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.