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What is the Hostile Media Effect?

The hostile media effect occurs when an individual selectively perceives information so that it fits within their preconceived theoretical ideas. When the individual comes into contact with information that they believe to be unfavorable, they attribute the media as hostile and biased.

In the 2015 article by Richard M. Perloff titled, “ A three-decade retrospective on the hostile media effect,” Perloff defines the hostile media effect as “the tendency for individuals with a strong pre-existing attitude on an issue to perceive that ostensibly neutral, even-handed media coverage of the topic is biased against their side and in favor of their antagonists’ point of view.”

This pattern of behavior is very similar to cognitive dissonance theory, which describes a person’s feeling of discomfort when they come into contact with information that conflicts with their existing attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. To avoid cognitive dissonance, a person can choose to alter behavior or exercise selective exposure bias to avoid this conflict. One mechanism to rationalize this conflicting information is to attribute hostile effects to media coverage.

For example, an individual might claim that the news is biased, fake, a witch-hunt, or even “full of lies.” These are terms that are used quite often in public discourse in 2018, by prominent political figures, including U.S. Pres. Donald J. Trump.

The result of the hostile media effect is that an individual feels less politically efficacious and experiences diminished trust in mass media, and therefore a distrust in democracy itself. (Tsfati & Cohen, 2005a)

The Perloff study looked for many variables in the 30 years worth of studies on the topic. These variables included the political involvement of the individual, the perceived reach of the media and the individual’s perception of the degree of ingroup/outgroup identification for themselves and the media organization.

The study concluded that there is significant social science data to support the hostile media theory. The societal effects of perceived media bias can be problematic for a democracy, especially when amplified by ingroup elites, like well-known politicians, celebrities or rival news organizations. They can also reduce trust in media, diminish political efficacy, and precipitate anti-democratic action (Tsfati & Cohen, 2005a, 2005b).

Perloff notes that this theory uncovers a paradox inherent to the relationship between the media and the public. The media that serves as a check on government and provides avenues to democratically empower citizens, can elicit perceptions that ultimately could lead to undemocratic outcomes.

To take this a step further, in many countries an authoritarian leader will curb the media that criticize him or her too openly, perhaps even shut them down or intimidate them. Another way of curbing the media would be to label them as “traitors” or “enemies of the state.” This type of language could encourage an imbalanced individual to launch threatening or even violent attacks on rival media organizations in an effort to silence them. I think we have seen both tactics take place in Oct. 2018. For example, President Donald Trump has pulled press passes from reporters that ask him tough questions in the White House, and a domestic terrorist mailed pipe bombs (undetonated) to CNN and many other outspoken public figures who are critical of Pres. Trump and his policies.

Group identification

In the 2013 article by Tilo Hartmann & Martin Tanis titled “ Examining the hostile media effect as an intergroup phenomenon,” two studies examined this phenomenon in the context of the politically polarizing topic of abortion.

The studies specifically looked for the influence of ingroup identification and the perceived status of the participants. Ingroup identification is defined as ‘‘the perception of oneness or belongingness to some human aggregate.’’

The study concluded that ingroup identification exerts a profound influence on the hostile media effect. The findings suggest that members of lower status groups are particularly sensitive toward threats imposed by media coverage. Therefore, the hostile media effect may occur particularly among groups that maintain a low social standing or prestige in society (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In summary, these studies show that ingroup identification and group status are important determinants of the hostile media effect.

Policy Impacts

In the 2015 article by P. Sol Hart, et. al, titled “Extending the impacts of hostile media perceptions: Influences on discussion and opinion polarization in the context of climate change,” the study used nationally representative survey data to examine the relationship between hostile media effect and both homogeneous and heterogeneous social networks.

Other recent studies have suggested that individuals are motivated to take more issue-relevant action in the public sphere as their hostile media perceptions increase.

The Hart study determined that discussion in between individuals in homogeneous social networks increases opinion polarization between liberals and conservatives by intensifying conservatives’ opinions, whereas discussion in heterogeneous social networks decreases polarization by moderating liberals’ opinions.

The study also determined that hostile media effects significantly affect support for climate mitigation policies. For example, in some cases efforts to encourage meaningful dialogue on the issue of climate change between liberals and conservatives, resulted in moving liberals and moderates closer to conservatives in terms of policy support. This is called the boomerang effect (Byrne & Hart, 2009; Hart & Nisbet, 2012).

The studies results show that conservatives, in particular, are resistant to changing opinions on climate change, and further engagement on the issue led to less policy support or no change.

This pattern is consistent with the hypothesis that conservatives are particularly dogmatic in their views, and are likely to engage in motivated reasoning (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003.)

In conclusion, all the studies mentioned here demonstrate the importance for researchers to not only investigate the character of hostile media perceptions but also examine the effects of hostile media perceptions on politically charged issues in a democratic society. As public trust in the media erodes, audiences continue to fragment across many news outlets,

both traditional and social, intensifying perceptions of hostile media to their ingroup. The results of all these studies raise concerns about the potential to reconcile partisan divides and reach compromise on critical political issues.


Byrne, S., & Hart, P. S. (2009). The boomerang effect: A synthesis of findings and a preliminary theoretical framework. In C. Beck (Ed.), Communication yearbook (Vol. 33, pp. 3–38). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hartmann, T., & Tanis, M. (2013). Examining the hostile media effect as an intergroup phenomenon: The role of ingroup identification and status. Journal of Communication, 63(3), 535–555.

Hart, P. S., Feldman, L., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2015). Extending the impacts of hostile media perceptions: Influences on discussion and opinion polarization in the context of climate change. Science Communication, 37(4), 506–532.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375. doi:10.1037/0033–2909.129.3.339

Perloff, R. M. (2015). A three-decade retrospective on the hostile media effect. Mass Communication and Society, 18(6), 701–729.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks,Cole.

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