The impact of in-your-face talking heads

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2012 - 9:05 PM

TV's extreme close-ups violate social norms and increase political polarization.

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Rep. Michele Bachmann in "Hardball" interview with Chris Matthews.

In-your-face talking heads shout over one another on your TV screen. Extreme close-ups feature prominent politicians in proportions that violate real-life social norms.

By now these are familiar constructs of cable news talk shows like the top-rated "The O'Reilly Factor." But the real O'Reilly factor (as with Maddow, Matthews, Sharpton, Schultz, O'Donnell, Hannity, Van Susteren, Cooper or Morgan) may be how political television can contribute to political polarization and partisan paralysis.

That's the data-driven conclusion of Prof. Diana Mutz, director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

Mutz, who recently presented her research at the University of Minnesota, said that these programs, as well as some on broadcast TV, are "in your face in a very literal sense, in a way that doesn't occur in our perceptual processes in everyday life."

To demonstrate, Mutz showed footage of the 2004 media meltdown between MSNBC's Chris Matthews and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (who wistfully recalled days of duels). Their angry exchange featured faces far closer than in most real-life discourse.

"What we know about facial close-ups is they intensify emotional reactions," Mutz said, not just of the angry combatants, but of those watching. "Particularly in the context of disagreement, this is problematic. Because when we disagree with someone in the face-to-face world, our natural reaction -- regardless of culture and what your normal level of social distance is -- we back up. We put greater distance between someone we have disagreement with. And yet many times in the TV world we see the exact opposite."

Mutz's observations are based on research that includes content analysis of 10 shows every 10 years dating back to 1969. The most significant swing is from 1979 to 1989, the era of great growth in cable penetration.

Since then, Mutz calculates, the number of conflicts per broadcast hasn't changed, but story pacing has quickened, and the "percentage of conflicts featuring identifiable faces" has soared from 60 percent to nearly 100 percent today. This personalization of politics is met with a doubling of the percentage of the TV screen taken up by the human body, from 20 percent to about 40 percent today.

And "movement towards the camera," has increased seven-fold. "Our brains interpret that as a threat," Mutz said, adding that "zoom has no real-world analogue."

Unfortunately, there are real-world effects. Mutz filmed a fictional civic-affairs show, using different manipulations for each conflict -- close-ups vs. medium-range shots, civil vs. uncivil discourse. The test subjects, hooked up to skin monitors and answering pre- and post-test questionnaires, responded to incivility and close-ups the same way they might in a real-world setting. The conclusion? "Highly arousing content" (uncivil, with close-ups) produces greater recall, but also more negative attitude toward disliked politicians and their ideas, as well as toward government and politicians more generally.

The political impact is in demonization, Mutz said. "It's not going to change anybody's mind about for whom they would vote, but it does mean that they will see the other side as much more evil and unpleasant than they would have otherwise."

As in-your-face TV has increased, so has dislike for opponents. Partisan ratings of voters' own parties are static, but down for the opposing parties, Mutz said.

Political television today represents a "market failure," she said. "What's good for us is not what we really want to watch."

At minimum, it's also a failure in the marketplace of ideas. Like every editorial writer, I seek insights from experts in nearly every societal sector.

Regardless of their politics, these experts test or augment their arguments by citing insights gleaned from multiple media sources, like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Star Tribune, and other newspapers, magazines and websites.

Many also cite interviews on NPR or PBS. But to date, not one has channeled cable news talk show guests to support or refute an argument.

Which brings us back to Bill O'Reilly, who in a 2006 lecture summed up the problem, and the solution, in one quick quip.

"If you want civility, watch PBS," he said.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. .

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