The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyBehavioural PsychologyThe Hostile Media Effect: How We Demonise the News Media

The Hostile Media Effect: How We Demonise the News Media

Fear makes us paranoid about media bias.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

The hostile media effect is a fear-based bias.

Do you think that the news media is biased against your beliefs? Well, they might be …

… and they might also not be.

Let’s take a closer look:

The Hostile Media Effect

The Hostile Media Effect

Do you think that the news media is biased against your beliefs? Well, they might be. And they might also not be.

Researchers have found that individuals tend to see the news media as biased against them—even when it’s not:

“The hostile media effect […] is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the tendency for individuals with a strong preexisting attitude on an issue to perceive media coverage as biased against their side and in favour of their antagonists’ point of view.”
Source: Hostile media effect 1Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect

Are we paranoid? Are we seeing bias in the news media that isn’t there? In short: Yes.

The hostile media effect doesn’t imply that the media is never biased. Still, science shows that opposing groups often regard the same articles as against them and favour their opponents.

The existence of the hostile media effect is scientifically well-established, but we still don’t know precisely why it persists:

“The hostile media perception, the tendency for partisans to judge mass media coverage as unfavorable to their own point of view, has been vividly demonstrated but not well explained. This contrast bias is intriguing because it appears to contradict a robust literature on assimilation biases — the tendency to find information more supportive, rather than more opposed, to one’s own position. […] content evaluations based on perceived influence on oneself vs influence on a broader audience suggested that the hostile media perception may be explained by perceived reach of the information source.”
Source: Journal of Communication 2Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.

Research suggests that the primary driver could be fear of opponents gaining in strength, and the hostile media effect could therefore be seen as a psychological defence mechanism.

Read also: The Hostile Media Effect: How We Demonise the News Media

Read also: 58 Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

PR Resource: Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

PR Resource: Conversion Theory

Conversion Theory

The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.

How does it work?

The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 3Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 4Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.

“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
Source: changingminds.org

According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.

Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.

Read also: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

PR Resource: Amplification Hypothesis

Amplification Hypothesis

It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them. The harder you “attack” someone with words, the more you convince them of their belief, not yours.

The phenomenon is also known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.

“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.”
Source: A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis 5Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading

How does the amplification hypothesis work?

In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 6Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous thinking—This thinking style is at the heart of radical movements and fundamentalism. Even people who exercise abstract thinking, logic, reason, and the ability to recognize complex issues can resort to this thinking style when threatened. 7See also conversion theory.
  • Egocentric thinking—People who demonstrate non-egocentric thinking in many areas can also resort to this thinking style under stress. When a target is labelled an enemy, a series of cognitive steps justify violent behaviour and prevent altruism and empathy. 8Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted thinking—we tend to ignore details in our environments that do not support our thinking and beliefs. 9See also cognitive dissonance.

Using an emotional attack on a cognitive attitude will increase resistance, whilst a cognitive attack will be more effective. A logical attack has less impact on an emotional attitude, whilst an emotional argument is more powerful.

Attacking

To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.

Defending

To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.

Read also: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Hostile media effect. (2022, October 25). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hostile_media_effect
2 Gunther, A.C. and Schmitt, K. (2004), Mapping Boundaries of the Hostile Media Effect. Journal of Communication, 54: 55-70.
3 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.
4 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.
5 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810–825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192
6 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
7 See also conversion theory.
8 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
9 See also cognitive dissonance.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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