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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