Partisan media? Cable Viewers Change Their Attitude After Changing Channels

Millions of Americans consider the right-wing Fox News to be their main source of information on politics and current affairs. A new working paper co-authored by Yale political scientist Joshua Kalla presents evidence of the influence these partisan media have on people’s attitudes on the major issues of the day.

For the study, Kalla and co-author David Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted an experiment in which they recruited a sample of regular Fox News viewers and paid a random subset of them. them to watch rival cable news network CNN starting Aug. 28. September 31-25, 2020. They found that people who tuned into CNN for four weeks developed different perspectives on a variety of issues, including President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. and the racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, than those who continued to watch Fox News.

The researchers chose Fox News for the study, they said, because the incumbent president was a Republican.

Previous research has suggested that partisan media affects voting behavior, but exactly how it influences people’s opinions is unclear. Experience has provided evidence that partisan media, by filtering out unflattering or negative information about their preferred ideological side, weakens the ability of the electorate to hold elected leaders accountable. He also found evidence that by setting the news agenda through its coverage choices, partisan media strongly influence the issues their viewers deem most pressing.

The people in our study are committed Republicans and active voters who liked Donald Trump and disliked CNN. Yet getting paid to watch CNN changed their perspective on several important issues,” said Kalla, assistant professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Science. “This is concerning because it suggests that by providing viewers with a biased set of facts through their framing and coverage decisions, partisan media undermines our ability to hold elected officials accountable.”

The researchers randomly divided a sample of 763 regular Fox News viewers into a treatment group of 304 people, in which individuals were paid $15 an hour to watch CNN, and a control group of 459 members who did not. was not encouraged to watch the news network. Members of the treatment group watched CNN an average of 5.8 hours per week during the study period. The researchers enforced compliance through a series of quizzes on CNN’s prime-time coverage that participants were paid $10 per pop to take.

They focused the study on Fox News because President Trump, a Republican, was the incumbent before the 2020 election, Kalla said. Future studies with a ruling Democratic incumbent should focus on regular viewers of more left-leaning cable news networks, such as CNN or MSNBC, he added.

The researchers conducted a transcript analysis of the content of each network’s primetime shows, documenting significant differences in the issues and events they covered during the study period, with Fox News being much more likely to report facts favorable to Republicans and CNN likely to do the same regarding Democrats. For example, CNN devoted far more airtime than Fox News to the severity of the pandemic and Trump’s inability to control it. In contrast, Fox News coverage consistently downplayed the pandemic as a public health threat and highlighted Trump’s efforts to protect Americans from the virus, the study found.

At the same time, according to their analysis, Fox News focused its coverage on the racial unrest that rocked the United States in the summer of 2020, consistently indicating that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party supported protesters’ tactics and demands. The two networks covered voting by mail but approached the issue from opposite angles, with CNN describing it as largely secure and Fox News suggesting it was vulnerable to fraud.

Three waves of follow-up surveys captured the opinions of people who switched to CNN and those who continued to watch Fox News, exposing significant differences between the two groups. For example, participants who watched CNN were 11 percentage points less likely than Fox News viewers to believe it’s more important for the president to focus on the violent protests than the COVID-19 pandemic. They were six points more likely to believe that many foreign countries were more effective than the United States in controlling the coronavirus. Switchers were six percentage points less likely to believe then-candidate Joe Biden supported eliminating all funding for the police. They were seven percentage points more likely to support mail-in voting and nine percentage points less likely to agree that mail-in voting would generate widespread fraud.

People who switched to CNN became more negative in their assessments of Trump, including his handling of the pandemic, his intelligence and his honesty, according to the study. The move to CNN also made people more aware of the biases in Fox News coverage. For example, switchers were less likely to agree that “If Donald Trump did something wrong, Fox News would discuss it.”

However, the study showed that people who watched CNN did not become more positive in their assessments of Biden or change their partisan identifications. A final survey, conducted two months after the incentive period, provided little evidence that participants continued to watch CNN regularly. The study found that many of the effects of watching CNN on their opinions and attitudes dissipated over time.

Our study shows that Fox News not only reinforces beliefs its viewers already hold, it also feeds them a biased set of facts that leaves them with a distorted understanding of factual reality,” said Broockman, associate professor of political science at UC. -Berkeley. “The fact that many of our participants returned to their preferred ideological viewpoint after ceasing to watch CNN suggests that partisan media serves to replenish people’s partisan loyalties and political beliefs, giving them tremendous power over our discourse. .”

The full working document is available online.

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