The Summer 2005 Wilson Quarterly discusses the article “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust” by Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves, in American Political Science Review (Feb. 2005). It discusses experiments on people watching political talk shows:
In one version, the actors carried on a polite discussion, while in the other they interrupted each other, rolled their eyes, and generally misbehaved. All of the viewers found the “uncivil” show more entertaining, but differences emerged when they were given an opinion survey shortly after watching the two programs. On the whole, those who saw the uncivil show suddenly recorded decreased levels of trust in politicians and the political system generally.
As bad as the incivility is, more important may be the fact that such experiences are unnatural for people:
[A]s the electrodes Mutz and Reeves attached to some viewers showed, [the experience] produces a physiological reaction much like the one created by real conflict. That, the two researchers conclude, is the source of the turnoff: “When political actors . . . violate the norms for everyday, face-to-face discourse, they reaffirm viewers’ sense that politicians cannot be counted on to obey the same norms for social behavior by which ordinary citizens abide.”
For whatever reason, people can’t quite pull themselves away from these shows — they only continue to exist because of their decent ratings. Perhaps people are drawn to these shows in the same way they are drawn to stare at car accidents. Regardless of the reason, it’s certainly not healthy psychologically for the viewers and it’s not healthy for the political process in general.
Whether the media corporations do anything about this remains to be seen. Ideally, journalists would have a strong interest in promoting healthy political debate and a healthy political climate, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Too many journalists are complicit in the situation and it’s taken a comedian to point out what should have been obvious to everyone. It’s rare that these talk shows do anything of value, and they don’t do anything of value that couldn’t be achieved better in some other format.