Since the mid-20th century, communication researchers have recognized that audience members selectively expose themselves to information and opinions congenial to their pre-existing views. While this was a controversial idea during the broadcast era of mass media, the expansion of media choice on television and use of information communication technology has brought increased attention to selectivity among audience members. Contemporary scholarship investigates the extent to which people select proattitudinal information or avoid counterattitudinal information and the role these choices play in the effects of media messages on viewers. While selective exposure is a broader phenomenon, this article substantively focuses on the use of politically partisan media, especially the research methods used to investigate media selectivity and its effects. This literature manifests an increased attention to measurement, especially how we measure the core concept of media exposure, novel experimental designs intended to allow investigators to directly view individual choice behavior in complex media environments, and attention to new sources of large-scale data from social media and large text samples. Scholars agree that partisan websites and cable networks provide content politically distinct enough to allow viewers to segregate themselves into liberal and conservative audiences for news but that this kind of polarized viewing is only part of how viewers use media today. A nuanced picture of selectivity shows audiences selecting congenial content but employing broader media use repertoires as well. The mechanisms and effects of media selectivity are psychologically complex and sensitive to contextual factors such as the political issue under consideration.
Selective Avoidance and Exposure
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Audience Fragmentation and Journalism in the U.S. Context
Angela M. Lee
The association between audience fragmentation and journalism is an intricate one. On the one hand, the word “audience” refers to an assembly of a group of consumers, such as book or magazine readers, moviegoers, radio or podcast listeners, television viewers, and website visitors, and they are primarily distinguished by the particular media product, genre, or outlet that they choose to consume. Webster stated in 2016 that oftentimes the purpose and consequence of audience research are financial—i.e., book publishers tend to break down their market by readers of different genres, which allows them to better tailor their content and promotions to relevant audiences in order to maximize book sales—and thus the goal of audience research in such contexts lies in finding the balance between capturing the largest number of media users who share similar consumption patterns and the narrowest content clusters—i.e., those separated by topic or genres. On the other hand, whereas the purpose of audience conceptualization fundamentally revolves around fragmentation, the motivation for journalism in democratic societies is arguably the opposite. That is, if one were to believe, as Kovach and Rosenstiel posited in 2007, that the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate the people so they can self-govern and make better civil decisions in democratic societies, then it follows that the primary objective of journalism lies in serving as many citizens with the same information as possible. In short, the purpose of audience fragmentation and journalism is—in many ways—ontologically contradictory, with the former being more pluralistic in nature. The topic of audience fragmentation is approached primarily from a commercial perspective, and in the context of the US market. It should be acknowledged, however, that this topic can and has been approached differently, via critical studies and across other markets. The end of this article offers a cursory comparative analysis between the USA and other Western countries to help contextualize findings from the USA in a global context. For those with deeper interest in such other inquiries, the recommended readings provided at the end of this article may offer a good starting point. It should be noted that one of the biggest obstacles in the study of audience fragmentation, at least in the USA, lies in the fact that large-scale media reports of such data (e.g., those published by the Pew Research Center) often compare apples and oranges (e.g., either using survey questions with different operationalizations as the basis for comparison or reporting on different facets of audience fragmentation in its longitudinal studies, as this article will explain). To this end, this article is a first step in offering a baseline cross-sectional overview of how American audiences are consuming the news in 2018 via analysis of select Pew data files with comparable sampling method and survey instruments.
Seeking and Avoiding Media: Intergroup Approaches
Benjamin K. Johnson
Media users exercise control over their information and entertainment environments. Selective exposure to media allows individual to choose channels and messages that satisfy their interests and motivations. A variety of selective exposure studies have assessed selective exposure to messages about ingroup versus outgroup members. Relevant theoretical perspectives include information seeking, confirmation bias, informational utility, self and affect management, reinforcing spirals, boundary expansion, exemplification, and social comparison. Each of these theories of selective exposure identifies an attitudinal or self-conceptual basis for media use yet also allows for the role of social identity or beliefs about intergroup members and interactions. In addition, the distinction between selective exposure and selective avoidance is critical for understanding intergroup media contact, as is the distinction between positive and negative portrayals of relevant social groups. Applicable findings from survey and experimental studies illustrate that age identity, sex and gender identity, and race and ethnicity all produce patterns of selective exposure in which ingroups are generally favored. Information about outgroups is more likely to be selected if it suits the situational or dispositional needs of the individual. Partisan selective exposure is also examined from an intergroup perspective, as is selective exposure to information about aspirational future selves and self-expansion. Depictions of persons that exemplify social groups or allow for social comparison are also discussed, yet little direct evidence exists about exposure to outgroup members in these processes. Finally, interpersonal new media are considered with regard to intergroup contact. Immersive media such as virtual reality provide interactive contact with outgroups, and social identity plays an important role in the distribution of user-generated content, the cultivation of online social networks, and the ongoing convergence between mass and social media. Selective exposure researchers are increasingly considering intergroup contact as an important type of media content relevant to their theories, and intergroup contact researchers are increasingly accounting for the selectivity factor in media processing and effects. Integrating key findings and building a more programmatic approach to this topic will enhance the understanding of individuals’ self-selected exposure to media about (and produced by) outgroups. Indeed, for intergroup media contact to be successful in producing less stereotyping, more positive attitudes, and more intergroup harmony, media users must first choose to come into contact with messages about outgroup members, specifically messages that can convey and produce beneficial effects for intergroup relations.
Mood’s Role in Selective Exposure to Health and Risk Information
Melissa J. Robinson and Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick
In today’s media-saturated environment, individuals may be exposed to hundreds of media messages on a wide variety of topics each day. It is impossible for individuals to attend to every media message, and instead, they engage in the phenomenon of selective exposure, where certain messages are chosen and attended to more often than others. Health communication professionals face challenges in creating messages that can attract the attention of targeted audiences when health messages compete with more entertaining programming. In fact, one of the greatest obstacles for health campaigns is a lack of adequate exposure among targeted recipients. Individuals may avoid health messages completely or counterargue against persuasive attempts to change their health-related attitudes and behaviors. Once individuals have been exposed to a health message, their current mood plays an important role in the processing of health information and decision making. Early research indicated that a positive mood might actually be detrimental to information processing because individuals are more likely to process the information heuristically. However, recent studies countered these results and suggested that individuals in positive moods are more likely to attend to self-relevant health information, with increased recall and greater intent to change their behaviors. Since mood has the ability to influence exposure to health messages and subsequent message processing, it is important for individuals to be able to manage their mood prior to health information exposure and possibly even during exposure. One way individuals can influence their moods is through media use including TV shows, movies, and music. Mood management theory predicts that individuals choose media content to improve and maintain positive moods and examines the mood-impacting characteristics of stimuli that influence individuals’ media selections. Therefore, an individual’s mood plays an important role in selection of any type of communication (e.g., news, documentaries, comedies, video games, or sports). How can health message designers influence individuals’ selection and attention to health messages when negative moods may be blocking overtly persuasive attempts to change behaviors and a preference for entertaining media content? The narrative persuasion research paradigm suggests that embedding health information into entertainment messages may be a more effective method to overcome resistance or counterarguing than traditional forms of health messages (e.g., advertisements or articles). It is evident that mood plays a complex role in message selection and subsequent processing. Future research is necessary to examine the nuances between mood and health information processing including how narratives may maintain positive moods through narrative selection, processing, and subsequent attitude and/or behavior change.