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October 23, 2013

Who knew? Turns out Beltway politicians are more susceptible to Faux News than the typical hobbit! [Y-not]

Ars Technica recently published a book review under the foreboding title Are partisan news sources polarizing Americans? in which they review a book by two academics whose bread and butter is studying political persuasion in general and media’s role in particular. The book, which I haven’t read incidentally, is called Changing Minds or Changing Channels.

Ars Technica’s review begins:

People love to get mad about news coverage in the media—or, at least, it’s hard not to. Thinking about your least favorite cable news channel or newspaper might make you feel as if you’ve been playing a whack-a-mole game where all the moles evade your mallet perfectly while hurling shockingly effective personal insults. Those writers and TV personalities probably aren’t the only people you think of as liars or jerks, but the fact that they can broadcast (literally or metaphorically) their opinions to such large audiences might make you bristle.

(Yes, it really makes me bristle that Faux News can actually broadcast conservative opinions to a large audience.)

There are real demographic and ideological differences between the audiences of Fox News, MSNBC, and the evening broadcast news. Viewers of partisan cable news networks are considerably more polarized. It’s obvious that more conservatives than liberals watch Fox News, but does watching Fox News make people more conservative? This is the oft-voiced concern about the modern news environment—that echo chambers drive people further apart.

(Oh, I see. They’re not bristling with anger, they’re concerned about Faux News driving people apart. That makes it better!)

The review is not the most over-the-top example of letting one’s bias show (as I'm doing here, btw, but shut up that's why), but it does continue along that vein. Feel free to read it (it’s short).

Upshot of the research presented in the book they reviewed is this:

The book makes a pretty good case that, together, these factors have caused other studies to exaggerate the societal impact of the cable news shoutosphere. If you bring in a random group and force them to watch partisan news, you’re including a lot of people who would never watch that stuff on their own. If you remove those people (by letting them watch Mike Rowe complain about how bad that thing smells instead), the apparent persuasive effectiveness drops quite a bit. That makes things seem a lot less like a case of cable news polarizing the American public and a lot more like cable news delivering a product that appeals to the poles of the American public.

Anyhoo, I was curious enough about the bent of the two academic researchers in question that I dig some digging around. Turns out one of them might not be a complete hack. At least, I thought this paper of his was worth reading based on the abstract:

Democratic Representation and the Emergence of Partisan News Media: Investigating Dynamic Partisanship in Congress

Technological innovations over the past decade have expanded the number of news and entertainment options available to consumers, leading to the emergence of partisan news media. We contend that the emergence of partisan media should have decisive effects on the strategic calculations of elected representatives who are chronic consumers of news media. Moreover, we theorize that partisan news media's influence on legislative behavior will be most apparent when elections are near. Exploiting the incremental roll-out of the conservative Fox News Channel in the late 1990s, we find that the emergence of Fox News caused U.S. House members to alter their levels of party support dynamically, responding both to the proximity of elections and changes in the media environment in their district. Fox News caused both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to increase support for the Republican Party on divisive votes in the waning months of the election cycle.

If you enjoy reading academic research articles, I thought this was a pretty nice one. I’m not usually too impressed by social “science” research, but as far as those sorts of studies go, I thought this one did a good job of capitalizing on a somewhat unique phenomenon – the roll out of Fox News in previously unchartered territory – and trying to draw meaningful conclusions about American politics. The article’s first three pages, in particular, are an easy read that lay out the questions they were addressing and what they found, which was that the biggest impact Faux News had was on elected officials, not the hobbits who elected them.

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posted by Open Blogger at 07:09 PM

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