The Frontal Cortex

Cable News

Cable news is not good for the soul. People make fun of Jersey Shore, but at least those randy kids don’t reinforce our deep-seated political biases. A new paper by Shawn Powers of USC and Mohammed el-Nawawy of Queens University of Charlotte looked at the effect of international cable news on the ideology of its viewers. Not surprisingly, they found that people were only interested in “news” that didn’t contradict what they already believed:

Powers and el-Nawawy show that global media consumers tuned in to international news media that they thought would further substantiate their opinions about U.S. policies and culture, and provide them with information on the international issues that they deemed most important. The study found a strong relationship between the participants’ attitudes toward U.S. policy and culture and their choice of broadcaster. Those who were dependent on BBC World and especially CNNI were overall more supportive of U.S. foreign policy.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. As Ken Auletta recently reported in the New Yorker, cable news has grown increasingly partisan in recent years, seeking out an ever more balkanized audience. He cites a study of 35,000 viewers conducted by TiVo: for each Democrat who watches Fox News there are eighteen Republicans, and for every Republican who watches MSNBC there are six Democrats. It turns out that everybody wants their own set of facts.

This is an old phenomenon that’s been exaggerated by new media trends. Partisan voters are convinced that they’re rational⎯only the other side is irrational⎯but we’re actually rationalizers. The Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990′s to prove this point. During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters⎯these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress⎯weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points⎯and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype⎯then the information is conveniently ignored. “Voters think that they’re thinking,” Achen and Bartels write, “but what they’re really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.”

The bleak lesson is that we turn the spotlight of attention into an information-filter, a way to block-out disagreeable points of view. Consider this experiment, which was done in the late 1960′s, by the cognitive psychologists Timothy Brock and Joe Balloun. I describe the study in my book:

Brock and Balloun played a group of people a tape-recorded message attacking Christianity. Half of the subjects were regular churchgoers while the other half were committed atheists. To make the experiment more interesting, Brock and Balloun added an annoying amount of static⎯a crackle of white noise⎯to the recording. However, they allowed listeners to reduce the static by pressing a button, so that the message suddenly became easier to understand. Their results were utterly predicable and rather depressing: the non-believers always tried to remove the static, while the religious subjects actually preferred the message that was harder to hear. Later experiments by Brock and Balloun demonstrated a similar effect with smokers listening to a speech on the link between smoking and cancer. We silence the cognitive dissonance through self-imposed ignorance.

Cable news takes advantage of this cognitive weakness. Interestingly, however, this latest study found that not every cable news channel reinforced the beliefs of its audience. The big exception? Al-Jazeera English, which reduced the dogmatism of viewers:

The longer participants had been watching AJE, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking…The reduced dogmatism applies only to the cognitive levels of thinking, or the way in which people process new information. People who are less dogmatic in their thought are more open to information that contradicts their worldviews, whereas people who think very dogmatically are more likely to ignore or minimize information that does not support their own beliefs. These levels of dogmatism are strongly related to political and cultural tolerance, and how people behave in confrontational situations.

Thanks to Eric Barker for the pointer.

Comments

  1. #1 Matthewn Putman
    January 26, 2010

    This is the nature of too much choice in a society. I am sure it is true with blog readers as well, who tend to track only blogs that they agree with. I think that the hope of transending bias in news are some star reporters who show the professionalism to be impartial.

  2. #2 Bean
    January 26, 2010

    It feels odd reading this from an article. I’ve been arguing on blogs and playing on off-topic forums when these types of subjects crop up. I’ve been coming to the same conclusion myself.

    I don’t necessarily see it as being the nature of “too much choice”, but more as the nature of a typical human. We are irrational creatures subject to reality-altering hormones and complex emotions; in some ways it makes perfect sense for a person to feel more comfortable with their worldview being justified and those they label as villians described as such.

    Was there any extra exploration into why watching AJE had such an impact on people’s dogmatic thoughts? Is it possible it is more of the type of person who would actually view AJE? I confess I’ve never watched it myself. How does it explain Al-Jazeera’s outstanding success in the Middle East where extremism is much more rampant?

  3. #3 Conor
    January 26, 2010

    “How does it explain Al-Jazeera’s outstanding success in the Middle East where extremism is much more rampant?”
    Is extremism really more rampant than it is in the USA? Think of gunsights with biblical messages. Capital punishment for mentally handicapped. The difficulty involved in passing measures for access to health care that are only barely adequate.
    It is possible that the impact of AJE indicates a people capable of changing their view-points?

  4. #4 David K
    January 26, 2010

    The longer participants had been watching AJE, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking…

    and that applies generally across the board, no matter what dogmatic belief the person originally had? and is there a range of ex-dogmatists amongst AJE viewers, or just a lot of ex “pro-American” dogmatists skewing the figures?

  5. #5 David T.
    January 26, 2010

    It’s OT, but there is a great doc out about Al Jazeera, called Control Room, discussed at the link. The article about it contains a quote that summarizes my fear about this increasing “Balkinization” of perspectives from news organizations that were granted specific Constitutional rights so that they could carry out the essential role of keeping the citizenry well-informed in a democracy.

    The Al Jazeera translator predicts that “Soon there will be no more room for people like me who speak softly.”

    Then again, perhaps it’s understandable that Americans would watch cable news that embraces rather than challenges their worldviews. After all, how do you mentally confront the treatment- done in our names- of an Al Jazeera cameraman, Sami al-Hajj, who was held for seven years at Guantanamo and tortured at Bagram AF Base in Afghanistan, before being released, on a stretcher, into the Sudan.

    And the charges? They kept changing and were never proven. As the New York Times article states, “According to Zachary Katznelson, the legal director for Reprieve, a human rights group that represented Mr. Hajj, the allegations changed over the years: “First, he was alleged to have filmed an interview of Osama bin Laden. It was another cameraman. So, that allegation disappeared. Then the U.S. said Sami ran a jihadist Web site. Turns out, there was no such site. So that allegation disappeared. Then, the U.S. said Sami was in Afghanistan to arrange missile sales to Chechen rebels. There was no evidence to back that up at all. So that allegation disappeared.”

  6. #6 Jason Snyder
    January 26, 2010

    This reminds me of my intro psych course, where the prof essentially said something along the lines of, “You can only understand, or like, those things you already know about.” After studying the brain ever since it still makes sense – that you can better appreciate those things that already relate substantially to things you have stored in your head. You’ve already made the associations, or at least similar ones, so it’s much easier to re-activate what’s already there, or integrate new information into a knowledge structure that’s primed to incorporate that info. A Fox fan can’t enjoy MSNBC (or whatever – I avoid all cable news!) because they don’t have the right framework…

    Man, a rich subject. I don’t know how you write so little about it. Then, maybe, that’s what your book is for.

  7. #7 Walter
    January 27, 2010

    I have some issues with this article. I won’t claim to be “the exception”, as clearly I’ve got my own cognitive dissonance struggles and I’m subject to biases like everyone else. But in my own experience, and observing those around me respond to news/pundits/etc, my refusal to lend an ear to the “other”‘s view is most often explicitly BECAUSE of the search FOR novelty. In fact, I often shun discussions or stories of like-minded views for the same reason: “All right, already, I get it; move on.” Do others feel this way?

    For instance, I’m one of those “committed atheists.” If someone starts engaging me with “God is the SOURCE of morality…”, I insert that statement into the “Already heard it, refuted it, bought the t-shirt” Box and move on. Same thing with Pascal’s Wager, etc.

    On the the political spectrum, wasn’t everyone sick of discussion about whether or not Obama was a citizen? So turning off Fox was an act of desiring novelty, and not squelching my dissonance.

    If facts that are contrary to my current beliefs are presented to me, I’ll entertain them as long as they’re new.

    Are other people equal opportunity novelty seekers? I also don’t particularly like getting into discussions about politics and religion with my friends. Not because it leads to heated arguments; precisely the opposite. It’s just a verbal circle jerk in which we all agree. “I get it, we agree, let’s move on to something else.” Right?

  8. #8 liberalcynic
    January 29, 2010

    It is very true that news has a very clear bias these days. I tend to read the New York Times first and then the New Yorker. Whatever I read seems to give me opinion rather than fact. There is more money in reinforcing people’s existing thoughts, and people get fooled too. We like reading and watching stuff that confirms our existing biases.

  9. #9 Hamish Banks
    February 1, 2010

    It may be relevant to note that Al-Jazeera English is a very different channel to Al-Jazeera in Arabic, which was vilified for its anti-Western broadcasting during the Iraq War (and is the subject of Control Room). AJE is populated with respected broadcasters from CNN, ABC, BBC World, ITV, Sky etc., including the venerable Sir David Frost.

  10. #10 rickpetes
    February 5, 2010

    No cognizance
    No dissonance

  11. #11 Oris
    February 5, 2010

    Take into account: the same kind of bias we use in deciding what news is or not important is also used by the mainstream reporters, publishers and broadcasters. Our daily news has always been a consumer product. But now –we news consumers get to have our say in the selective process.

    Neither the commercial news industry nor the DC run government likes the results of our new options. They will attempt to shut the free Web down … for our own good.

  12. #12 Gerard
    February 20, 2010

    Even this article shows bias– it’s not as if Clinton proposed smaller budgets. But the Republican Revolution is inside the blind spot of committed Progressives.

    I would imagine the Republicans are hearing the question, “Did Clinton work to reduce deficits” and they believe that no, he didn’t. He got creamed politically over Hillarycare, moved far to the right, and didn’t oppose loads of Republican measures that reduced the deficit. Again, this whole (true) narrative is inside the Progressive blind spot.

    I bet if they’d asked “did the deficit go down from 1995-2000″ they’d have gotten at least a somewhat different answer.

    I love the comment above that implies that all Fox News talks about is the birth certificate issue. I don’t watch any TV news at all, but I know they haven’t been focusing on that, now or previously, to any great extent.

    I think the real issue is that Progressives think about politics in fundamentally religious terms, while others do not. Christians (I’m an atheist) invest their religious yearning in the civic sphere, while Progressives bring their antiscientific and irrational beliefs to Congress and inflict them on everyone.

  13. #13 Gerard
    February 20, 2010

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1395/partisanship-fox-news-and–other-cable-news-audiences

    The assertions about who is watching what are spectacularly incorrect

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