Political commentators, those who offer opinions and analysis on political topics and events, can be found across the internet, in podcasts, social media and large news outlets. While these commentators have value, awareness is important in navigating what they say.
BYU political science professor and psychologist Ethan Busby specializes in examining extremism, how news consumers process information and how social environments can influence a person’s political leaning.
Busby said there are two common explanations for why audiences are increasingly interested in commentators.
The first reason is people are drawn to commentators who they agree with or who represent their view of the world. Consumers want to hear the world explained to them by someone they’re comfortable with or whom they can trust, Busby said.
“In the past, there have only been big-name news anchors; now news media is fractured and you can find any political perspective or interpretation you want,” he said.
The second, more abstract reason for increased interest in commentators is that people value seeing various viewpoints. Big news corporations are not very representative of America, so rising commentators can add new people of different backgrounds and economic demographics to news media, he said.
What is the value of a political commentator?
BYU statistics alumnus Cason Wight said it’s always good to have people discussing news, debating or exploring the full range of political events.
“If there are parts to a story or event that have some morally grey areas, there wouldn’t be anyone to dig deeper, push back against certain ideas or give new perspective,” Wight said.
BYU social science teaching major Lindsey Conger believes commentators are ultimately needed because the average person doesn’t listen to Supreme Court hearings, Congress sessions or local city council meetings. She acknowledges commentators can be great assistants to average people who want to understand more about government policies, elections and social justice events.
However, Conger said she compares commentators to double-edged swords. A lot of the time, these commentators are focused on their own opinions rather than giving out information. “With the world becoming more polarized, commentating becomes more polarized as well.”
Wight appreciates independent reporting as a positive aspect of there being so many political reporters online, in podcasts or broadcasted shows. “Without independent commentators, there are so few people deciding what’s important information for everyone,” he said. “It’s a much healthier balance than just two or three big corporations being the only sources.”
How political commentators use entertainment
Busby said there is a fast-rising trend of “entertainment news.” Some examples of entertainment news are presented on many late-night talk shows, where news content is presented but primarily for entertainment purposes. These shows reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be introduced to news events or policies, Busby said.
“There’s a lot of value to that; those sources are bringing people who wouldn’t otherwise follow the news or read a newspaper, but want to be entertained,” he said.
Commentators include those who want to grow their audiences and entertain viewers. Busby said commentators often use comedy, controversy, incivility and no-nonsense aggression as a part of their persona. Their persona allows them to become known for specific entertaining traits.
Comedy can help people realize when things are ridiculous, Wight said. A commentator will talk about an opposing opinion and present comedic comparisons or media clips as they discuss that opinion. These comedic bits often make it harder for audiences to agree with what’s being made fun of, he said.
In 1956, sociologist Richard Wohl and psychologist Donald Horton coined the term, “parasocial interaction.” Essentially, parasocial interactions are psychological relationships viewers or listeners create when they view media personalities as people they know intimately, despite having limited to no interactions with them.
Conger sees these parasocial relationships with political commentators as a big problem. “When you make that emotional connection with a commentator, you can start to confuse friendship and camaraderie with news,” she said.
But these created relationships can be good if they promote a more realistic view of commentators, Wight said.
“Our real-life, close relationships with others often allow us to see their imperfect nature. Maybe if you’re a huge fan of a commentator, then you’ll see they have very typical behavior and can make mistakes,” Wight said. “Maybe it’ll help us realize we shouldn’t base everything we believe on what they say.”
Parasocial interactions are not inherently bad, Busby said. “They become dangerous when taken to extremes.”
Human brains are wired to build social connections and relationships. It’s natural to do that reflexively when consumers listen to the news. This leads to viewers tuning in to the same commentators consistently, which is not innately bad, Busby said.
However, he said it’s important to understand that unhealthy dependence on a commentator can distort what a viewer sees as news and what they see as commentating.
What can political commentators do better?
A concern Busby has regarding political commentators is the possible apathy they have on whether average viewers understand when they are commentating on news versus when they are reporting news.
With so much disinformation and misinformation being spread online, commentators have an obligation to make the boundaries between commentating and reporting clear, Busby said.
Many commentators act as if they are factual reporters under the “guise of commentary” and don’t care about the effects that has on their audiences, he said.
A political commentator should synthesize and consolidate different stories into a reasonable format an average person can understand, Wight said. He hopes responsibility will encourage these commentators to give relevant coverage to all sides of controversial topics or political events. “I hope that commentators realize they could very likely be someone’s sole news source.”
Conger believes a commentator’s role needs to be about teaching people to accurately consume news. “We’re not going to be able to stop commentators from being biased in their political stances,” she said. “But they should focus more on helping people be better citizens, understand our government and better use online resources.”
What can news consumers do better?
While Busby believes commentators should be helping viewers understand the boundaries between opinion news coverage versus news reporting, he encourages viewers to help themselves as well. There are ways media consumers can become more media literate.
“Escaping our own viewpoint is important. It’s important to step back and ask ourselves, ‘am I opposed to this commentator just because of the side they’re coming from or because I actively disagree with what they’re saying?'” Busby said.
He said he understands how tiring and difficult it can be to step outside of personal opinions and backgrounds, but hopes news consumers can be critical thinkers.
As a social science teaching major, much of Conger’s profession will be focused on teaching children how to be critical thinkers and how to analyze news and the world around them, she said.
“Those are really important skills that are hard to develop, but worth it as we become more and more familiar with these commentators,” Conger said.
Busby also offered self-reflection as one of the best ways to make consuming news a positive experience. “You don’t have to like opposing commentators, but being reflective about why you don’t like them is a really intentional exercise and can go a long way,” he said.
People who enjoy commentators should ask themselves, “what is true and what is not?” — a simple question that infrequently has simple answers, Busby said.
Consumers should not treat political commentary as hard news. There is real news coverage in commentary, but don’t misunderstand a commentator’s opinion as a fair representation, he said.