-known example in the U.S. is Breitbart; there are plenty of other such sites both here and elsewhere.)

To conduct the study, Franz Reiter and Jörg Matthes polled 524 participants about both their political interest (which the study defined as participants’ interest on topics in the realm of politics) and political knowledge (as measured by a six-question quiz on basic information about the Austrian government) in the weeks leading up to the 2019 Austrian national elections. The group was first polled at the end of July in 2019, and then again in mid-September (the elections were on September 29, 2019).

Along with being asked about their level of interest in politics and testing their knowledge of Austrian politics, people were also asked to recall how often in the previous week they had consumed stories from traditional news sites — usually legacy outlets that predated the digital era — and alternative sites. In Austria, examples of traditional sites include newspapers such as Die Presse and Der Standard, while alternative sites include info-direkt.at (a right-wing site) and Kontrast.at (a left-wing site).

What Reiter and Matthes found, contrary to previous research, is that consuming traditional media wasn’t correlated with an increased interest in politics or increased knowledge of politics.

“This is rather surprising, because previous studies have found that mainstream media use tends to positively affect political interest,” said Reiter, who is a predoctoral researcher in the University of Vienna’s department of communications.

When they looked at the effect of alternative media on political interest, the effect was negative. The more someone reported consuming alternative media, the less interested in politics they seemed to be at the end of the study duration. Interestingly, when the researchers looked at the effect of mainstream media — and the absence of alternative media — on political interest and knowledge, the response was close to being significant, suggesting a detrimental effect of alternative outlets.

One possible explanation for the combined effect of a decrease in political interest: Alternative outlets often present cynical takes on politics and the political process, which could disrupt how consumers view the field.

“Our argument is that those who use both, they may be confronted with two different perceptions of politics and might become uncertain of what politics is,” Reiter said. “Alternative media tends to negatively portray politics and so they might turn away from it.”

As far as the significance of these findings, an increased interest in politics can translate to increased civic engagement and other kinds of participation generally thought of as good for society, Reiter said. “In general, this means that political interest can be important for many aspects that are relevant for the quality of democracy,” he said. If consuming a certain kind of media diminishes this effect, that’s something to pay attention to.

Beyond that, Reiter said journalists need to realize that their audience is likely consuming more than just mainstream media, especially leading up to an election. “It’s actually quite likely that you are interested in both because you might just have an interest in [getting] some information from the other side. So it’s very likely that [these two media types] interact with each other,” he said.

Some caveats and possible future directions of research: The political knowledge quiz that participants took as part of this study was very elementary, Reiter said, so future research ought to develop a more sophisticated test of how well-versed people are when it comes to politics. The definition of political interest was also broad, so a narrower look at the type of interest that alternative media use may generate could be another area for future research.

This particular study also didn’t look at what the content of each of the media types was, so that’s another area ripe for further exploration, Reiter said.

Photo of arrows by Dean Hochman used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 26, 2021, 3:08 p.m.
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