Fox viewers transformed after watching CNN for 30 days, report finds

Study finds changes in attitudes, policy preferences about Covid-19, then president Donald Trump

Sravasti Dasgupta
Monday 04 April 2022 02:39 EDT

(Related) Fox hosts erupt after Geraldo Rivera suggests Putin may have been ‘playing’ Trump

Fox News viewers who were paid to watch CNN for 30 days eventually became more skeptical of biased coverage and experienced a notable shift in beliefs on political and societal issues, a study has found.

The study titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers” by David E Brockman and Joshua L Kalla was conducted in September 2020 and published last week.

“Of 763 qualifying participants, we then randomised 40 per cent to treatment group. To change the slant of their media diet, we offered treatment group participants $15 per hour to watch 7 hours of CNN per week, during Sept. 2020, prioritising the hours at which participants indicated they typically watched Fox News,” the study said.

The study found changes in attitudes and policy preferences about Covid-19, evaluations of then president Donald Trump and Republican candidates as well as elected officials.

“Despite regular Fox viewers being largely strong partisans, we found manifold effects of changing the slant of their media diets on their factual beliefs, attitudes, perceptions of issues’ importance, and overall political views,” the authors of the study said.

They found that participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it.

“CNN provided extensive coverage of Covid-19, which included information about the severity of the Covid-19 crisis and poor aspects of Trump’s performance handling Covid-19. Fox News covered COVID-19 much less,” said the study.

It found that Fox News gave viewers information about why the disease is not a serious threat, while CNN provided a lot more information about the disease itself.

Fox News covered racial issues “extensively but selectively about Biden and other Democrats’ supposed positions on them and about outbreaks of violence at protests for racial justice in American cities”. The study found that CNN provided little information about either.

The two networks also covered the issue of voting by mail, but again differed on the information provided about it in addition to offering different frames.

A survey was conducted after three days on the participants, which captured significant shifts in beliefs.

On Covid, viewers who switched were six percentage points more likely to believe other countries handled the virus better than the US, five points more likely to believe that people suffer from whats known as “long Covid”, and 11 points less likely to say a president should focus more on containing violent protests than the pandemic.

On Mr Trump, there was a nearly three point decrease in the “feeling thermometer rating” after switching from Fox to CNN.

On then-presidential candidate Mr Biden, switchers were 13 points less likely to agree that “we’ll see many more police get shot by Black Lives Matter activists” if he was elected and 10 points less likely to believe his supporters were happy when police officers get shot.

And on mail in voting, switchers were seven points more likely to support after watching CNN.

“We found large effects of watching CNN instead of Fox News on participants’ factual perceptions of current events (i.e., beliefs) and knowledge about the 2020 presidential candidates’ positions,” the researchers said. “They discovered changes in attitudes about Donald Trump and Republicans as well as a large effect on their opinions about Covid.”

The researchers concluded that this is an effect in part of “partisan coverage filtering”, wherein partisan outlets selectively report information, leading viewers to learn a biased set of facts.

“Consistent with this, treated participants concluded that Fox concealed negative information about President Trump. Partisan media does not only present its side an electoral advantage — it may present a challenge for democratic accountability,” the study said.

This article was amended on 21 April 2022 to remove a reference to viewers in the study being ‘less likely to buy into fake news’, as this was incorrect. The study addressed the effects of ‘partisan media’, and not fake news.

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