Switching from avidly watching Fox News to watching CNN shifts the audience’s political opinions, at least in the short term, according to a study co-authored at UC Berkeley.
Study co-authors, campus political science associate professor David Broockman and campus graduate alumnus Joshua Kalla, offered 763 conservative Republicans $15 an hour to switch from Fox News to CNN for a month. The participants were surveyed through quizzes after every showing.
“A lot of people talk about Fox News and MSNBC as places that put their thumbs on the scale,” Broockman said. “There’s some truth to that, but there’s something deeper going on.”
This study demonstrates that partisan media, on all sides, selectively reports information.
For example, COVID-19 cases in the United States in September 2020 were higher compared to other countries. This reflected poorly on the Trump administration and was “really not recorded” on Fox News, according to Broockman. He alleged that Fox News was even “downplaying” the virus at the time.
Meanwhile, CNN had heavier reporting on problems concerning COVID-19, racism and former president Donald Trump’s alleged failings on these issues, according to Kalla.
This trend is not an issue for one political party or another, but is instead something damaging to democracy as a whole, according to Broockman.
“If you just watch MSNBC or Fox News for your news, you should be aware that you are only getting some of the information, a skewed view of reality,” Broockman said. “They’re giving you a completely different understanding of what is going on in the world as a whole.”
When the study’s participants switched to CNN, they were more likely to believe that Trump was not doing as great of a job as they thought and became generally more critical in their observations of him, Broockman noted.
Study participants were also more likely to agree that Fox News would not cover stories around Trump’s mistakes.
“It’s a great comfort to see evidence that people who many of us feared were impervious to facts are actually strongly receptive to reporting that conflicts with their political preferences,” said Edward Wasserman, campus journalism ethics professor and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, in an email.
Although these are pretty major changes in opinions, the study found that as soon as participants were no longer being paid, they returned to watching Fox News, and their old attitudes returned, Broockman said.
Broockman added that it is worth thinking more about how we can protect democracy and said he hopes to see more creative minds coming together to address this.
According to Broockman, a possible policy solution could be a 21st-century version of the Federal Communications Council’s Fairness Doctrine from 1949, which mandated fair coverage and equal airtimes to controversial issues on radio broadcasts.
“It’s not enough to tell people to watch different news programs just because it’s ‘good for them,’ ” Broockman said. “There needs to be a more systematic solution.”