Does right-wing authoritarianism relate to commercial news, and does intergroup contact reduce authoritarian tendencies?

Media authoritarianism and the migrant threat perception

Does right-wing authoritarianism relate to commercial news, and does intergroup contact reduce authoritarian tendencies?

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The European migration crisis, spanning from 2014 to 2016, had significant ramifications for policymakers, media professionals, civil society organizations, and the general public. Throughout this period, the news media played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of mass migration, deviating markedly from historical norms. The link between media coverage and people’s attitudes and reactions to migration became increasingly apparent in subsequent years.

Across various European countries, citizens developed right-wing authoritarian sentiments and fostered more negative views towards refugees. Political figures and parties capitalized on these feelings, gaining electoral support by portraying migrants as undeserving of assistance or inferior to the native European population. These politicians often turned to social media to reach their audience, perceiving traditional media as biased against them. Nevertheless, traditional news media retained vital credibility as social media platforms were met with greater public skepticism.

To gain a deeper insight into the increasing prevalence of (right-wing) authoritarianism in Europe, researchers have concentrated on two crucial constructs: right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and social dominance orientation (SDO). RWA reflects conventional beliefs about right and wrong, reverence for authority, and hostility towards non-conformists. SDO focuses on accepting and preferring social inequalities and hierarchies. 

This study, published in the Mass Communication and Society Journal, investigates the possible relationship between news media consumption and developing authoritarian feelings and, more significantly, perceived threats from immigrants. To achieve this, the research collected survey data from 10,599 adults in seven European countries in 2021. Understanding the dynamic interplay between news media use and authoritarian feelings can provide valuable insights to address the rising authoritarianism in Europe and mitigate its potential implications for social harmony and intergroup relations.

One news medium is not like the other

Media outlets depict displaced persons in diverse ways, depending on their nature, whether they are public service networks, quality newspapers (broadly known as broadsheets), commercial networks, or popular newspapers (commonly referred to as tabloids). Public service networks and quality newspapers generally present migrants more positively, emphasizing their victimization and focusing on the humanitarian aspects of their stories.

Each outlet adopts its own approach, resulting in varying perspectives on migrants and their experiences. They aim to shed light on the challenges and resilience of displaced individuals. Conversely, commercial networks and popular newspapers often employ sensationalist frames that accentuate the economic and security threats posed by migrants, leading to more negative coverage. Understanding these framing practices is crucial since they significantly influence how people perceive immigrants and the threat level they associate with them.

For instance, popular newspapers often prioritize issues like labour market competition and welfare expenditures related to migrants, leading to heightened concerns among readers. Conversely, quality newspapers highlight the economic and cultural value that migrants bring to society, emphasizing their positive contributions. These distinct framing practices play a significant role in shaping public perceptions of immigrants.

Previous studies have demonstrated that how the media covers migrants is crucial in influencing the judgments of citizens in the European Union regarding migration. When the media presents a threatening portrayal of immigrants, it can profoundly impact the audience. Our study reinforces this finding: individuals who watch the news on public networks or read quality newspapers tend to perceive lower threat levels, while those relying on commercial networks for their news intake display the opposite relationship.

Does right-wing authoritarianism relate to commercial news, and does intergroup contact reduce authoritarian tendencies?
Credit. Midjourney

Media and the authoritarian mindset

The study explored the intricate relationship between media consumption and the development of authoritarian feelings. The research findings revealed a connection between consuming news from commercial network television and popular newspapers and a greater inclination towards right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). These outlets often present a more negative view of immigration, which resonates with individuals who lean towards authoritarian beliefs. On the other hand, consuming news from public network television or quality newspapers, which generally adopt a more positive view of immigration, showed no association with RWA.

Furthermore, the research also demonstrated that media consumption can influence perceptions of social dominance orientation (SDO). Regular consumers of commercial television news and popular newspapers displayed higher levels of SDO. In contrast, public service television consumption was negatively associated, indicating a more egalitarian worldview—the indirect effects of media consumption on perceived threat via RWA and SDO aligned with these findings. Commercial television and popular newspapers increased the perceived threat associated with immigration, while public television and quality newspapers reduced this sense of threat.

These results highlight the significant impact of media choices on shaping authoritarian feelings and perceptions of social hierarchies, emphasizing the need for a nuanced understanding of the media’s role in influencing public attitudes towards immigration.

Media, authoritarianism, and the power of intergroup contact

Despite the directionality of our findings, the relationship between media consumption and authoritarianism is likely not unidirectional. Instead, it is reciprocal and dynamic. Individuals with preexisting authoritarian tendencies may gravitate toward specific media types that reinforce their beliefs. At the same time, cultivation theory suggests that media consumption and authoritarian attitudes are intertwined in our daily lives.

However, the study also offers a glimmer of hope. Although a strong link exists between media consumption and authoritarian tendencies, positive intergroup contact experiences can be a buffer. The association between authoritarian tendencies and perceived threats was weaker among individuals with more immigrant friends. This underscores the importance of fostering interactions between people from different social groups, as it can reduce feelings of threat and counteract the rise of authoritarian thinking.

Intergroup contact to support intergroup relations?

In neighbourhoods where interactions between people from diverse backgrounds are infrequent, the role of the media becomes paramount. Television and newspapers serve as a window into the lives of various groups, allowing us to learn about each other and dismantle biases. Media consumption fosters a positive atmosphere and promotes understanding between communities, even in countries where some leaders endorse authoritarian ideas.

However, there’s an intriguing twist to this story! Some individuals with authoritarian views may avoid contact with other groups, a phenomenon known as “authoritarian avoidance.” Nevertheless, evading interactions with different groups becomes more challenging as our societies become increasingly diverse. This growing diversity can normalize and even expect intergroup contact from authoritarians.

Since individuals with authoritarian tendencies place significant importance on conforming to social norms, they may be encouraged to engage more with people from diverse backgrounds. By harnessing the power of media and creating opportunities for meaningful intergroup contact, either directly or indirectly, through media representation, we can pave the way towards a more inclusive, empathetic, and united society.


Journal reference

De Coninck, D., Van Assche, J., & d’Haenens, L. (2022). Right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation as mediators between news media consumption and perceived migrant threat. Mass Communication and Society, 1-24.

David De Coninck is a postdoctoral researcher and guest professor at the Centre for Sociological Research and the Institute for Media Studies at KU Leuven (Belgium), as well as at the Institute for Pedagogy, Education, and Socialization Research at LMU Munich (Germany). He obtained a PhD in Social Sciences from KU Leuven in 2021. His research interests encompass intergroup relations, migrant deservingness perceptions, and media effects. Currently, he serves as an Assistant Editor at the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

Jasper Van Assche is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Developmental, Personality, and Social Psychology at Ghent University (Belgium), and a lecturer at the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology (CESCUP) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). He completed his doctoral dissertation in 2018. His research delves into the role of diversity in society, political attitudes, intergroup relations, and prejudice. Currently, he holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at the Journal of Social Psychology Research and serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Leen d’Haenens is a Professor in Communication Science at the Institute for Media Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences at KU Leuven. Her research interests encompass young people and their use of (social) media, with a specific focus on vulnerable youth. She employs a blend of quantitative and qualitative methods, conducts multi-site comparisons, and has recently integrated 'small data' with 'big data' methodologies. She holds the position of co-editor for Communications (De Gruyter) and serves as an associate editor for The International Communication Gazette (Sage). Additionally, she is a member of the Euromedia Research Group.