Friday, June 24, 2011

Like-Minded News and Political Participation

A fascinating study published in the latest Public Opinion Quarterly asks a very simple question -- does consuming news you agree with make you more likely, or less likely, to participate in politics?

The answer?  More likely to participate.  But with limitations.

There is a growing body of work on the migration of partisans to news that generally agrees with their political point of view (as in, conservatives to Fox, liberals to MSNBC).  This study by Susanna Dilliplane uses national panel data and some sophisticated modeling to explore whether these trends lead to greater or less political participation.  It's terrific work (and yes, it cites two of my published studies, another big plus.  End shameless plug).

There are competing theories and findings as to whether partisan media have mobilizing or demobilizing effects.  People generally agree that exposure to competing view points is a good thing (see the work of Mutz, for example).  But does such exposure actually help, or hurt, when it comes to participation?
Using the 2008 presidential election as a test, the research finds "substantial support for the proposition that exposure to partisan news affects political participation, particularly behavior during the campaign."  For example, consuming likeminded partisan news increases campaign acitivity and encourages people to make an early decision about the election.  Consuming news that conflicts with your partisan point of view -- that can have the opposite effect.  So what is generally considered good, hearing lots of viewpoints, demobilizes you, makes you less likely to participate.

But, and this is a major but and therefore deserves special boldface and italic treatment, such partisan exposure is unrelated to actual voting.  This may be due in part to the use of within subjects rather than between subjects analysis.  After all, this is panel data, so you look at change within the same people over time.  That doesn't leave a lot of room, statistically speaking, to find effects like voting.  One hopes it's not a methodological artifact and partisan viewing/reading actually does not influence likelihood to vote.  One hopes.

On a methodological note -- how do you decide whether a television news network is likeminded or not? Yeah, we can all agree Fox or MSNBC is likeminded for conservatives or liberals.  Here the author does some nifty combining of data to categorize the media.  Nifty, though some might quibble in relying on public perceptions of a news organization's partisan leanings.  The appendix breaks these down for you.  Republican slant?  Fox News and nearly all of its specific programs (O'Reilly, for example).  Dem slant?  Colbert and Stewart show up here, as do MSNBC and its various programs, and CNN's Situation Room (I'd quibble with that one, a lot).  Neutral?  A bunch of stuff.  I'm going to blog about this categorization scheme at another time.

What's the takeaway here?  While we applaud the exposure to various viewpoints, it may actually not be good when it comes to people participating in politics.  The theoretical underpinnings of this finding are in the article so I won't go into detail here.  But it is interesting to note that exposure to more neutral new coverage shows hints here of also mobilizing folks.  That's good news for those of us who prefer a world with multiple viewpoints presented in news stories rather than a single, preached narrative by certain (ahem) cable news networks.

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