DON”T FEAR THE CRAZIES: New economic research shows why the mainstream media will do just fine

Reports of the death of the mainstream media have been greatly exaggerated, according to research by Santiago Oliveros and Felix Vardy, published in the September 2015 Economic Journal.

Their study shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, rising polarisation of the electorate does not necessarily raise the ''demand for slant'' in news consumption. In fact, voters who develop considerable leanings towards a particular side of the political spectrum may well demand more centrist news provided by the less biased outlets of the mainstream.

The information technology revolution has given people the power to customise the news and opinion they consume, tailoring it to fit their political preferences. Some commentators have argued that this leads people to self-segregate along ideological lines, undisturbed by differing viewpoints or even facts contrary to their worldview.

Reinforced by an underlying polarisation of the electorate – as evidenced by, for example, the Tea Party, UKIP and Occupy movements – the fear is that this ''Daily Me'' phenomenon will lead to the demise of the mainstream media, fraying the social fabric and fanning the dreaded ''culture wars''.

Oliveros and Vardy argue that anxieties about polarisation, self-segregation and the concomitant demise of the mainstream media are in fact overblown. They show that, paradoxically, the polarisation of the electorate may lead to ideological moderation in news consumption. Conversely, ideological segregation in news consumption may go hand in hand with moderation of the electorate.

Either way, the implications are rather reassuring: if it is the BBCs of this world that stand to gain from the parting of voters'' minds rather than the Fox Newses and MSNBCs, then the future of the mainstream media may not be so dire after all. On the other hand, if the fringe does take over, this does not necessarily mean that the electorate has become irreparably polarised.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers rely on a hard-nosed rational choice approach, where the purpose of reading a newspaper is to make the right decision at the ballot box. This approach follows an analytical tradition pioneered by the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a French philosopher, mathematician and early political scientist.

In his ''Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions'', Condorcet provides a theoretical argument for the superiority of democratic decision-making. He shows that a large electorate will almost surely take the correct decision, even if individual voters are poorly informed.

The surprising findings of the new study spring from a seemingly innocuous aspect of the democratic process – namely, that voting tends to be voluntary. Voluntariness of voting allows mainstream media outlets simultaneously to serve two constituencies of voters: those who are ideologically aligned with the outlet; and those who hold more extreme views.

The former take the media outlet''s reporting at face value and follow its implicit or explicit voting recommendation – Labour or Tory, say – in both directions. The latter follow the outlet''s recommendation only if it conforms to their prior convictions. If it goes against them, they choose to abstain.

Fringe media, by contrast, can only serve a single constituency – namely, that of true believers. Thus, voluntary voting gives mainstream media a leg up over their more ideological brethren.

To see why polarisation of the electorate may in fact increase the audience for mainstream media, consider a voter who becomes more conservative and moves from voting Tory or Labour to voting Tory or abstaining. Now that Labour is completely out of the picture, he can ''afford'' to follow a more centrist news outlet than before. In fact, he strictly prefers this, because it lessens the chance of voting Tory when, in fact, he should have abstained.

Put differently, the option to abstain generates ''cross-over'' in news consumption: voters with considerable leanings towards one side of the political spectrum demand information that is less biased towards that side than voters who are intrinsically more centrist. This ''non-monotonicity in the demand for slant'' generates disproportionate demand for mainstream media and makes voters'' ideologies non-recoverable from their choice of news media.

''Demand for Slant: How Abstention Shapes Voters'' Choice of News Media'' by Santiago Oliveros and Felix Vardy is published in the September 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Santiago Oliveros is at the University of Essex. Felix Vardy is at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).