How Media Coverage Comparing Politics to Sports Shapes Political Attitudes

Alex Tolkin, a joint doctoral student in political science and communication, studies how media coverage that compares politics to sports shapes political attitudes and general worldviews.

by Duyen Nguyen, OMNIA

“Sports are the last unifying cultural feature in America,” says Alex Tolkin, a joint doctoral student in political science and communication who recently gave a Penn Grad Talk titled “Field of (American) Dreams: Sports and Belief in Competition.”

Given the popularity of sports competitions with American audiences—Super Bowl LVI, which aired on February 13, 2022, drew in nearly 100 million viewers in the United States alone—it’s no wonder that many media companies, especially those reporting on politics, have begun taking programming cues from sports networks. Former CNN president Jeff Zucker even pushed for the cable news channel to take an ESPN-like approach to covering the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But media coverage that analogizes politics to sports can influence people to view not only certain policy areas, but also life in general, as a zero-sum game, Tolkin argues.

Tolkin’s talk is adapted from a paper that examines the causes and effects of seeing the world as a zero-sum game in which one side’s win is equivalent to another side’s loss. While research in psychology suggests that people who feel more threatened tend to view the world in this way, Tolkin examines other factors like media consumption. He argues that another explanation for what causes zero-sum thinking may come from the kind of messaging people receive—not only from the media, but from longstanding cultural narratives. “Many politicians in the U.S. have incorporated sports metaphors into their speeches and concepts like the American Dream are framed in terms of competition,” Tolkin says.

Read more in OMNIA, the magazine for alumni of the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences.

To watch Tolkin's Penn Grad Talk, click here.