America’s growing polarization of political viewpoints is linked to broadcast and cable television deregulation, according to a team of researchers from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. They found that polarizing viewpoints in the United States can be traced back to 1996. Published in the upcoming issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research (available online), their research reveals how fundamental changes to the media after Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunication Act created an environment for this division to flourish.

“I think the answer made sense with our clear thinking that after 1996 we see changes in polarization based on how much television people are using,” said Murrow faculty member Jay Hmielowski. “Those are the hypothesis we proposed, those are the questions we thought we’d find answers to, and basically the answers panned out the way we thought they’d pan out.”

The team’s finding show that from 1984 to 1996 there was very little polarizing of viewpoints among heavy TV news viewers. However, between 1996 and 2008, frequent viewers of broadcast news showed increasing polarization.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 overhauled U.S. media ownership regulations, which created a regulatory system that encouraged companies like FOX and NBC to own their own cable news channels.

Scholars and pundits have voiced concern that the U.S. government has become increasingly inept at solving important problems. They point to Congress’ inability to tackle the unemployment crisis and climate change as evidence of Washington’s dysfunction. Gridlock appears to be the status quo, with tactics such as the filibuster becoming common in recent years. For instance, the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress has reached levels not seen for nearly a century.

Many researchers point to political polarization as the culprit, with evidence of increasing attitude divergence among party elites, interest groups, and activists.

“We thought it was important to look at polarization in the United States given that we have increasingly polarization in Congress and some evidence that people, in general, are polarizing with their attitudes and their likes or dislikes for the out party,” said Hmielowski.

The project involved two of The Murrow College’s newest research faculty, Jay Hmielowski and Myiah Hutchens as part of the college’s growing Political Communication Research Group. Collaborating on the study is Michael Beam, a faculty member at Kent State University.