PhotoThe polarization of the American population is often blamed for the seeming inability of the government to get anything done, as politicians play to the fringe elements of their respective parties and ignore the day-to-day decisions that are needed to keep things running smoothly.

But don't blame the voters, says a new study, which instead ties the trend to the Telecommunication Act of 1996, a train wreck legislation that was supposed to remove the shackles of regulation, let a million stars twinkle, and so on and so forth.

What happened instead, says the study by Washington State University, is that the television industry was no sooner deregulated than it raced to consolidate, resulting in slashed newsroom budgets and ratings competitions that turned into a race to the bottom.

"After 1996, we see changes in polarization based on how much television people are using," said researcher Jay Hmielowski, assistant professor in WSU's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. He conducted the study with Murrow colleague Myiah Hutchens and former colleague Michael Beam, now at Kent State University.

A specific moment

The Murrow researchers found that U.S. citizens have become increasingly polarized since 1996. They also found that greater use of TV news is associated with higher levels of polarization.

"Our study is unique," they wrote, "in that it focuses on a specific moment (1996) that perpetuated changes to the media system."

"We thought it was important to look at polarization in the United States given that we have increasing polarization in Congress and some evidence that people in general are polarizing with their attitudes and their likes or dislikes for the out party," said Hmielowski.

Their work was recently published online in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

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