Whitten-Woodring Finds Free Media Can Amplify Political Divisions

Jenifer Whitten-Woodring and her book
Asst. Prof. Jenifer Whitten-Woodring's book on world media freedom won a Choice designation as an outstanding academic title of 2015.

By Katharine Webster

Asst. Prof. Jenifer Whitten-Woodring is an award-winning newspaper and radio reporter turned political scientist who studies the effects of media freedom on human rights and political stability around the globe – with some surprising findings.

In her new book, “Historical Guide to World Media Freedom: A Country-by-Country Analysis,” she and co-author Douglas Van Belle of Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand, compiled a database of media freedom from 1948 to the present in 196 countries, alongside essays explaining the evolution or devolution of media freedom in each country. It recently won a coveted Choice magazine designation as an outstanding academic book of 2015. Whitten-Woodring is also an associate of the Center for Women and Work and teaches in the Global Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies programs.

Q: We often think of free news media as contributing to democracy and political stability, but in your most recent paper, “When the Fourth Estate Becomes a Fifth Column,” you and your co-authors found that in countries with high levels of social intolerance, free media may have the opposite effect, exacerbating political division and civil unrest. Why is that?

A: It’s because of the media’s propensity to go for audience. If you have a highly intolerant audience, media can expand its audience by catering to that intolerance. The case study we used involved the 2002 Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence in Gujarat, India, when more than 1,000 people died, the great majority of them Muslim. The chief minister of Gujarat State at the time was Narendra Modi, a leader of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party who is now prime minister of India, and some have accused him of being complicit in the violence.

I find India a really interesting country to study because it’s a democracy and it has media that are, for the most part, functionally free, but there are areas where media are restricted. The medium matters. Radio news can only be carried on state-owned radio. While newspapers are remarkably free, newspaper circulation doesn’t reach all areas, and if you can’t read, newspapers don’t really influence you.

What we found is that the Gujarat riots were covered very differently depending on the source. There were allegations that Modi instigated retaliatory violence with the compliance of some of the Gujarati newspapers and local television stations. The local cable TV stations carried a lot of inflammatory coverage, including speeches by local BJP politicians that incited violence against the Muslim community. The national television networks covered the attacks on the Muslims, but that coverage was censored in Gujarat. Cable operators got calls from local officials to completely black out Star News, Z News and CNN.

Q: While it’s certainly not as extreme, do you think that media coverage of the current presidential primaries in the U.S. is, deliberately or not, fanning the flames of political intolerance and aiding the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?

A: Media in this country started out very partisan and then, mostly for marketing reasons, in the 1830s we broke away from a subscription-based partisan model and moved to an advertising model. In order to attract audiences that would attract advertisers, the goal of news organizations became to be “objective:” They didn’t want to offend anyone so they could attract as large an audience as possible.

Now we’re moving back to a more partisan model. There are so many possible sources of information, dressed in varying opinions, that it’s much easier to find a source that’s in sync with your own views. Liberals are getting information from the late-night comedy shows, conservatives are getting information from talk radio shows and everybody’s getting information from their blog of choice. Hearing those views reinforces your own views to the point where it keeps you from hearing the other side. When you look at the current primary elections, it seems like you have people hearing vastly different versions of the story about how our country is doing and what our country’s priorities should be, and they don’t understand the other side because they’re not listening to it.

Jenifer Whitten-Woodring's class
Honors students discuss the politics of repression and dissent.
News media tend to be drawn to conflict. Conflict gets people’s attention – it’s easier to understand than a lot of the complicated political issues that need to be discussed – and media know how to package that. I think these non-establishment politicians are a new and interesting story, a story that can easily be told. Trump has always been a good story because he is brash, controversial and confrontational – and because he knows how to get media attention, but Sanders became a good story because he is an underdog fighting the establishment. Social media really picked up on Sanders. Social media are a great way for somebody like Sanders to appeal to the younger crowd, because that’s where they are. They’re not tuning in to NPR, but they might be tuning in to the late-night comedy shows and he’s had good showings on "Saturday Night Live" that are echoed in social media. So I think it’s in part that younger people were drawn to him and then it’s a snowball effect.

Q: You’ve also done research on the intersection between media freedom and human rights, most recently on the relationship between a country’s level of Internet access and women’s rights. What did you find?

A: My Emerging Scholar, Celin Carlo-Gonzalez, and I were looking at the interaction between media freedom and Internet penetration and how that influences a range of women’s rights: economic rights, political rights and the physical security of women. We found that below a certain level of Internet penetration, media freedom didn’t seem to matter, but above a certain level it was associated with improved rights. For economic rights there was not much of an effect. But for women’s political rights, at around 30 percent Internet penetration there’s a statistically significant and positive difference, which increases as Internet penetration increases. With physical safety and security of women, media freedom doesn’t seem to make a difference until a pretty high level of Internet penetration – around 70 percent – but then it also increases.

Q: How will your book be useful to scholars and reporters?

A: I think it’s very useful for scholars and reporters who want to understand, compare and identify patterns in media systems across countries and how the media have changed in a specific country. For example, what happens with the media systems in Africa, where you have country after country going through independence? So often a country starts out as a democracy and it appears the media are free. Then all too often these countries slide into dictatorship, and at some point the media become compromised, not free. Looking at what happened during the “dirty wars” (civil wars and killings and disappearances of political dissidents by military governments and death squads) in South and Central America was pretty interesting, because there the media were mostly owned by oligarchies, these powerful, wealthy families. Initially a lot of them were in support of these dictatorships, so there wasn’t a tension between these newspapers and the military governments. But eventually there were problems and then there was censorship.