Partisan News Wields Little Direct Influence

New book by political scientists at UC Riverside and Temple University contends polarization in the public is overblown, finds disengagement from news a bigger problem

book cover

Martin Johnson and co-author Kevin Arceneaux argue in “Changing Minds or Changing Channels?” that partisan news programs are not as influential as many people think.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Pundits and politicians posit that partisan media like MSNBC and Fox News have polarized the public, making it difficult to reach mass consensus on public-policy issues.

Political scientists at the University of California, Riverside and Temple University disagree. In their new book, “Changing Minds or Changing Channels? Partisan News in an Age of Choice” (University of Chicago Press), Martin Johnson and Kevin Arceneaux argue that partisan news programs are not as influential as many people think. The bigger problem, they contend, is disengagement with television news generally.

“More people watch ‘Duck Dynasty’ than many cable talk shows,” said Johnson, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at UC Riverside. “As preoccupied as some people are with partisan news on Fox or MSNBC, more people are entertainment junkies and prefer shows like ‘Dog Whisperer’ to news and partisan media.”

Belief that partisan news media have polarized America stems from both the compelling nature of the programming and research designs that are not necessarily sensitive to the dramatic changes in the television landscape, particularly the exponential growth in entertainment offerings on cable channels, Johnson and Arceneaux said.

“If you force people into choices, you’re going to drive the results. It’s useful to think of new ways to study, to give more choice in these experiments and capture nuances out there,” Johnson said.

“Partisan media is not the only game in town,” he added. “Pundits and politicians think all people watch is Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity. They don’t.”

In a series of experiments that began in 2008, Johnson and Arceneaux discovered that viewers who were allowed to choose between partisan news or entertainment programs often selected an entertainment option. Their research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the UC Riverside Academic Senate Committee on Research, and Temple University.

“Generally we find that when people have a choice to watch what they want, that tends to blunt the influence of partisan news media,” Johnson explained.

Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

The majority of Americans don’t see polarization, he added. “All of these people who are tuned out do not know there are deep political divisions unless they see or read a news story written by journalists who are political news junkies. The far bigger problem is that people don’t engage in news media at all.”

Pundits and politicians who contend that “everything would be better if conservatives watched MSNBC and liberals watched FOX are dead wrong,” Johnson said. “When you force people to watch something they disagree with, they dig in.”

Research by Johnson and Arceneaux suggests that people whose views might be malleable are avoiding news programs, partisan news in particular.

“We don’t know why they’re avoiding it,” Johnson said. “They’re moved to pay attention to things that are not the news. That’s something we’re interested in — learning about people’s motivations.”

One way to encourage more consumption of news would be to create more opportunities for what Johnson and Arceneaux describe as inadvertent audiences.

“In the 1970s there were fewer than 20 television channels in most homes. If you wanted to watch TV in the early evening, you watched news.  There were few entertainment options during those newscasts,” Johnson said. “People would accidentally find themselves watching news. We don’t have that anymore. Now you have more than 100 channels and a remote control or keyboard in your hand. Every cable network today is connected to a news operation. Would it kill them to offer two-minute news broadcasts between shows? If we had more of these opportunities it might draw people back into news consumption.”

Polarization is a significant issue today, but it exists among political elites such as members of Congress, rather than the general population, Johnson said.

“These people really can’t talk to each other. Congress is more polarized than it has been in 100 years,” he added. “There aren’t any easy answers. Political difference is part of our reality. It’s a great mythology that people can agree on everything and that there are always bipartisan solutions. There isn’t any middle ground for many policy solutions. We need to find ways to bring more people into politics.”

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