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How much influence do partisan news shows have on political views?

How much influence do partisan news shows have on political views?

Tech blog Ars Technica asks Are partisan news sources polarizing Americans? as it takes a look at the book “Changing Channels or Changing Minds: Partisan News in an Age of Choice .”  The book focuses on, among other things, whether or not partisan news programs really have that much of an influence on our polarized political environment.

Some interesting paragraphs:

For all the attention that Fox News and MSNBC receive, their audiences are still considerably smaller than the number of people watching broadcast news. For example, during a week in which Fox’s Bill O’Reilly drew an average of 3.4 million viewers, CBS Evening News alone pulled 10.2 million. And both those numbers pale in comparison to the 130 million people in the US who show up for national elections. How much influence could cable news have on people who don’t watch it?

Arceneaux and Martin set up a series of experiments, with nearly 1,700 participants in total, built on a central premise: what if the participants could choose to watch something else? In addition to episodes of Fox News and MSNBC programs, two entertainment options from the same time slot and with similar ratings (think Dirty Jobs) were used. Some participants were randomly assigned to watch one of the four options, while others were given the ability to “channel surf” for the duration of their time. Those who were given that freedom were pretty neatly divided—some mostly watched the partisan news programs, while others mainly sought some entertainment. Fewer people were indecisive.

The researchers looked for the ability of partisan news to influence people’s opinions on things like health care, the economy, terrorism, and approval of President Obama’s performance. They also investigated the media’s ability to determine which political issues are viewed as most important.

Virtually across the board, the group with the freedom to choose what they watched was less influenced than those who were forced to watch Fox News or MSNBC. One reason for that is obvious—many of them didn’t watch the news programs. Another reason became clear when participants were simply asked beforehand which program they’d prefer to be assigned to watch.

By separating people into “news seekers” (those who said they’d prefer to watch the news programs) and “entertainment seekers,” an interesting pattern is revealed. Entertainment seekers who were assigned to watch one of the partisan programs (much to their disappointment) were actually much more influenced by them than news seekers watching the same shows. News seekers are presumably more aware of current political debates and may have already formed their own opinions, making new information less likely to change their thinking.

The book’s description on Amazon concludes, “Americans who watch cable news are already polarized, and their exposure to partisan programming of their choice has little influence on their political positions. In fact, the opposite is true: viewers become more polarized when forced to watch programming that opposes their beliefs. A much more troubling consequence of the ever-expanding media environment, the authors show, is that it has allowed people to tune out the news: the four top-rated partisan news programs draw a mere three percent of the total number of people watching television.”

In a separate but related vein, this all made me think about Andrew Breitbart’s line that “politics is downstream from culture.”  Politics are often injected, sometimes in an overt way but often in a more subtle fashion, into many of today’s non-news television programs.  Other times, politics is a byproduct of a program. Either way, I think there’s some influence from these programs that is often overlooked.  It would be interesting to see some experiments on how much, or how little, influence other TV programs (i.e. Glee, South Park, Duck Dynasty) have on people’s political views and awareness – especially on viewers who wouldn’t normally consider themselves very politically engaged.


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They miss the biggest factor. The media is an after thought. It’s the thinking that occurs from the indoctrination our children and young adults receive in our education system. It is from that training that the choice is made to watch which program. Who wants to watch Fox when you’ve heard since you were 10 years old that it is all right wing propaganda? Our schools are not much better than the madrasses in the Middle East.

    Insufficiently Sensitive in reply to gasper. | October 19, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    They miss an even bigger factor: the broadcast news.

    For all the attention that Fox News and MSNBC receive, their audiences are still considerably smaller than the number of people watching broadcast news.

    THAT’s where the influence on public opinion comes from, and it’s quite partisan, both consciously and unconsciously. These guys are scrutinizing the molehill and pretending that the mountain doesn’t exist.

What was not addressed in this study is the peer influence by those who watch political programs on those they know who rarely or never watch political programs.

I have friends who rely on me for their political fix and others who debate me based on what others told them.

Fox News is considered partisan? When I saw the words “partisan news shows” in the headline, I thought ABC, NBC and CBS nightly news.

A completely worthless study.

    Not A Member of Any Organized Political in reply to irv. | October 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Don’t forget PBS also – they’re getting some complete “news” programs produced by NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC!!!!!

    PBS = Propaganda Bull Spreaders!

I don’t think they have much influence with the (by definition) low information voters that really end up deciding elections.

You have to be pretty much a political junkie to watch the Sunday morning political news shows or not to fast forward through your local news to get to the weather report.

Most political junkies pretty much have their minds made up and these shows do not change their minds.

It is a broader image that has been created by Hollywood, government schools, universities and the old media that pushes the stereotype of conservatives as mouth breathing knuckle dragging racists that pushes the young and hip, but uninformed and non-critical thinking, to vote for democrats.

If anyone wants to get any other than a progressive viewpoint out, and that includes moderate Democrats’ views, then they need to start at the local level. Local newspapers and tv stations are for sale, and if they are purchased by owners that believe in a free press and presenting the facts, then people will start getting this information from their local news. Also, it could provide training to young journalists on how to actually be a good reporter.

We are not going to affect change from the top down; the progressives have a lock on it. But making sure people get a different view than the usual AP drivel would make a difference. There are small papers and stations in every area, even the big markets. If I had the money, that is where I would invest.

NC Mountain Girl | October 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm

It’s he entertainment shows that do the most damage. “He’s a Republican” is a laugh line on many sitcoms. Crime dramas routinely show business people as villains. I am appalled at hoe entertainment spreads the message we need government regultion because otherwise business would surely kill off all its customers with shoddy products! Perhaps the place where TV entertainment has had the biggest impact is in spreading gay culture. People who are addicted to TV are likely to overestimate the percentage of gays in the population by as much as 5 yo 7 fold.

Mandy’s inquiry is what has been boggling our minds for years. What is causing people choose the political leadership they do? I think the answer is in Jonathan Haidt’s book THE RIGHTEOUS MIND ( It does not serve us to label the electorate as low information voters. It turns out that virtually everyone makes choices instantly based on intuitive leanings. The Right needs to do a much better job of indirect, subtle influencing to build a sense of trust, competence, and good faith caring for the society as a whole. Our pattern is to preach and whine while displaying an arrogance of superior reasoning — this is getting us nowhere. And letting ourselves stumble into being branded the party of spiteful government shutdown is devastating — the issue isn’t whether that belief is true, the issue is that’s the impression that the Left and the dominant media have created (thanks to big assists from Cruz, Lee and the House GOP).

    gasper in reply to Mark30339. | October 20, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Of course, the message is always easier when it is: “We will give you…..”. vs ” It takes personal resposnibility to….” People “lean” the way they do because of the way they have been conditioned in school, from kindergarten through higher education. Now we have parents who feel the same way because they were taught in that same school system. It’s on automatic cycle now. It’s easier to choose when you’ve been taught you don’t have to think.

    Mark30339 in reply to Mark30339. | October 20, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    I think peer group conditioning is very powerful . . . for a time. A lot of people still think the Affordable Care Act will make health coverage broader and more affordable because people see health insurance as rigged with pre-existing conditions and with insiders getting good rates and coverages while outsiders get over-charged for inferior care. Bad impressions about insurance motivate the naive hope that a nationwide law by partisan politicians can be trusted to improve things. Negative intuitions over the old insurance regime will vanish once personal experience with Obamacare makes everything far worse. When the nation wakes up, it would be nice if the Right had postured itself as trustworthy, competent and working to help society as a whole without making things worse. Instead, we’ve let anger for the Left and contempt for “low information voters” be the predominant impression given by the Right. Could we make ourselves any less attractive as a party to vote for?

“…been taught you don’t have to think.” should be “been conditioned how to think.”

It’s not peer pressure…it’s indoctrination by teachers on maleable minds. It’s nonstop year after year. Then it’s reinforced at home because young parents received the same indoctrination. Sure, there are circumstances that can overcome it, like a good dose of reality, but by then the damage is done.