January 12th, 2014
01:27 PM ET

"The Outrage Industry"

Above, Professors Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University discuss their book "The Outrage Industry," which tracks the growth of "outrage" programming on cable news, talk radio and political blogs.

"I think it's critical that we recognize that although we've always had outrageous speech, what has happened in the last 30 years is unprecedented, and that its meteoric rise can't simply be understood as a response to ideological audiences pounding their fists for red meat. It's much more complicated than that," Sobieraj said in an interview before Sunday's broadcast.

"There has been an increase in political polarization in the citizenry, but not nearly enough to account for this development," she added. "The technological, regulatory, and media space has shifted into one in which this is profitable, and profit is the driving force."

Berry concurred: "We argue in the book that outrage should be understood as a business. In short, these media businesses make money by attracting audiences through outrage content, which is highly compelling. In turn, those audiences make it possible to attract advertisers. For hosts, this incentivizes pushing the envelope, using extreme language, as becoming controversial is seen as a help in building ratings."

From the book, "two findings stand out," Berry said. "First, in terms of conservative outrage vs. liberal outrage, the density and frequency of outrage is greater on the conservative side. By density we mean media programs and outlets. By frequency, we mean the number of times outrage is used on a program or in a blog. Second, it’s the same business model for both conservative and liberal. That is, they use polarizing, provocative language and themes in much the same way. In the book we're critical of both conservative and liberal outrage but indicate that the conservatives are more successful at it in terms of audience size."

Berry added that "CNN has in the past had a small amount of outrage programming (Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs) but we found the network generally free of this approach."

So if some Americans are "addicted" to outrage, as Berry and Sobieraj assert, is there some way to break the addiction?

First, Sobieraj said, "We need to be clear on where the addiction lies. From our perspective, the addiction is to the revenue, much more so than the hyperbole and hatred. These shows are inexpensive to produce, entertaining, and profitable. Since our existing media environment is one in which outrage if profitable, we suspect its decay will also be the result of market forces."

"Importantly though, we don't necessarily think it should disappear," she added. "Controversial political speech has some benefits - it's engaging, and can start conversations that are worth having. But, for the public interest, it would be preferable if these voices weren't so overrepresented. A more diverse opinion space would be fabulous - both in terms of the temperature of the rhetoric, the variation in political views (programming now is decidedly two party - with so many networks and program slots, it would be great to see a show that represents the Green perspective, the Right to Life Perspective, the Libertarian perspective, etc.), and diversity in the voices. MSNBC is making some inroads in terms of diversity, but overall the industry as a whole is still dominated by white men."

Filed under: Blog • Fox News • Media Criticism • Reliable Sources
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