Fox News probably won’t turn you into a neocon wingnut, and MSNBC probably won’t turn you into a left-coast hippie either, but The Dog Whisperer might turn your political brain to mush. That’s a scary thought given trends that suggest more and more people are turning out to vote while avoiding news.
Some background. Ten years ago, legal luminary and Obama advisor Cass Sunstein wrote Republic.com, in which he argued that (then fairly new) partisan news shows like The O’Reilly Factor would lead people to take increasingly extreme political positions. Sunstein’s ideas built on UCLA political scientist John Zaller’s book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, in which Zaller argues that opinions change when people receive political messages—watch an ad, read an editorial—and accept them, which they’re more likely to do the more they already agree with them, a conclusion social psychology experiments support.
So, Zaller says, if you’re liberal, you’ll accept more liberal ideas. Sunstein says that you’ll also receive more liberal ideas because you prefer MSNBC to Fox. The same goes for conservatives. Soon everybody gets more extreme, and not long after that the culture war begins. (By the way, I recommend Mo Fiorina’s excellent book Culture War? Preview: it doesn’t exist.)
Fast forward. Political scientists Kevin Arceneaux of Temple University and Martin Johnson of UC Riverside noticed something weird about the experiments Sunstein cited: people were forced to watch partisan news. In reality, people can choose, and usually they don’t choose news. During the week of October 25th, the best-rated episode of O’Reilly got 3.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, about what reruns of NCIS got. Shows like Countdown with Keith Olberman get a third to a half what O’Reilly gets.
So if people have a choice, will partisan news still polarize people politically? Arceneaux and Johnson say no. The pair rounded up 117 college students to watch TV and see how it affected their political beliefs. 35 brave souls were forced to watch segments of The O’Reilly Factor or The Rachel Maddow Show on healthcare issues. Another 56 could choose between O’Reilly, Maddow, and entertainment shows The Dog Whisperer, and Dhani Tackles the World. The rest formed a control group and could choose between the two entertainment options. Before watching the shows, students identified themselves as liberal, conservative, or moderate, and afterward they answered questions like “Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-adminstered health insurance plan?” by stating how strongly they supported the idea on a scale from one, meaning “strongly oppose,” to six, meaning “strongly favor.”
Choice makes all the difference. Those forced to watch “pro-attitudinal” shows—O’Reilly for conservatives, Maddow for liberals—as well as counter-attitudinal shows took positions on average about eight-tenths of a point more extreme than the control group on the "public option" question above, a substantial effect in line with previous studies indicating the polarizing effects of partisan media. Meanwhile, those given a choice about what to watch answered nearly the same on average as the control group. The shows didn’t change their opinions. Another experiment with a more mixed group of people—not just college students—found similar results.
Arceneaux says the reaons aren’t entirely clear yet, but here’s an interesting fact: people given a choice watched partisan news about two-thirds of the time and divided that time evenly between Maddow and O’Reilly. People watched partisan news, but it didn’t change their views. That means two things. First, choice matters even if people still watch partisan news. If that weren't true, the forced-news results indicate the choice group would have taken positions about half a point more extreme, but in fact those positions were a statistically insignificant tenth of a point more extreme. Second, liberal and conservative viewpoints don’t simply cancel each other out. If that were the case, Maddow, for example, would shift liberals and conservatives in the forced-news group left. Instead, partisan news made liberals more liberal and conservatives more conservative.
One possibility is that only people who can’t get much more extreme watch partisan news, Arceneaux says, although they would need to do more experiments to confirm that explanation. However, if that conclusion is right, it suggests people in the middle simply aren’t paying as much attention to the news. With voters coming to the polls in increasing numbers over the last decade, the possibility that moderates especially are tuning out the news raises the scary possibility that a big chunk of the people in the middle, who ultimately are the ones our future, know more about The Real Housewives of DC than what’s actually happening in the nation’s capital.
Update: you can find the paper here.
Update: you can find the paper here.