Hard-line Fox News viewers who tuned into CNN for a month instead reported a broad shift in their political opinions — until they watched Fox again, according to a new study co-authored at UC Berkeley.
After nearly four weeks of CNN in September 2020, Fox News regulars remained firmly conservative. Still, the study found, they were more likely to support mail-in voting, less likely to believe Democratic nominee Joe Biden wanted to eliminate all police funding, and less positive about then-President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians.
However, the effect was short-lived. Two months after the end of the study period, most participants had given up on CNN and the changes in their opinions had subsided, according to the study by UC Berkeley political scientist David E. Broockman and graduate student Joshua L. Kalla. D. at Berkeley and is now on the faculty of Yale University.
In an interview, Broockman said the increasing influence of partisan media such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC raises concerns about the nation’s political health.
“Partisan media don’t just give their thumbs up,” he said. “They also hide information voters need to hold politicians accountable. This is not only good for their side and bad for the other side – it is bad for democracy and for all of us.”
Still, Broockman stressed that the research offers hope at a time of deep political polarization.
“Even among the most orthodox partisan and partisan media viewers,” he said, “those who are given a steady diet of information that helps them see the bigger picture are actually open-minded enough to understand that their side isn’t doing a perfect job, either .”
The research draft was posted online last week and is currently undergoing peer review.
In the beginning they devoted themselves to Fox News
Broockman and Kalla started from a premise: Previous studies suggested that viewers of partisan media would reject information offered by an opposing source as inherently untrustworthy. If partisan media users actually switched sides for a period of time, research could assess the persuasiveness of such media.
Trump was president when the study began, and the researchers were on a budget. They hypothesized that Fox withheld information about Trump’s performance and that this created a window for study. Had a Democrat been president, they would have reversed the study and urged CNN viewers to switch to Fox.
The researchers identified 763 people who were willing to watch another network for at least one hour a week. These viewers “were predominantly highly conservative and politically involved,” the co-authors wrote. They were virtually all white and generally older, with an average age of 54.
And they devoted themselves to Fox News, watching an average of 14 hours a week of prime-time programming, which starred such popular and controversial personalities as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
Approximately 40% of these subjects were randomly assigned to the main study group and were paid $15 an hour to watch CNN instead of Fox during the prime-time night. To ensure they were actually watching CNN instead of Fox, subjects were given weekly “quiz polls” about what was on CNN when they signed up.
The other study participants were not offered any financial incentives to watch CNN, but the researchers continued to interview them.
From August 31 to September 25, 2020, participants in the main group watched an average of 5.8 hours of CNN per week.
One nation, two realities for cable news
Broockman and Kalla closely evaluated both Fox and CNN’s coverage during this period, which coincided with an intensification of campaigning just two months before the election. The differences in network coverage this month were stark.
Fox focused intensely on racial issues and racial protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd a few months earlier. Democrats have been portrayed as aligned with the tactics and demands of radical and sometimes violent protesters.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was still in the pre-vaccination phase, Fox largely downplayed the threat.
“Fox News essentially gave its viewers no information about the fact that infection rates in the United States were much higher than other countries, or about some of the mistakes Trump made in managing the pandemic,” Broockman explained.
Fox also reported on pandemic-related efforts to expand mail-in voting, but suggested it would increase the risk of voter fraud.
CNN’s coverage of the pandemic has been heavily focused on the severity of the crisis and Trump’s apparent failure to cope, they found. And its coverage of postal voting has been largely benevolent.
The news has changed viewers’ minds, but not their values
On these and other issues, the move to CNN seemed to have had a powerful impact.
Certainly conservatives didn’t become liberals, and Trump supporters didn’t suddenly embrace Biden. Attitudes toward policing, climate change, and race remained largely unchanged.
But compared to viewers in the unpaid group who had less incentive to watch CNN, those in the main group who changed their ad for a month were:
- tend to agree that Fox News would not cover it if Trump made a mistake;
- more likely to believe that the Trump campaign failed to take significant precautions against COVID at its campaign events;
- less likely to believe Democrats attempted to steal the 2020 election with fraudulent mail-in ballots and more likely to support mail-in voting;
- less likely to believe that more police officers would be shot by Black Lives Matter activists if Biden were elected; and
- generally more critical in their assessment of Trump and Republican politicians.
“We’re not making them an MSNBC or CNN audience,” Broockman said. “But they’re starting to realize, ‘You know, maybe Trump isn’t doing as good a job dealing with the coronavirus as I thought he would.’ They’re starting to become aware of some new information, and they’re not just dismissing it as fake news. They say, ‘I still like Trump, but maybe he could do better.’”
Why did these shifts occur? Kalla and Broockman described a bias that results from “partisan reporting filtering” — a phenomenon in which partisan media selectively report information more favorable to their side in political conflicts, resulting in viewers viewing different groups of biased information Experienced.
The more people watch their favorite network, the more its coverage “fills out” partisan beliefs and allegiances, they wrote. In fact, biased reporting drives and constantly amplifies polarization, giving networks’ bias “tremendous sustained power.”
When this cycle is broken, people can expand their understanding. However, the results also point to the danger that partisan media pose to democracy.
“How can a voter hold a politician accountable for wrongdoing if they don’t know it happened?” the authors asked in their study. “Or alternatively, how can voters reward a … politician for a good performance if their chosen media network doesn’t let them know?”
The shifts faded and viewers returned to the set positions
The changes persisted, at least for a short time, after the end of the one-month study period.
Three days after the deadline, the divergence between the main study group and the group that watched less CNN was significant on issues such as COVID, racial and election security. Overall, the study found that while the core group was “much less likely” than the unpaid group to view Fox’s priority issues as important, they viewed COVID as a more important threat.
But while the main study group’s confidence in Trump fell, confidence in Biden did not increase. While it rated Fox less favorably, CNN did not rate it more favorably.
At the end of two months, the authors found, Fox News viewers had almost completely reverted to their previous viewing habits — and their previous political opinions.
Nevertheless, the results are a signal of hope that even deep differences are not cemented in a polarized public. Changes, according to research, are possible.
Former President Barack Obama cited the Broockman-Kalla research as cause for optimism in remarks yesterday at a conference on democracy and disinformation hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute for Politics and Politics The Atlantic Magazine.
“I think we underestimate the degree of softness in our opinions and beliefs,” Obama told the audience. “I take that as hopeful… The divisions that we see in our democracy – race, region, creed, identity – they are there. They are not creations of social media, they are not creations of any particular network. They are ingrained and difficult to process.”
Citing Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, Obama continued: “One can either encourage the better angels of man’s nature or the worst. Democracy is based on the idea that we can develop processes, including how we share and argue about information, that encourage our better angels. And I think that’s possible.”