Outrageous political opinion and political anxiety in the US

Sobieraj, Sarah; Berry, Jeffrey M.; Connors, Amy

In a time marked by declining audiences for nightly news broadcasts and dwindling newspaper readership, the audience size for outrage-based political opinion-media (e.g., The Rush Limbaugh Show, The O’Reilly Factor, The Ed Show) has grown dramatically. Existing research has shown that people gravitate toward media sources that support their pre-existing beliefs, but explanations for this tendency dwell upon psychological processes and perceptions of information quality. We find such explanations unsatisfying for this unique genre, and we apply a more sociological lens. Using in-depth interviews with fans and qualitative analyses of television and talk radio transcripts—this research shows how anxieties churned up by public political dialog and people’s related tendency to avoid political talk with those outside their most trusted inner circles help to create powerful connections between charismatic political talk show hosts and their fans. Shifting the focus from the information desired by fans to experiences they value, and from psychological to social needs, we show that outrage-based political opinion programs create safe political spaces for fans. We end by suggesting how shifts in the broader political climate have left conservative audiences hungrier for such content.