It’s probably always been too simple of an answer to say that partisan media is to blame for what is undoubtedly an ideologically polarized country. If you’re a regular viewer of Sean Hannity, you’re probably going to believe the crazy things he says. Same goes for whether or not you tune into Chris Matthews on a daily basis. But Temple University’s Kevin Arceneaux notes the important and probably often disregarded distinction between those who choose to watch partisan media, and those who don’t. The key element here is that “people choose to watch partisan news”, and to understand the effect cable news has on viewers, you need to understand the people who actively decide to watch it:
The type of person who gravitates to partisan news shows is more politically and ideologically motivated than those who choose to watch mainstream news or tune out the news altogether, partisan or otherwise. People are not passive or particularly open-minded when it comes to political controversies. Not only do they choose what to watch on television, but they also choose whether to accept or reject the messages they receive from the televisions shows they watch.
In short, two forces simultaneously limit and blunt the effects of partisan news media. First, partisan news shows cannot polarize—in a direct sense—the multitude of Americans who do not tune into these shows. Second, the sort of people who actively choose to watch partisan news are precisely the sort of people who already possess strong opinions on politics and precisely the sort of people who should be less swayed by the content they view on these shows.
Arceneaux then notes that any study aimed at gauging the effect of cable news has to consider the counterfactual: “What would Fox News viewers know and believe about politics if we lived in a world without Fox News?”
In their new book to be published soon, Arceneaux and his co-author, Martin Johnson, came up with a really nifty experiment to explain that very question. What they basically did was ask people with different ideological, social backgrounds to watch different political news programs, or conversely to stop watching the political news programs they have been watching. They concluded that while partisan cable news programs had an effect on those who did not really enjoy watching news, the effect on those who like — and agree with — the sorts of programs they were forced to watch, was considerably smaller (the “proattitudinal” group).
So here’s the skinny: partisan cable news does effect people who don’t ordinarily like watching partisan cable news. But people who don’t like watching partisan cable news don’t watch partisan cable news.
None of this should suggest that opinionated cable news doesn’t fuel the partisan divide. It does. But rather than cause the divide, cable news programs on FOX, MSNBC, and to some extent CNN, energize their own viewers to more strongly believe what they already believed going in.
Still a problem, sure, but not as big a one as previously thought.
(Photo: flickr user Patrick Finnegan)