It should be noted that in a famous study published 15 years ago, economists showed that exposure to Fox could have a measurable impact on elections. Comparing markets that had received Fox to those where it was not yet available, the study concluded that Fox News’ presence was good for a Republican gain of 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points between elections. of 1996 and 2000. It was a decidedly small effect – but large enough to influence this very close election.
It’s a slightly different question of how watching Fox affects someone’s opinions on the day-to-day controversies of politics. One view is that Fox is such an echo chamber that he can’t change minds. Only committed conservatives, the theory goes, would bother to listen to Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, so what difference could it make what they say?
Quite a big difference, in fact, according to a new study by political scientists David Broockman of Stanford and Joshua Kalla of Yale. The research offers a much more detailed look at Fox’s impact on its viewers, thanks to the use of a resource-intensive experience, rather than the broad aggregates of this earlier article.
Broockman and Kalla recruited a sample of regular Fox News viewers and paid a subset of them to watch CNN instead. (Compliance was enforced with some news quizzes, for which additional compensation was offered.) Then, the changers treatment group and the non-changers control group completed three waves of news surveys .
The Results: Not only did CNN and Fox cover different things during the September 2020 survey period, but Fox’s engaged viewership audience, who started the month with conservative predispositions, changed their minds on many questions.
Switchers were five percentage points more likely to believe people are suffering from long Covid, for example, and six points more likely to believe that many foreign countries have done a better job than the United States at controlling the virus. They were seven points more likely to support postal voting. And they were 10 points less likely to believe supporters of then-candidate Joe Biden were happy when police officers were shot, 11 points less likely to say it was more important for the president to focus on containing violent protesters than on coronavirus, and 13 points less likely to agree that if Biden were elected, “we’ll see a lot more police getting shot by Black Lives Matter activists.”
These are significant differences, even if the group that moved to CNN remained very right wing in its view of the American political landscape. While far fewer thought Biden supporters were happy with police shootings, for example, the overall share of those who believed it was still 46%. And only 24% of people who switched CNN said they supported voting by mail.
Still, these are reasonably large changes from a month-long experiment. And they happened despite then-President Donald Trump’s long-running efforts to discredit CNN and other mainstream media.
Also, there are only a limited amount of news at any given time. One story that broke while the experiment was underway was Bob Woodward’s revelation that Trump knew early on that the new virus was “deadly” – specifically, that it was much worse than the flu, contradicting efforts subsequent audiences of the president to downplay the virus. Members of the treatment group were more likely to be aware of this, as well as the fact that Trump had not met with the family of Jacob Blake, the victim of a police shooting in Wisconsin the previous month.
Over a longer period of time, presumably, more stories ignored by Fox News would have accumulated. And indeed, one of the things the Switches changed their minds about was Fox News itself: They became more skeptical that Fox would cover a story that misrepresented Trump, even if it were true.
This mode of political influence, where partisan media can simply ignore inconvenient stories, is a potentially powerful challenge to democratic accountability. It’s probably not symmetrical either. Even media outlets that bias liberals in their coverage are generally quick to cover the Covid death toll or rising inflation.
Of course, Democrats can’t improve their standing with the public by paying Fox viewers to change channels. But one lesson they can learn from this experience is that no one is unreachable.
Republicans have been relentless critics of the mainstream media for decades, but they also happily participate in it. Republican members of Congress routinely accept invitations to appear on network talk shows on Sunday mornings. Former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has signed on as a CBS News contributor.
The left, on the other hand, tends to stigmatize any engagement with right-wing media, as if fearing contamination by association. If it were true that this medium is consumed exclusively by people completely impervious to dissonant information, boycotting the RWM could be a defensible strategy. But Broockman and Kalla’s research indicates that information flows at the margins do matter. Any opportunity to present people with new facts and new arguments is valuable.
Related to Bloomberg Opinion:
• The real reason Fox News needs Trump to win: Tara Lachapelle
• Murdoch has the power if he wants Trump to move on: Timothy O’Brien
• Bringing the right into mainstream media: Megan McArdle
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he is also the author, more recently, of “One Billion Americans”.