Does watching Fox News make you a Republican, or are you just more likely to watch it because you have conservative views to start with?
While Republicans do tend to watch Fox News more and Democrats tend to favor MSNBC, until recently, there had been no definitive proof those shows influenced the votes of their watchers. It was, as Washington Post blogger Max Ehrenfreund said, “a chicken-and-egg problem,” and it was difficult to tell if watching them made viewers even more conservative or liberal.
However, a new study suggests that the news channel you watch can actually be a deciding factor in your political views and who gets your vote at election time.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Gregory J. Martin of Emory University and Ali Yurugoglu of Stanford University recently conducted a study exploring whether a person’s voting behavior can be influenced by what they see on popular cable news shows.
Their research first took into account that Fox News and MSNBC are located on different channels in various parts of the country. They found that, in terms of total viewers, channel position mattered – people are more likely to watch stations with lower channel numbers.
Martin explained that, historically, the oldest and most popular channels, such as ESPN, have lower numbers. Viewers may flip through a few other channels during commercial breaks, but usually won’t stray too far. Fox News and MSNBC channel positions were found to be somewhat random across the country.
Martin and Yurugoglu then explored the relationship between channel positions, people’s intended votes, county-level presidential vote shares, and individual viewership.
The used the data to test the effects on voting among those who watched Fox News and MSNBC.
The results were interesting.
Viewers tended to watch a few more minutes of the channel with the lowest number, whether it was Fox News or MSNBC – not necessarily because they agree with the host’s political views, but because they are more conveniently placed in the line-up.
The researchers found that watching four or more minutes of Fox News a week makes people 0.9 percent more likely to vote Republican, while watching four or more minutes of MSNBC makes them 0.7 percent more likely to vote Democrat.
Longer periods of watching either channel showed even greater effects. People who watched an hour or more of Fox News a week were 3.5 percent more likely to vote Republican, while MSNBC watchers were 3.6 percent more likely to vote Democrat.
The study also found that both Fox News and MSNBC had grown more ideologically defined over the past 15 years. In the early 2000s, people of either party were no more or less likely to watch MSNBC and Republicans only 11 percent more likely to watch Fox News. By 2008, Democrats were 20 percent more likely to watch MSNBC, while Republicans were more that 30 percent more likely to watch Fox News.
Martin and Yurugoglu say that the study suggests both news outlets have a effect on voters – they estimate that in 2004 and 2008, Fox News affected by the Republican vote share by 4 percent. In general, they found, Fox has more viewers, and more success in converting viewers from CNN’s more moderate ideology than MSNBC.
Martin says his next step is to try to determine if there are differences between individual shows on the two networks. For example, Fox News hosts Bill O’Reiley and Sean Hannity have different styles and opinions, so is one of them more influential on a person’s voting choices than the other?
Matthew Gentzkow, an expert on media bias, calls the study exciting.
“I think this paper has the potential to be pretty important,” he said.
One of the biggest questions this study raises, however, is have networks such as Fox News and MSNBC really caused or contributed to the huge ideological split in the U.S. over the past decade? Fox News has been particularly influential in how Americans view the current president and his family, with reports such as this one cited by this Inquisitr article about the Obama family’s expensive dining choices while on a recent vacation.
What do you think?
[Image via Fox News]