An ideology is a consistent set of related ideas about the nature and goals of society, such as liberalism, conservatism, or socialism. Ideological bias refers to the skewed thoughts and perceptions that such perspectives can produce. One such misperception is pluralistic ignorance, an inaccurate perception of how a group member’s own opinions relate to those of the larger group. The communications media are widely believed to produce biases in public opinion, but the extent and direction of media content and effects are still contested by both scholars and political actors.
The behavioral sciences treat political ideologies as internal maps or scripts that we all make use of to interpret social and political behavior. An ideological perspective is not necessarily biased or prejudiced. Individuals with a high degree of ideological consistency tend to be well informed and to vote for candidates whose views match their own. In this sense, ideologues are the most “rational” citizens (Zaller 1992). Recent research in cognitive psychology treats ideological bias as a failure of information processing. It consists of stereotyped thinking in which new information is distorted in order to make it conform to existing beliefs (Kinder 1998). Social psychologists find that adherence to ideologies of both the far left and far right is associated with intolerance and closed-mindedness.
Ideological bias can produce pluralistic ignorance, a mistaken perception of the relationship between one’s own opinions and those of the majority. In mass publics, pluralistic ignorance represents a misreading of public opinion vis-à-vis one’s own opinion. Thus, an individual may be in the majority but inaccurately believe she is in the minority, or vice versa (Berkowitz 2004). Paradoxically, such erroneous perceptions of majority opinion can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If those who incorrectly feel they are a minority become afraid to speak out, their opponents may dominate public debate and form a new majority. This process is known as the “spiral of silence.”
The results of pluralistic ignorance may favor either side of the political spectrum. For example, in the 1970s, a time of highly publicized racial strife in the United States, white citizens incorrectly believed that most whites opposed racial integration in housing in their community. Conversely, a more recent study found that a desire to appear “politically correct” led white college students to overestimate on-campus support for affirmative action. In both cases, a “false consensus” favors vocal minorities over silent majorities, since being in the majority confers normative advantages in public debate – vox populi, vox dei.
Pluralistic ignorance and ideological bias are products as well as carriers of misinformation. Thus, the quality of information in public discourse is central to understanding both phenomena. The effects Pluralistic Ignorance and Ideological Biases of television viewing have attracted the most attention from researchers (Comstock and Scharrer 2005). For example, cultivation theory argues that television creates a surrogate reality for heavy viewers, whose perceptions of the social environment are clouded by the fantasy versions they experience on television, especially in entertainment programming. Similarly, the theory of video malaise argues that a negativistic bias in television news gives viewers an unduly jaundiced view of their social environment. Both theories remain controversial, and video malaise is now seen as a particular case of more general media negativism.
The most controversial issue, however, is whether news media content favors one side of the political spectrum. Particularly in the United States and Europe, the debate over media bias has been joined by political elites and the general public. On one hand, critics on the left indict for media for “manufacturing consent” for ruling elites, by reinforcing and legitimizing their perspectives. Conversely, political conservatives portray the news as the instrument of leftist journalists whose coverage undermines traditional social values and institutions. The question is whether the news reflects the ideological assumptions of left-leaning journalists or the economic interests of their more conservative bosses, or whether these and other influences cancel each other out. All three positions have vocal proponents (Lichter et al. 1990). Moreover, the debate over media bias is itself colored by pluralistic ignorance. For example, partisans tend to regard neutral news content as favoring their opponents (the hostile media phenomenon), and there is a widespread tendency to believe that the media influence other people more than ourselves (the third-person effect).
Communications scholars increasingly rely on content analyses to sort out such competing claims. However, this literature has produced mixed results. In the United States, for example, Democratic presidential candidates tend to get more favorable coverage than Republicans, but presidents from both parties get highly unfavorable coverage while in office. However, some broad trends can be identified. The news media do frequently ignore or denigrate marginal groups and radical voices calling for fundamental social change, as critics on the left argue. But news coverage also tends to be critical of hegemonic social institutions such as government, business, and the military, as right-wing critics contend. More generally, the media frequently draw attention to society’s problems and failures, stimulating social reform. This watchdog role can be interpreted as either a threat to traditional values and institutions or a safety valve that marginalizes dissent. Thus, despite their quite different perspectives, critics on the left and right can both claim some support for their allegations of ideological bias in the news.
- Berkowitz, A. D. (2004). The social norms approach: Theory, research and annotated bibliography. At www.higheredcenter.org/socialnorms/theory/misperceptions.html, accessed July 22, 2007.
- Comstock, G., & Scharrer, E. (2005). The psychology of media and politics. New York: Academic Press.
- Kinder, D. (1998). Opinion and action in the realm of politics. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (eds.), Handbook of social psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lichter, S. R., Rothman, S., & Lichter, L. (1990). The media elite. New York: Hastings House.
- Zaller, J. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.