Episode 1: How Fox News Channel Spreads its Message and Persuades Viewers
Episode 1 of the Political Research Digest explores new research that finds Fox News Channel helps Republicans win presidential elections as viewers become more conservative and pass along the message to their friends. The studies covered are Bias in Cable News and No Need to Watch; guest interviews are with Gregory Martin, Emory University and Audrey McClain, Temple University.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, the effects of cable news and the growing evidence that Fox News channel gains Republican votes. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
A popularly shared headline recently explained, “How I Lost My Dad to Fox News,” and a recent documentary followed the “brainwashing of one crazy Fox dad.” But, can cable news networks really persuade people to change their policy views, or even their votes? A new study, “Bias in Cable News,” published in the American Economic Review, concludes that Fox News channel raised George W. Bush’s 2004 vote share by nearly four percentage points, and John McCain’s 2008 vote share by more than six percentage points. I talked to one of the authors, Gregory Martin of Emory University, about how they use the order of cable channels in different areas to draw those conclusions.
But how could cable news have such strong effects? Today we’ll also talk to Audrey McClain of Temple University about a new study she co-authored in the American Journal of Political Science called, “No Need to Watch.” It argues that the effects of cable news viewing spread beyond the viewers to all those that they talk to about politics.
Fox News is the king of cable and its ratings are still rising, but now liberal MSNBC has doubled its audience. Donald Trump has been great for cable news, so it’s a good time to check in on their effects.
Political scientists have traditionally been skeptical that news coverage or even advertising actually persuades people to change their minds politically. Usually, the people who watch have clear opinions about politics and use the news to reinforce their existing views and counter argue against anything from the other side.
But Gregory Martin told me, new evidence shows strong effects, especially for television.
Martin: There is a big set of evidence now that’s accumulated over the past decade or so and there’s a couple in the country so there’s also the older paper on Fox, by DellaVigna and Kaplan. There’s a paper on Berlusconi, his network in Italy, and there’s a couple papers about the Russian state media. All finding pretty significant persuasive effects. I do think it’s relevant that these are all on TV, I don’t think that’s coincidental.
Grossmann: His paper with Ali Yurukoglu shows clear evidence of a Fox News effect on Republican voting.
Martin: The biggest finding is that Fox News has a significant, and actually a fairly large, persuasive effect on voters. So higher Fox News viewing leads to more voting for Republicans in presidential elections, and that effect has grown over time, so since the early 2000’s it’s gotten larger. Probably because Fox’s ratings have risen and Fox has also become more conservative, at least in the way that we can measure it over that time period.
Grossmann: Gregory told me they used the order of the channels because it’s usually hard to show that cable news actually causes persuasion.
Martin: Measuring persuasion in media is always difficult because watching Fox or reading any other news source is a choice that people select into. And if you were to just sort of naively look at the audiences between Fox and say CNN, you’d find that Fox’s audience is much more conservative, so roughly like double the percentage of Republican identifiers, and you would say, “wow Fox has this huge effect.” But of course a lot of that is driven by people who already are conservative opting into this conservative news source. So it’s hard to say just observationally what is the actual influence that Fox has. So the channel position provides essentially some variation in viewership that’s not related to people’s initial ideology. So channel position essentially drives people into watching these channels for reasons that are just unrelated to whether they are conservative or liberal.
Grossmann: And people are, surprisingly, really induced to watch more news just by low channel number.
Martin: From what we found, an increase of one standard deviation in channel position which is about 17 positions, that increases the average person’s viewership of Fox News by about two and a half minutes. And the reason is basically, most people are watching channels that are low in the order, because those channels tend to be the most popular channels like ESPN, sort of the older cable networks like well CNN is also one of them, and all the networks tend to be clustered at the bottom. So the most popular channels tend to be at the low end of the spectrum and when people flip away from those channels they’re more likely to stop at somewhere that’s closer than somewhere that’s farther away.
Grossmann: The paper demonstrates that the channel position really was random. Previously Republican areas did not get lower numbers for Fox News and people with national sateliette television in the same areas were not affected because they had a national channel order. Some were skeptical of the big sizes of the effects down in the paper, way more than we usually find for campaign effects. And the specific model they use is open to criticism, but Martin says most models would find similar results.
Martin: The thing that’s driving the results is that for 2000 we find a pretty similar effect size to what was found in the older work by DellaVigna and Kaplan, so like around a half percentage point in 2000. And since then Fox’s ratings have roughly doubled and, at least according to our measures of ideology, they’ve moved farther right as well. So the combination of those two things, matching that effect in 2000 and then the growth of Fox’s audience and the growth of the more conservative content compared to what it was showing in its early days, that’s what’s leading to the model finding this growing effect over time.
Grossmann: Different scholars with different models of voting or ideological change might find different sizes of effects, but the basic data shows more induced Fox viewing equals more Republican voting. The paper didn’t find clear effects for MSNBC, which had much lower ratings and wasn’t consistently left-leaning over the period. Some Fox viewers rely almost exclusively on the channel, unlike MSNBC viewers.
Martin: The average Fox viewer is much more dedicated to Fox in terms of only consuming news from Fox, than the average MSNBC viewer. So there is an asymmetry across the channels that Fox viewers tend to rely more on Fox for their news than MSNBC viewers do, so MSNBC viewers tend to consume multiple sources of news, where Fox viewers are more likely to just watch Fox.
Grossmann: And some Fox viewers watch quite a lot of the channel.
Martin: It’s not like everybody’s watching 40 minutes; there are some people that are watching a lot. So we have some individual level data, and among people who watch, the average is like three and half hours per week.
Grossmann: But Martin thinks it was the marginal, less committed viewers who are most likely to be affected by the channel order.
Martin: For the most part these are people who are relatively centrist, relatively less attached to one of the two parties.
Grossmann: And those less committed viewers are also the most likely to be persuaded.
Martin: What matters for the first persuasive effect is attracting people who are less political, coming in with less prior knowledge.
Grossmann: As a result, the big recent jump in cable news viewership may not have attracted the most persuadable viewers.
Martin: In the sense the people are watching a lot more cable news today than they used to are mostly people who were consuming other forms of political media and have sort of substituted into cable news.
Grossmann: But another new study shows that it may convince their friends increasing the size of the effect. And Martin agrees that that might be a good mechanism for Fox’s influence.
Martin: Plenty of room for the effects to go beyond the direct effect on someone who’s actually watching. Both through in-person discussions as well as through social media (Fox has its own website that you can share stories from), and Fox is one of the most shared sources on Facebook. So that definitely extends its reach beyond the immediate viewers.
Grossmann: I spoke to Audrey McClain, co-author of an experiment with James Druckman and Matthew Levendusky showing just how influential even having a political discussion with those who’ve watched cable news can be.
McClain: Partisan media affects everyone, those who watch it and those who don’t. And honestly those who enter discussions knowing very little about a topic or do not watch cable news on a regular basis, actually seem to be more influenced by the opinions of others who do regularly watch it.
Grossmann: The study brought people into a lab and assigned them to either watch or not watch cable news segment from Fox or MSNBC, and then to talk about it or not with fellow Democrats or Republicans or a mixed group.
McClain: There were those who didn’t watch partisan media and didn’t discuss the issue, those who watched the partisan media, and those who discussed the issue but did not themselves watch partisan media because they were assigned to the control. Finally those who watched partisan media and discussed it.
Grossmann: They watched and talked about the Keystone XL Pipeline, with Fox News touting economic benefits and MSNBC fearing environmental risks. I asked McClain how they chose those segments.
McClain: They were similar length and formats and had equal strengths in terms of their arguments. But if our goal is to understand the actual process, it was important to use actual things from cable news. And those are really the issues that we could find the best parroting and coverage of between all of the networks.
Grossmann: McClain told me that their study is part of a larger trend in research showing media persuasion is possible with the right people and the right issue.
McClain: I think what we’re learning is that the difficulty of persuasion is dependent on how entrenched the beliefs already are. With someone who comes into a discussion without much prior knowledge and not much stake in the issue, they are much easier to persuade than those who have very established beliefs on the issue.
Grossmann: Discussion with fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans was most convincing, but even mixed groups showed some changes in views.
McClain: People as a whole do tend to sort into homogenous groups, but what we really wanted to show that these causal mechanisms exist even in these kind of worst case scenarios where you’re with a group of people who don’t share your beliefs at all and you’ve had to watch different information and discuss it.
Grossmann: Amazingly, discussions about the TV segment seem to be even more important than directly watching it.
McClain: They are both important, but I do think the group effect has a stronger impact than the partisan media effect.
Grossmann: McClain also thought the effects could extend to areas like voting.
McClain: I think it very much extends to those issues because a lot of the people that we brought in did not have strong opinions about the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Grossmann: And local discussion networks might be part of the effects of these channels.
McClain: It’s actually probably cultural rather than geographic, but proximity breeds cultural homogeneity. So it’s probably a bit of both, the national opinions are influencing cultural, but those you are closest to are still most likely to have an effect on your beliefs.
Grossmann: With viewership growing, the effects are only likely to increase.
McClain: There are more people tuning in and they’re reaching a larger homogenous audience. There are more people who are certainly concerned and want to see and hear their opinions reflected back to them. So if anything I see the effects of this increasing over time.
Grossmann: Given these new studies, how should political professionals think about persuasion through cable news?
Martin told me he’s still not sure how Fox actually persuades.
Martin: So you can conclude that it is possible to persuade people. I don’t know that we have any strong conclusions about sort of what are the most effective ways of doing that. Whatever it is, Fox seems to have figured it out.
Grossmann: In fact, quite a few questions remain to be answered about Fox.
Martin: There are a lot of open questions. What are the differences in actual coverage? Like what kind of coverage brings viewers in? What kind of coverage is most persuasive? What messages are most effective?
Grossmann: McClain said her biggest remaining questions were about how online social networks might magnify the affects of partisan media.
McClain: I think if you were to start taking into account social media and online news consumption also, as sources of partisan news, and then extrapolated the downstream effects of those, I mean those numbers would be massive. Like half of US adults report getting their news through social media already, so if you then measure the effects of all of those consuming information in these partisan settings and distributing that to all of their friends in these networks which are, you know by design, are information sharking networks among social groups. It would be really reinforcing.
Grossmann: I hope you enjoyed the new podcast, and thanks to Audrey McClain and Gregory Martin for joining me. Political Research Digest will be available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. I’m Matt Grossman, a Michigan State University professor, who will be your guide to new and relevant research on American politics and policy. Join us next time to find out why Republican women don’t run for office and why it matters for the gender gap and voting.