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The Insidious Influence of Partisan Media

Politically slanted networks and websites drive a wedge between evidence and beliefs.

By Tom Jacobs


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, pictured here in 2012, engage with some prospective supporters. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Why do so many people cling to beliefs that are unsupported by actual evidence? One likely culprit is our increasing tendency to turn to news outlets that favor our pre-existing views. Disinformation can spread rapidly through an ideologically driven echo chamber.

But newresearch suggests that familiar description isn’t quite right. It finds users of partisan media are surprisingly aware of evidence that fails to support their point of view; they’re also more likely to disregard that information.

“The strongest and most consistent influence of ideological media exposure is to encourage inaccurate beliefs, regardless of what consumers know of the evidence,” writes a research team led by R. Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University. Their study is published in the open-access Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Garrett and his colleagues analyzed data from a panel study conducted during, and immediately after, the 2012 presidential campaign. A total of 652 Americans provided information on three occasions (in July, September, and November).

They were asked how often they visited the websites of national news organizations that were “frequently characterized” as favoring liberal or conservative positions, such as the left-leaning Huffington Post and Daily Kos, and the right-leaning Fox News and Drudge Report.

Users of partisan media are surprisingly aware of evidence that fails to support their point of view; they’re also more likely to disregard that information.

To gauge how accurately they understood the issues being discussed in the campaign, the researchers focused on four “prominent misconceptions.” Two were widely held by Republicans (President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq), while two were disseminated among Democrats (Mitt Romney actively managed Bain Capital when the firm started investing in companies that outsourced work to other nations, and the BP oil spill caused an immediate drop in life diversity in the Gulf of Mexico).

Participants were asked what knowledgeable individuals had concluded about each of the four issues. They were then asked “what they themselves believe about the four topics.”

“We find no evidence in these data that using biased outlets promotes politically beneficial naivete,” the researchers report. “Ideological media had no discernible influence on users’ awareness of expert conclusions.”

However, “use of these news sites is associated with holding outlet-favored beliefs,” they add, “even if users know that their beliefs are inconsistent with claims made by journalists, fact-checkers, scientists, etc.”

So these outlets serve their readers — and, arguably, do a disservice to the nation — by giving them license to disregard information that undermines their gut feelings.

While Garrett conceded in an e-mail exchange that “we cannot say what it is about this exposure that leads someone” to basically ignore the facts, he and his colleagues note that partisan media outlets often cast doubt on the trustworthiness of experts whose conclusions they don’t like (such as climate scientists).

Of course, it’s possible that these findings reflect the mindsets of the sort of people who seek out partisan news sources. Garrett, however, argues “there is more to it than that,” noting that — for example — “Daily Kos has a comparable effect on Democrats and Republicans,” who presumably came to the site with different assumptions. To some degree, at least, the coverage itself appears to shape our views.

“Partisan media’s apparent ability to promote misperceptions in spite of exposure to more accurate information may help to explain how these misperceptions continue to flourish, despite the diversity that characterizes most Americans’ online news diet,” he and his colleagues conclude in their study.

So it appears most Americans’ news diets are varied enough to provide an accurate picture of what’s going on. But many of us also go to our favorite partisan sites to interpret that information, and receive reassurance that we can safely ignore the facts that make us uncomfortable.