There is some evidence that it can, and two political scientists recently performed an interesting experiment to find out. David Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale paid regular viewers of FOX News $15 an hour to watch CNN instead for up to 7 hours a week – and also paid them to take news quizzes to make sure they were paying attention.
The result: After watching CNN for a month, the group had less polarized attitudes about current events and policies, and their views on elected officials and political parties were more moderate. The researchers argue that part of the reason for this is what’s called “partisan coverage filtering.” That term refers to the different news topics each network chooses to cover.
Those differences were significant in September 2020, when the study took place. This chart shows the top 10 topics covered by each network and compares the total word count devoted to each. For example, CNN dedicated 10,251 words to the severity of COVID-19, while FOX allotted only 709 words. Meanwhile, the top topic on FOX was the Democratic party’s support for racial issues and Black Lives Matter protests, with more than 15,000 words dedicated to those stories compared to CNN’s coverage at less than 2,000 words during the same period.
Another issue at play is “framing.” The researchers said framing refers to the different ways each network covers the same story. For example, both networks covered voting by mail but presented radically different information about it. Also, the photo at the top of this post clearly shows a difference in framing.
By the end of the month, the changes in attitudes were statistically significant: The FOX viewers who watched CNN were 5 percentage points more likely to believe that people can suffer from long COVID, and 10 points less likely to believe that Joe Biden supporters were happy when police officers were shot. Bloomberg News wrote a good report with the full breakdown.
Researchers say these results are noteworthy, in part because the people in the study were considered unlikely to change their opinions: They were older, whiter, Republican, and Trump supporters. The researchers concluded that even people entrenched in their partisan views could be influenced. Most participants had an unfavorable view and even distrust of CNN, but they still learned from it and became more skeptical that FOX would report anything critical of then-President Trump.
While the results were notable, the effects were short-lived. After the month-long study ended, the participants went back to watching FOX, and there was no appreciable long-term effect. “An endline survey two months later found these impacts largely receded as treated participants primarily returned to their prior viewing habits,” Broockman and Kalla wrote.
There are other reasons to view the results with caution. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, a process when other political scientists analyze and validate its findings. In addition, it only measured FOX viewers watching CNN. The researchers said this was due to limited funding, and Kalla said on Twitter that he would like to repeat the study the other way around, by paying CNN viewers to watch FOX.
Although more investigation is needed, the researchers said the findings are disturbing because partisan news outlets are not performing their traditional watchdog role. In this case, FOX did not cover stories critical of Trump’s handling of COVID-19 and distorted perceptions about his political rivals. And as we know from “The Elements of Journalism,” the primary purpose of journalism “is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”
If partisan media omits or skews that information, it could pose a significant threat to democratic accountability and even our democracy.