Fox News’ coverage of the world is so extreme and so overtly propagandistic that it might seem that its viewers are impervious to information from more mainstream news outlets. But a new working paper suggests that, if they’re actually shown the information, Fox News viewers can be open to absorbing unflattering news about politicians they support and can change their minds about hot-button issues.
It’s a fascinating finding that hammers home how Fox News isn’t just reflecting right-wing viewers’ opinions back at them, but is also feeding them a distorted picture of the world that pushes them deeper into support for extreme ideological positions and politicians. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
Describing Fox News as merely a mirror of the right doesn’t correctly convey the problem.
Political scientists David Broockman of Stanford University and Joshua Kalla of Yale University published a working paper, which is under peer review, based on the results of an experiment studying viewers of Fox News. In the fall of 2020, they paid regular Fox News viewers to watch CNN, instead, for about seven hours a week for a month and then surveyed them about their political attitudes and what they knew about current events.
Broockman and Kalla compared the survey results of the experimental group of Fox News viewers who switched to CNN to those of the control group who didn’t, and they found that consuming CNN noticeably shifted the test group’s perception of the world.
Matt Yglesias’ write-up of the study for Bloomberg has a lot of the top highlights:
Switchers were five percentage points more likely to believe that people suffer from long Covid, for example, and six points more likely to believe that many foreign countries did a better job than the U.S. of controlling the virus. They were seven points more likely to support voting by mail. And they were 10 points less likely to believe that supporters of then-candidate Joe Biden were happy when police officers get shot, 11 points less likely to say it’s more important for the president to focus on containing violent protesters than on the coronavirus, and 13 points less likely to agree that if Biden were elected, “we’ll see many more police get shot by Black Lives Matter activists.”
Part of what’s interesting about the study is that it captured not just the difference between CNN’s and Fox News’ ideological outlooks, but also their differing commitments to sharing certain facts. Most notably, CNN was more likely to offer factual information that reflected more poorly on Donald Trump — and the Fox viewers who switched realized this: Participants who switched were less likely to agree that “if Donald Trump did something bad, Fox News would discuss it.”
The switchers were more likely to care about Covid, learn different information about current events and feel more negatively toward Trump and the GOP. This isn’t to say the experiment revolutionized people’s worldviews. The Fox News viewers who switched to CNN generally continued to hold perspectives that accord with a right-wing media diet and worldview, and the experiment didn’t change whom they’d vote for. Even so, it's still striking that it took just four weeks for some of them to shift in some attitudes and observations of facts.
Describing Fox News as merely a mirror of the right doesn’t correctly convey the problem. In the facts and narratives it chooses to present or omit, it persuades its viewers to think in ways they might not think if they didn’t have access to the network. And in its editorial decisions to become cheerleaders for certain politicians, it forecloses its viewers’ ability to hold conservative leaders accountable for failing at their own projects or for the negative consequences they cause that a conservative might be interested to learn about.
Now, of course, I'm not arguing that there's anything wrong with having a point of view at a media network, and, after all, objectivity is impossible. The issue, rather, is Fox News' values — which include an editorial embrace of white nationalism, authoritarianism, bigotry and brutal economic exploitation — and its casual use of fearmongering and evidence-free conspiracy theories to advance ideas.
At the same time, the study is a reminder that even in our hyperpolarized political climate there are at least some possibilities for people on the left (and the center) to persuade people who consume far-right news to question their news sources. It certainly seems like it's worth a shot.