New Study: There May Be Hope For Fox News Viewers, If They Stop Watching Fox News
We were going to use the one that said 'Not Racist, But #1 With Racists,' but that seems a bit quaint now. (screengrab: The Simpsons)

A new study suggests that when regular Fox News viewers spend some time watching different sources for their news, their heads may at least temporarily become less full of shit. Or at least that's our vernacular translation of the preprint study titled "The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers," by political scientists David E. Broockman of UC Berkeley and Joshua L. Kalla of Yale. It's available to read for free at the Center for Open Science.

The researchers used data from a media analytics company to identify people who regularly watched Fox News, then had 304 out of the group of 763 participants watch at least seven hours a week of primetime CNN programming for most of September 2020, while the rest of the participants served as a control group, continuing to watch Fox. As an incentive, the folks selected to watch CNN were paid $15 for each hour they watched, and to ensure they actually watched the programming on any given evening, they had to answer simple quiz questions about the programs they saw, like identifying a guest or a topic discussed on the show.

Broockman and Kalla write in the paper's abstract that

Despite regular Fox viewers being largely strong partisans, we found manifold effects of changing the slant of their media diets on their factual beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of issues’ importance, and overall political views.

The changes they observed stemmed at least partly from what they call "partisan coverage filtering, wherein partisan outlets selectively report information, leading viewers to learn a biased set of facts." As a result of watching CNN, for instance, study participants became more likely to believe that Fox News wouldn't report negative information about Donald Trump. The participants remained highly conservative in their views, and after the study ended, they mostly went back to only watching Fox.

The study seems to contradict one major bit of conventional wisdom on how partisan beliefs affect the way people deal with contrasting information. Instead of rejecting "information contrary to their partisan loyalties and from opposing sources," the study participants, all "highly engaged partisans," actually "could be persuaded by viewing opposition partisan media instead of their own" — at least during the duration of the study, while they watched CNN instead.

What We Talk About When We Talk About News

It's a pretty cool study, especially in terms of its breakdown of how partisan media communicate. The researchers note that at the most basic level, media outlets set agendas through the topics they decide to cover, determining for viewers what counts as "news." In addition to that, there's "framing" — emphasis of particular aspects of an issue that are seen as necessary for evaluating it.

During September 2020, for instance, CNN devoted lots of airtime to the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's flailing attempts to deal with it, while Fox News primarily focused on protests against police violence following the murder of George Floyd, with a particular emphasis — hell, let's call it an obsession — on the threat of riots and violence. Both networks also covered the topic of voting by mail, but from completely different perspectives. CNN emphasized that absentee voting is secure and reliable, and reported on "Russian attempts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election, especially by reducing confidence in voting by mail." Fox News, on the other hand, "barely covered these topics, instead detailing how voting by mail would be susceptible to fraud."

In addition to such "agenda-setting" and "framing" — fairly common aspects of media analysis — Broockman and Kalla also look at what they call "partisan coverage filtering," or the selective reporting of information that might influence how a viewer thinks about particular topics. For instance — my examples, not the researchers' — CNN's coverage of voting by mail might emphasize that several states have run most of their elections by mail for years, even decades, with hundreds of millions of votes cast and no significant instances of fraud. Fox News might cherry pick the few instances of problems with voter registration or people voting twice, to suggest fraud is common, without any larger context to put those rare cases in perspective.

Escape From Fox Island

So what happened when a bunch of very conservative Fox News viewers regularly watched CNN instead? The researchers point out that a lot of theories "would suggest that partisan media’s effects will be limited because those who choose to watch it already have strong views," or that partisan viewers would simply reject or resist information from outside their own bubble. That's one of those depressing standbys of media studies that that makes us wonder whether there's even any point in trying to bring facts to an issue like climate change or immigration or anything else.

However, the researchers say, that conventional wisdom may itself be based on limited data, since "existing research has not measured the effects of sustained exposure to televised partisan media on individuals’ beliefs and attitudes." And when we think about it, most of the stuff we've read on the matter looked at how very partisan readers react to, say, reading one news article from outside their worldview, but not so much to longer exposure to different views. (As my very Catholic mother might have seen it, I might have kept my faith if I'd only read one Kurt Vonnegut novel, but going off to college corrupted me completely. But I digress.)

In the group that watched an average of seven hours of CNN per week, the researchers found that, yes indeed, the viewers had absorbed some new information and ways of thinking. In surveys given partway through and at the end of the CNN-viewing period, the researchers found that viewers had different "factual perceptions of current events (i.e., beliefs) and knowledge about the 2020 presidential candidates’ positions." The experimental group was also less aware of what Fox was covering and more aware of what CNN covered, as you'd expect, and the folks paid to watch CNN actually came to see the COVID-19 pandemic as a more important issue than the racial justice protests Fox News covered, which you might not expect.

The experimental group also experienced shifts in how they perceived the news:

For example, we found large effects on attitudes and policy preferences about COVID-19. We also found changes in evaluations of Donald Trump and Republican candidates and elected officials. [...] Finally, consistent with participants underestimating the extent of partisan media’s bias at baseline, treatment group participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it—i.e., that Fox News engages in partisan coverage filtering.

The study also found that the group watching CNN became "substantially more supportive of vote-by-mail" than the control group that continued watchin only Fox. Weirdly, while the treatment group gained more negative impressions of Donald Trump, they didn't show any corresponding positive impression of Joe Biden. Yup, they were watching CNN all right.

The researchers also note that participants didn't change their minds at all on topics that hadn't been substantially addressed by either network, like climate change or "support for democratic norms." It would be pretty interesting to look at how Fox News viewers might change their opinions on that if they'd watched a lot of CNN or MSNBC following the January 6 insurrection.

What Does It All Mean? Is There Hope For Meemaw?

In addition to challenging the conventional wisdom that partisan audiences can't be persuaded to modify their views, the authors also say their results

suggest that partisan media may affect voters’ choices at least in part because it hides information about aligned incumbents’ failures and distorts perceptions of political rivals. This suggests that partisan media does not only present a challenge for the opposing party, it may present a challenge for democracy which may deserve attention from policymakers.

There are certainly further questions that need to be looked at here; the researchers' occasionally suggest that CNN presents a "liberal" point of view, to which we could only roll our eyes.

We also wish that, instead of positing that CNN and Fox are somehow equally "partisan" sources of news, the researchers had added an element of fact-checking, since Fox is by any objective measure far more likely to just outright lie and distort in its coverage — and we're quite certain that's not just our partisanship speaking. And of course, since the paper is a preprint, it hasn't yet been peer reviewed, so it may yet undergo revisions.

The researchers acknowledge that the research design may have at least partly influenced the results, since the participants might have paid "unusually close attention to CNN, since they knew there would be quizzes on its content" that would determine whether they got their $15 per hour. But since the CNN viewers also became less likely to agree with stuff that was being emphasized on Fox, it seems that just getting out of the Fox infospace had an effect as well. Broockman and Kalla also suggest that further research attempt to replicate their findings in other directions, like having regular MSNBC viewers watch Fox News for a month, which sounds to us like the sort of torture no university's human subjects committee could approve.

Still, the study seems to suggest that if you can get Fox News viewers away from the steady stream of bullshit, they can once again become useful members of reality again, which is pretty encouraging.

[OSF Preprints]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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