Jonathan Mong / Sun News Editor

Andrew Morse ’96, S.E. Cupp ’00, Matthew Hiltzik ’94 and Prof. Alexandra Cirone, government, discuss the rise of digital media and its impacts on political polarization.

April 20, 2023

Experts Discuss Role of Media in Exacerbating Political Polarization

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As the United States continues to become more polarized, and contentious issues are grappled with nationally and at Cornell, the role of the media in creating political division has been called into question.

On Wednesday, students and community members heard from experts in media about the industry’s role in perpetuating political polarization in a panel discussion titled “Transcending Echo Chambers: Polarization and the Media.” 

Hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Distinguished Visiting Journalist program, the panel included prominent alumni and Cornell faculty — Andrew Morse ’96, S.E. Cupp ’00, Matthew Hiltzik ’94 and Prof. Alexandra Cirone, government. 

Morse, a former senior leader at CNN, Bloomberg and ABC News, was recently appointed president and publisher of The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Cupp is a CNN host who explores the intersection of politics and the media. Hiltzik is the president and CEO of Hiltzik Strategies, a strategic communications and consulting firm and Cirone researches ways to combat polarization and misinformation. 

The event, which was held in Rhodes Rawlings Auditorium, was well attended by Cornell students and faculty members.

“I wanted to come to this event because I think [polarization is] a really important issue that is affecting our democracy and our world as a whole,” Brenna Igneri ’26 said. 

Other students expressed curiosity about understanding the perspective of leaders in the media industry on political polarization in the United States, which has rapidly increased in the last 40 years.

“I thought it would be interesting to hear from practitioners and people who work in the media as executives and hosts about whether they think the media is to blame,” Ewan Dietsche ’23 said.

The panelists began by considering responses in the media to recent political polarization. 

“What happened in the Trump era is that we kind of all went into our separate camps,” Cupp said. “Suddenly some of us in the media became very adversarial to other news outlets. … Now Fox is the adversary of CNN, and CNN is the adversary of Fox. And that’s a shame … because we should all have the same goal. And we don’t have the same goal anymore.” 

Morse spoke towards the mistrust caused by such polarization.

“I think without question there’s been a perception of erosion of trust,” Morse said. “It’s really a sense of where we are today societally — where you wear your red jersey or your blue jersey, … it’s made people so suspicious of the other side. There isn’t room for conversation.”

Cirone touched on how political scientists are increasingly needing to define different types of polarization. 

“Typically, we were always concerned about ideological polarization, which is [a] kind of divergence in policy views — you want more taxes, I want fewer taxes, [and] the further we are apart, the harder it is to pass policy.” Cirone said. “But now increasingly, we’re having to deal with what we call affective polarization, … and this is dislike of the opposing political or social groups, [it’s] partisan animosity.”

While political parties contribute to polarization, the speakers emphasized the impact of technology and the media on political divides. The vastness of social media, according to the speakers, has allowed news to spread faster than it ever has before.

“There are so many outlets and almost no gatekeepers, no norms. It used to be [that] you had to have money, connections and a journalism degree to get the word out,” Cirone said. “Now, you could be an influencer with a YouTube channel and reach 80 to 90 percent of Americans. The landscape has changed.”

According to Cupp, when media outlets report minority views because of their contentious nature, the majority can feel unseen.

“Who is my party? Where’s my hand today?” Cupp said. “The majority, I think, can feel orphaned by media and politics.”

According to Morse, there’s a perception that newsrooms focus primarily on “getting the most clicks.” In reality, the issue is more nuanced. 

“While yes, there are business imperatives, and yes, we’re looking to make sure that we’re delivering what consumers want,” Morse commented, “the objective in the most credible newsrooms today … is to wake up every day and report the news — report the facts and report the truth.”

Morse added that the newsrooms that have positioned themselves ideologically are the ones making tactical decisions to maximize clicks.

The panel also touched on the Fox News defamation settlement, which recently caught national headlines. 

“[The lawsuit] showed the extent to which an established news organization was putting disinformation out there,” Cirone said. “This is a problem. It was a huge problem during the [last presidential] election.”

Cirone shared a strategy called “pre-bunking,” or averting disinformation before it manifests in partisan media. For example, a news source could inform the public of potential disinformation about election polling places and preemptively provide the correct polling location to their audience.  

“People really respond to [pre-bunking] because then when they see disinformation, they’re like, ‘wait a second, someone warned me about that,’” Cirone said. 

“News is so much more than politics,” Morse said. “You find these different connection points in people’s lives. [When] using the internet for good as opposed to evil, you have the ability to reach different audiences for different affinities.” 

As the event concluded, Cupp emphasized a similar point that journalists’ responsibilities extend past presenting facts.

“[The] most important thing that media journalists should do is apologize when they get something wrong,” Cupp said. “That’s going to create trust.” 

In an interview with The Sun, Morse provided practical advice for Cornell students. 

“Cornell [students] need to lean into [polarizing issues]. In the last two weeks there’s been a really lively debate on campus about free speech,” Morse said. “It’s the responsibility of The Sun and the responsibility of the students not to run away from these debates… It’s really important that we expose ourselves to lots of different news sources, and then you can form your own opinions.”

Annina Bradley is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].