White Media Attitudes in the Trump Era

AuthorJack Thompson
Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
943566APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20943566American Politics ResearchThompson
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 119 –131
White Media Attitudes in the Trump Era
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20943566
Jack Thompson1
Scholars and political commentators point to Trump’s war on the media since the 2016 election as an unprecedented attack
on a vital check to Presidential power. However, little attention has been paid to the role that White audiences play in this
critical debate. In this article, I examine the relationship between Trump, the media, and White audiences. Using data taken
from the American Trends Panel, I show that affect for Trump is conditional on Whites’ selective partisan exposure to
conservative news media. My analysis also shows that exposure to political and election news directly from Trump intensifies
the relationship between Whites’ perceptions of media bias and their distrust of national news organizations. The findings
provide a novel and unique contribution to the existing scholarship by demonstrating the causal effect of selective exposure
to conservative media outlets on affect for Trump.
media, Trump, White
part of it is. . . Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big
chunks of the country.” (Wemple, 2016). At the same time,
Since his election in 2016, Trump and his network have
the data show that, even in the realm of digital media, Trump
declared war on the media (Grynbaum, 2017a; Kellam &
appeals to a largely White audience. For instance, a 2016
Stine, 2017)—an institution regarded by many as the “Fourth
study found that 84 per cent of Trump’s followers on Twitter
Estate” of the American political system (Schultz, 1998).
were White (Wang et al., 2016). Understanding how White
Popular commentary and scholarly research debating the
consumption behavior feeds into affect for Trump, and the
relationship between Trump and the media have tended to
ways in which Trump shapes Whites’ attitudes towards the
focus on the ways in which Trump’s attacks on the news
Fourth Estate is thus of critical importance.
media represent a significant threat to a vital check on
There is reason to expect that there may be heterogenous
Presidential power (Kalb, 2018).
effects of media consumption on affective evaluations of
Largely ignored in these critical debates about Trump and
political figures by race. An important difference between
the media is the role of an additional contextual variable—
Whites and non-Whites are their racial attitudes. Among
Whiteness—and how Trump’s relationship with the media is
Whites, racial attitudes are especially driven by prejudice or
shaped by the consumption behavior and attitudes of White
hostility towards non-White groups. Even among Whites
audiences. This gap is surprising, given that there is an intrin-
there are significant variations in levels of racial resentment.
sic link between Whiteness and estimations of Trump.
Literature on racial priming demonstrates that racist attitudes
Whiteness plays an increasingly important role in shaping
or resentment may be the driving factor behind exposure to
Whites’ political behavior as it relates to their evaluations of
conservative media and affect towards Trump (Schaffner
political figures and their voting preferences in the Trump
et al., 2018; Valentino, 1999). Consistent with these streams
era (Jardina, 2019, 2020). An important theoretical justifica-
of literature, it is reasonable to expect, therefore, that the
tion for studying White Americans’ attitudes towards the
effect of selective exposure to conservative media on affect
media in the Trump era is that, demographically, the audi-
for Trump become more significant for Whites than they do
ences of outlets that cover Trump in a favorable light are
for other racial groups.
overwhelmingly White, too.1
In the era of fragmented media, outlets such as Fox pro-
vide a critical platform for Trump to appeal to White audi-
ences. Indeed, reflecting on Clinton’s poor showing among
1Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
White voters in the 2016 Presidential election, President
Obama pointed to the ubiquity of Fox News as one reason for
Corresponding Author:
Jack Thompson, Doctoral School, Nottingham Trent University, 23
Trump’s surprising victory in 2016, noting that White voters
Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, NG1 4FQ, UK.
“turned out in huge numbers for Trump[,] [a]nd I think that
Email: no429992@ntu.ac.uk

American Politics Research 49(2)
In this article, I investigate the relationship between
Analyzing TV coverage of the 1982 Beirut massacre, the
President Trump and White consumption behavior and
authors found that both pro-Lebanese and pro-Israeli sub-
media attitudes. I argue that the traditional framework by
jects interpreted the same news reports covering the massa-
which political actors try to garner positive media coverage
cre as hostile to their own personal opinions on the story.
to gain visibility and appeal to their core voter constituen-
Subsequent research has found that important social iden-
cies only partly explains Trump’s relationship with the
tity precursors to the “hostile media phenomenon” include
media. Media audiences in America today are highly polar-
individual partisan identification (Eveland Jr & Shah, 2003;
ized. Many Americans form “echo chambers” in which they
Matheson et al., 2001). In the US, perceptions of media bias
only consume media from outlets whose coverage reinforces
and media hostility are especially prevalent among strong
their existing political attitudes (Jamieson & Cappella,
partisan identifiers. The literature finds weak evidence for
2008). When Trump gives televised interviews, he tends to
the belief that news bias skews in a conservative direction
insert himself into Republican-leaning and conservative
among Democratic partisans (Mayer, 2005). Republican par-
echo chambers such as Fox. Given the nature of audience
tisans, however, are very likely to perceive that media bias
polarization, I argue that the purpose of such a strategy is to
skews in a liberal direction (Groseclose, 2011). Importantly,
reinforce the estimations of those who already hold positive
elite criticism of the news media—and especially that from
views towards Trump, rather than to convert those with less-
conservative sources—also feeds into heightened public per-
favorable estimations. Trump also has a fraught relationship
ceptions of media bias (Watts et al., 1999). However, numer-
with national news organizations. He disparages outlets
ous content analyses find little evidence to support such a
such as the New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC by accus-
hypothesis (Budak et al., 2016; Covert & Wasburn, 2007;
ing them of being purveyors of “fake news.” I argue that
Groeling, 2008).
such a strategy is an effort by Trump to increase levels of
audience distrust.
Media Choice and Political Behavior
My empirical analyses draw on nationally representative
survey data from the American Trends Panel. I show how
The hostile media phenomenon has been examined at great
affect for Trump is shaped by the polarization of media audi-
length in the literature (Feldman, 2011). A particularly
ences, selective exposure to conservative media, and, impor-
important strand in this body of literature analyzes the conse-
tantly, how Whites’ attitudes towards the media are being
quences of the hostile media phenomenon on consumption
shaped by Trump himself. Results show that affect for Trump
behavior. Lower levels of efficacy and trust in mainstream
is strongest among Republican leaning-partisans who get
outlets drive Americans to consume relatively newer forms
their political and election news from outlets whose audi-
of news media. Before today’s more “fragmented” media
ences also tend to be Republican and conservative leaning.
landscape (Dilliplane et al., 2013), the pervasiveness and
My analyses also show that affect for Trump is conditional
accessibility of traditional forms of news media meant that
on Whites’ partisan selective exposure to conservative media.
Americans were compelled to consume media from main-
Furthermore, exposure to political and information news
stream sources even if they believed that such outlets were
from Trump intensifies the relationship between Whites’ per-
biased (Tsfati & Cappella, 2003). However, new sources of
ceptions of media bias and their levels of distrust in national
media have led to a more heterogenous media environ-
news organizations. This descriptive finding is important
ment.2,3 This change has given Americans with high percep-
because it further highlights the unique relationship between
tions of media bias an alternative to mainstream media
Trump supporters and media outlets.
sources. Consequently, consumers are now able to avoid
mainstream media sources and instead turn to sources that
suit their political preferences and beliefs.4 The behavior by
Literature Review
which Americans can now easily select media outlets that
Americans’ Attitudes Toward the Media
share their political beliefs is called partisan selective expo-
sure (Stroud, 2010).
Attitudes towards the US news media have been the focus of
The growth and availability of...

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