Study finds cable news networks have grown more polarized
While it may seem like Americans are constantly on their phones, studies have shown that the majority of Americans still get their news from the television. In early 2020, the average American adult was consuming about nine and a half hours of television news per week, according to Nielsen.
Cable news channels like CNN, Fox and MSNBC are widely believed to have political affiliations, but a new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined a decade of cable news to measure that bias on a granular scale — per day, per week, and even per hour. It found that all three networks became more polarized over the period studied, particularly after the 2016 election, and became more out of sync, with Fox moving to the right in response to events that caused MSNBC and CNN to go left.
“There’s always been the assumption that media bias is pretty established,” said Yphtach Lelkes, study co-author and an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, “just ‘Fox News is right. And MSNBC is left.’ But what we’re seeing is it’s moving, and pretty fast.”
For their research, Lelkes and his colleagues focused on one form of media bias: visibility bias. For example, if the majority of guests on a news channel are considered liberal, the channel itself is seen as liberal. They analyzed thousands of hours of CNN, Fox and MSNBC to find out who appeared on screen during news shows on these channels for at least 10 hours in total between January 2010 and August 2020.
Each of these guests was assigned a media bias score based on their financial contributions to political candidates and organizations, as found in Stanford University’s Database on ideology, money in politics and elections (DIME).
“If an individual donates to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, they are assigned a media bias score based on their financial contributions to political candidates and organizations considered more conservative,” Lelkes says. “And when they donate to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they’re more liberal. So if we identify people on screen, we can identify their ideology as well.”
Using these scores as evidence, the team confirmed that Fox has moved further to the right over the past decade, while both CNN and MSNBC have moved further to the left. More specifically, they identified when the ideological divide between the channels became extreme: after the 2016 presidential election.
“For years Fox News was on the right side of MSNBC and CNN,” says Lelkes, “but they followed each other. When Fox went to the right, so did MSNBC and CNN. They all merged. After Trump came into office, they responded on events in the news by leaning away from each other and more strongly toward their respective ideologies.”
Interestingly, this gap between channels is more pronounced when it comes to primetime programming. Compared to other shows on their respective networks, primetime shows like “Anderson Cooper 360” on CNN and “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC skew more sharply to the left, while “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox skews much more to the right.
“We don’t really see that dramatic polarization for the morning and afternoon shows,” says Lelkes, “which are more hard news, more fact-based shows.”
Another recent study in the journal scientific progress, written by Professor Duncan Watts and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Stevens University, also studied TV news bias by focusing on public bias. It found that Americans who get their news from TV, rather than read it online, are much more likely to watch channels that reflect their ideology, and less likely to wander outside their partisan bubble.
Taken together, the two studies paint a worrying picture that partisan audiences on cable news are growing, while outlets themselves are becoming more extreme.
Lelkes’ findings raise a number of additional questions for the researchers: Does good ratings on a particular show encourage an entire network to move right or left? Do viewer boycotts affect a news channel’s ideology? Will the ideological divide between channels ever narrow or just widen?
For now, the team is working on opening up its data to the public.
“Soon we’ll have a platform where people can play with the data — where they can go to the show level and see what the bias scores are for a given show,” Lelkes says.
In addition to Lelkes, “Measuring Dynamic Media Bias” is co-authored by Columbia University Assistant Professor of Political Science and Annenberg Alum Eunji Kim and University of Utah Assistant Professor of Political Science Josh McCrain.
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Eunji Kim et al, Measuring Dynamic Media Bias, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2202197119
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