CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The subject of political conditioning and bias in mainstream news coverage has become a major point of contempt in the years following the 2016 presidential election. There’s no denying that certain news networks tend to lean towards either conservative or liberal ideologies and rhetoric, but just how much do these media platforms really sway political opinion? A new study conducted at MIT has concluded that the answer to that question ultimately depends on the viewer.
The study finds that while biased news media certainly does have “a strong persuasive impact” on general political preferences in the United States, such news programs are far more impactful in shaping the views of casual viewers who aren’t especially knowledgeable when it comes to politics. On the other hand, regular viewers of cable news who keep up with the goings on in Washington and already have strong political beliefs are less likely to be influenced by the news media.
“Different populations are going to respond to partisan media in different ways,” says study co-author Adam Berinsky in a release. “Political persuasion is hard, if it were easy, the world would already look a lot different.”
Political researchers and pundits have debated the question for decades: do people actively seek out news coverage that aligns with their beliefs, or are people’s beliefs shaped by news coverage? In order to take a novel approach to the topic, MIT researchers opted to conduct a series of small experiments and surveys with sub-groups of participants based on their media consumption preferences, personal ideologies, and other factors.
This approach allowed the study to investigate how varying levels of political interest, and willingness to watch news programs, impact the persuasiveness of cable news.
One experiment gave certain participants the option to either read an article from Fox News, MSNBC, or The Food Network. Meanwhile, other participants were mandated to read one particular online post from one of the three media outlets. Fox News is typically associated with conservative ideas, while MSNBC tends to lean more liberal, and The Food Network was included as a neutral option for people not interested in politics.
After examining participant responses to what they read, researchers found that people who chose to read articles from partisan news sources like MSNBC or Fox were less influenced by the content. On the other hand, participants who wanted to simply read about food, but were assigned a partisan news article, were actually more influenced by the news coverage.
In terms of measuring this influential power, the study’s authors say that if a non-political person who typically doesn’t watch cable news were to sit down and watch a single partisan news program, it could influence their views by an amount equal to one-third of the average ideological gap found today between Republicans and Democrats.
With those numbers in mind, it isn’t a stretch to say that partisan news coverage could potentially sway a non-political person towards one particular U.S. political party all over the course of just a few hours.
Even those who choose to watch partisan news sources are influenced, albeit to a smaller degree. Another experiment in the study found that regular viewers of cable news were swayed by a report regarding marijuana legislation.
While these findings may paint an alarming picture of the current media’s ability to sway novice political opinion, researchers say it is important to keep their results in perspective; the majority of Americans simply aren’t watching these programs.
“Most people just don’t want to be exposed to political news, these are not bad people or bad citizens. In theory, a democracy is working well when you can ignore politics.” Berinsky says. “We only learned those people are persuadable because we made them watch the news,”
The study is published in the scientific journal American Political Science Review.