Does partisan news shape people’s political ideologies? Or do people decide to watch political media that is already aligned with their beliefs?

A new study has found an answer to that question: While partisan media does have “a strong persuasive impact” on political attitudes, news media exposure has a bigger impact on people without strong media preferences.

“Different populations are going to respond to partisan media in different ways,” said Dr. Adam Berinsky, the Mitsui Professor of Political Science and director of the Political Experiments Research Lab (PERL) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a co-author of the study.

“Political persuasion is hard,” he added. “If it were easy, the world would already look a lot different.”

Political scientists continue to debate the question of media influence. Some say that partisan media significantly shapes public opinion, but others argue that “selective exposure,” in which people watch what they already agree with, is predominant, the researcher points out.

“It’s a really tricky problem,” he said. “How do you disentangle these things?”

To do that, the researchers completed a series of experiments and surveys analyzing the responses of smaller subgroups, which were divided according to media consumption preferences, ideology, and more.

That allowed the researchers to look more specifically at the impact of media on people with different ideologies and different levels of willingness to view media. The researchers call this approach the Preference-Incorporating Choice and Assignment design (PICA).

One experiment gave participants the option of reading web posts from either the conservative Fox News channel; MSNBC, which has several shows leaning in a significantly more liberal direction; or the Food Network. Other participants were assigned to watch one of the three.

The researchers discovered that people who elected to read materials from partisan news channels were less influenced by the content. By contrast, participants who gravitated to the Food Network, but were assigned to watch cable news, were more influenced by the content, according to the study’s findings.

How big is the effect? The researchers found that a single exposure to partisan media can change the views of relatively nonpolitical citizens by an amount equal to one-third of the average ideological gap that exists between people on the right and left sides of the political spectrum.

The bottom line: The influence of cable news depends on who it is reaching.

“People do respond differently based on their preferences,” Berinsky said.

While the impact of partisan cable news on people who elect to watch it is smaller, it does exist, the researchers found.

For instance, in another of the study’s experiments, the researchers tested cable news’ effects on viewers’ beliefs about marijuana legislation. Even among regular cable-news viewers, partisan content influenced people’s views.

But what does this all mean?

To put the findings in the context of daily news viewership in the U.S., researchers point out that the recent congressional hearings in which special counsel Robert Mueller testified about his presidential investigation drew an average of 3 million viewers on Fox News during the day, while MSNBC had an average of 2.4 million viewers. Overall, 13 million people watched, the researchers noted.

Contrast that with the Super Bowl, which regularly pulls in around 100 million viewers.

“Most people just don’t want to be exposed to political news,” Berinsky said. “These are not bad people or bad citizens. In theory, a democracy is working well when you can ignore politics.”

One implication of the lack of interest in politics is that any audience gains that partisan media outlets experience can produce a relatively greater influence, since that growth would apply to formerly irregular consumers of news, who may be more easily influenced, the researchers said.

But those gains are likely to be limited, due to the reluctance of most Americans to consume partisan media, Berinsky said.

“We only learned those people are persuadable because we made them watch the news,” he concluded.

The study was published in American Political Science Review.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology