Exposure to partisan news can shift sociopolitical attitudes over time, according to new research published in PLOS One. The findings suggest that the association between partisan news consumption and partisan views is not merely a matter of self-selection. Instead, consuming news from partisan sources appears to alter perceptions of reality and sociopolitical attitudes.
“This project was led by my former graduate student, Megan Earle. There is considerable interest in psychology (and other disciplines), and in the wider public, about the role of news media in shaping public opinion,” said study author Gordon Hodson (@GordonHodsonPhD), a professor at Brock University and director of the Brock Intergroup Attitudes Scholarship (BIAS) Lab.
“Whereas news outlets historically considered objectivity to be a goal, news outlets seem increasingly partisan in nature these days. We were interested in how this might shape opinions in the public. We already know that people on the left are drawn to news from the left, and people on the right are drawn to news from the right, so we sought to examine this question in ways that would account for, or get around, that self-selection issue.”
The researchers first examined data from the 2016 American National Election Studies. They analyzed responses from 4,249 Americans who answered questions about their news consumption and sociopolitical views. As expected, Hodson and his research team found that those who consumed more right-leaning news consumption tended to have more right-leaning views, while those who consumed more left-leaning news consumption tended to have more left-leaning views.
To better understand whether news consumption habits led to changes in sociopolitical views or whether sociopolitical views led to changes in news consumption habits, the researchers next collected three waves of longitudinal data from 484 U.S. residents via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform.
Hodson and his colleagues found that greater right-leaning news consumption predicted subsequent shifts towards right-leaning stances and greater left-leaning news consumption predicted subsequent shifts towards left-leaning stances, even after controlling for prior issue stances. But only two attitudes significantly predicted later partisan news consumption: More pro-gun attitudes and more anti-Muslim attitudes both predicted less use of left-leaning news over time.
The researchers also found some evidence of a causal relationship. In an supplemental study, they randomly assigned 305 Canadian university undergraduates to view a 10-minute clip of news footage covering ISIS and Syrian refugees from a left-leaning source, a 10-minute clip of news footage covering ISIS and Syrian refugees from a right-leaning source, or 10-minutes of sports news commentary. Those who watched the right-leaning news coverage tended to have more anti-refugee attitudes, support for military action, and terrorism concerns.
“Collectively, these results suggest that exposure to media news does shape opinions,” Hodson told PsyPost. “That might sound ‘obvious’ to some readers, but this point is in dispute in some circles, and some argue that it’s simply self-selection (for instance, that those on the right are simply more drawn to right-wing news sources). Although self-selection happens, we nonetheless show that right-leaning news consumption predicts subsequent right-wing attitudes, both longitudinally and experimentally.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“For the cross-sectional and longitudinal datasets we used U.S. adult participants, but for the experiment we used Canadian undergraduates,” Hodson said. “So it would be nice to follow up this work with experimental research in the United States. Moreover, news media is only one source of news exposure. Social media is a major factor, one that we didn’t examine. This would be tricky, however, because social media also includes messaging from news media, so this would need to be disentangled.”
The study, “News media impact on sociopolitical attitudes“, was published March 9, 2022.