Loyal conservative Fox News viewers who spent a month tuning in to CNN instead reported a broad shift in their political views — until they returned to Fox, according to new research co-authored by UC Berkeley.
After watching CNN for nearly four weeks in September 2020, Fox News’ regulars remained firmly conservative. Still, the study found that they were more supportive of postal voting, less likely to believe Democratic candidate Joe Biden wanted to eliminate all police funding, and had fewer positive evaluations from 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 left CNN and the changes in their opinions had disappeared, according to the study by political scientists David E. Broockman of UC Berkeley and Joshua L. Kalla, who are Ph. 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 country’s political health.
“Partisan media are not just putting a thumbs up on their part,” he said. “They also hide information that voters need to hold politicians accountable. That’s not just good for them and bad for the other side – it’s bad for democracy and for all of us.”
Still, Broockman emphasized that the research offers hope in an era of deep political polarization.
“Even among the most orthodox partisans and partisan media viewers,” he said, “those who receive a sustained 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, one of both.”
The draft study was posted online last week and is currently being peer-reviewed.
In the beginning they were committed to Fox News
Broockman and Kalla started with a premise: Previous studies suggested that viewers of partisan media would dismiss information from an opposing source as inherently unreliable. 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 investigation began and the investigators were on a budget. They assumed Fox was hiding information about Trump’s performance, and that created a window for study. If a Democrat had been president, they wrote, they would have reversed the study and asked CNN viewers to switch to Fox.
The researchers identified 763 individuals who were willing to watch a different network for at least an hour a week. Those viewers “were overwhelmingly strongly conservative and politically engaged,” the co-authors wrote. Almost all of them were white and generally older, with an average age of 54.
And they were devoted to Fox News, watching primetime programming an average of 14 hours a week that featured popular and controversial figures like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.
About 40% of those subjects were randomly assigned to the lead study group and offered $15 an hour to watch CNN instead of Fox during weekday, prime-time hours. To make sure they were actually watching CNN rather than Fox, subjects were given weekly “quiz surveys” about what was on CNN when they signed up to watch.
The other study participants received no financial incentives to watch CNN, but the researchers continued to investigate them.
From August 31 to September 25, 2020, participants in the main group watched CNN for an average of 5.8 hours per week.
One nation, two cable news realities
Broockman and Kalla closely reviewed reporting from both Fox and CNN during the period, which coincided with a campaign intensifying just two months before the election. The differences in the coverage of the networks that month were large.
Fox focused heavily on racial issues and racial protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd a few months earlier. Democrats were portrayed as aligned with the tactics and demands of radical and sometimes violent protesters.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its pre-vaccination phase, Fox largely downplayed the threat.
“Fox News was essentially giving its viewers no information about the fact that infection rates in the US were much higher than in other countries, or about some of the mistakes Trump had made in managing the pandemic,” Broockman explained.
Fox also reported on pandemic efforts to expand postal voting, but suggested that doing so would increase the risk of election fraud.
CNN’s coverage of the pandemic has focused heavily on the severity of the crisis and Trump’s apparent failures in handling it, they found. And the coverage of postal voting has been largely sympathetic.
The news changed viewers’ minds, but not their values
On these and other points, the switch to CNN seemed to have a powerful impact.
Certainly, conservatives didn’t become liberals and Trump supporters didn’t suddenly embrace Biden. Attitudes about policing, climate change and race were largely unchanged.
But compared to viewers in the unpaid group who were less likely to watch CNN, those in the main group who changed their viewing experience for a month were:
- more likely to agree that if Trump made a mistake, Fox News wouldn’t cover it;
- more likely to believe that the Trump campaign failed to take significant precautions against COVID during its campaign rallies;
- less likely to believe that Democrats tried to steal the 2020 election with fraudulent ballots and more likely to support postal voting;
- less likely to believe that if Biden were elected, more police would be shot by Black Lives Matter activists; and
- generally more critical in their evaluations of Trump and Republican politicians.
“We’re not turning them into an MSNBC or CNN audience,” Broockman said. “But they’re starting to realize, ‘You know, maybe Trump isn’t doing as well dealing with the coronavirus as I thought.’ They’re starting to become aware of new information, and they’re not just dismissing it as fake news, they’re saying, ‘I still love Trump, but maybe he can do a better job of this.’”
Why have these shifts occurred? Kalla and Broockman described a bias resulting from “partisan coverage filtering” – a phenomenon in which partisan outlets selectively report information more favorable to their side in political conflict, causing viewers to learn different sets of biased information.
The more people watch their favorite network, the more its coverage “complements” partisan beliefs and loyalties. In fact, the biased reporting creates and constantly amplifies polarization, giving the networks’ biases “huge lasting power.”
If that cycle is broken, people can increase their understanding. But the findings also point to the risk partisan media pose to democracy.
“How can a voter hold a politician responsible for a crime if he doesn’t know it happened?” the authors asked in their study. “Or, alternatively, how can voters reward a… politician for good performance if their chosen media network doesn’t notify them?”
The shifts faded and viewers returned to fixed positions
The changes persisted after the one-month study period ended, at least briefly.
Three days after the close of the period, the divergence between the main research group and the group that watched less CNN was significant on issues such as COVID, race and election security. Overall, the study found that the lead group was “much less likely” than the unpaid group to view Fox’s priority issues as important, but saw COVID as a greater threat.
But while the lead study group’s confidence in Trump declined, confidence in Biden did not grow. While it rated Fox less favorably, it was no more favorable to CNN.
After two months had passed, the authors found, Fox News viewers had almost completely returned to their previous viewing habits — and to their former political views.
Still, the findings offer a signal of hope that even deep differences in a polarized audience are not set in stone. Change, the research suggests, is possible.
Former President Barack Obama cited Broockman-Kalla’s research as a cause for optimism yesterday in comments at a conference on democracy and disinformation hosted by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic Ocean magazine.
“I think we underestimate the degree of pliability in our opinions and views,” Obama told the audience. “I see that as hopeful…. The divisions that we see in our democracy – of race, of region, of creed, of identity – they are there. They are not creations of social media, they are not creations of any particular network. They are deeply ingrained and it is difficult to work through them.”
Citing the famous quote from Abraham Lincoln, Obama continued, “You can either encourage nature’s better angels or the worst. Democracy is based on the idea that we can devise processes, including how we share and discuss information, that encourage our better angels. And I think that is possible.”