Reigniting Trust

Who We Listen to Matters

In a polarized media environment, Myiah Hutchens studies how and why we react to different sources of information

It’s a question that many people have wondered: If opinionated voters—Democrats and Republicans—switched their sources of news and information, would it decrease polarization in American politics? The answer is complicated.

“While that is a really nice theoretical picture, what we see in practice is not working as well as we would like it to,” said Myiah Hutchens, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Public Relations at the University of Florida. “A lot of times, if I am a Democrat and I go watch Fox News, what I am actually doing is I am counter arguing. I am arguing with them, or I am using it as a way to inoculate myself against their arguments, rather than becoming more tolerant.”

| Click here to read a Q&A with Myiah Hutchens. |

Hutchens studies the impact of communication on the democratic process, including how people react to different sources of news. Her work with the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology helps explain how information shapes opinion and ultimately impacts political action, such as voting.

“There are differences between our face-to-face discussions and our online interaction, and I think that is important,” Hutchens said. “It is not just, ‘I learned this fact.’ Where you learned that fact is going to matter. Was it from your friend? Was it from a social media site? Was it from your favorite newspaper? Those different communication sources will impact you differently.”

Sources Matter

Hutchens and her colleagues are studying media trust as Americans face one of the most contentious elections in a generation, representing not just a battle between Republicans and Democrats but a clash of ideologies and visions for America’s future.

For better or worse, media—and people’s reaction to it—will help shape that confrontation. “We have different expectations for different media sources, and so our trust in these different media sources matters,” she said.

For example, a news story by The New York Times could be greeted one way when it is posted by the paper and another way if it is posted by a friend you trust.

“In social media, you actually get a little bit of that interpersonal trust carry over,” Hutchens said. “Because if I am connected to you on social media, I have some sort of relationship with you.”

The Impact on Polarization

Indeed there is a great deal of interplay between media habits and political polarization, especially when it comes to social media and online interaction.

“In aggregate, just by being on social media makes you a more polarized individual,” Hutchens said. “But the more time you spend on Facebook actually decreases your polarization because you have more exposure to counter-attitudinal information.”

Does that mean that people who spend enough time on social media can actually become less polarized? Not exactly.