Did you ever wonder what would happen if a loyal Fox News viewer suddenly started watching CNN?
Well, two political science professors decided to find out.
Joshua Kalla of Yale University and David Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley lined up a sample of 763 Fox News viewers for their study.
They randomly chose 304 of these individuals and paid them $15 an hour to watch CNN. They made sure their participants were actually watching through a series of quizzes, and they measured the opinions of both groups in three waves of surveys.
Those watching CNN were six percentage points less likely to believe then-candidate Joe Biden supported eliminating all funding for the police. They were seven percentage points more likely to support voting by mail and nine percentage points less likely to agree that mail-in voting would generate widespread fraud.
The experiment took place in the late summer of 2020, smack dab in the middle of a presidential election.
“I think the real key finding here from our perspective is we find that partisan media is hiding information from voters,” Broockman said during an appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
He suggested that many of the newly minted CNN viewers were surprised to discover some of the stories they’d been missing.
“And they said, ‘Oh wow, I had no idea. I didn’t know all this because Fox News wasn’t telling me,’” he recalled.
The host of Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter, turned to Kalla.
“Basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while,” Stelter said, “which is Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”
Kalla agreed, sort of. He confirmed that Fox tended to focus on issues that made Republicans look good and Democrats look bad.
“On the flip side,” he said, “CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well.”
He mentioned the historic Abraham Accords involving Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Marking Israel’s first such agreement with an Arab country since a similar pact with Jordan in 1994, the deal’s signing that summer represented a major achievement for the Trump administration, and the researchers found Fox had given it 15 times as much coverage as CNN.
“I think you’re engaging in some both-sides-ism there, Josh,” he said.
“Not trying to lay out a moral equivalency,” Kalla replied. “It’s not about what an objective standard is. It’s really about how all networks do engage in this. And in order for viewers to get a realistic picture of the world, we need viewers to see all types of information.”
In a separate interview, Kalla had noted the researchers focused on Fox News because Donald Trump, a Republican, was the incumbent president. In a year when a Democratic president was up for re-election, he suggested, it might be a good idea to carry out a study with Democrats as the subjects.
Broockman pointed to the current situation in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“Right now, Russians, we know, are not getting all the information about what is happening in Ukraine,” he said, “in the same way that we found during the Trump presidency those watching Fox News were not getting all the information about what was really happening, for example, with COVID and otherwise in the Trump administration.”
For the Russians, this skewed sense of reality is enforced by the government. For Americans, it comes through a choice of news outlets.
One might hope the study participants would come out of the experiment looking beyond Fox News to a broader array of news sources, but that didn’t happen. Researchers found participants going back to their old viewing habits, and their old opinions, as soon as the experiment ended.
“They don’t really want to engage in that hard work,” Kalla said. “They want to really just watch the side that makes them feel good.”
Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @Kelly_Hawes.