‘Don’t Believe Everything You Hear’: Ideology’s Influence on News Channel Believability
Morgen S. Johansen University of Kansas 1541 Lilac Lane, 504 Blake Hall Lawrence, KS 66047
Television news is an individual’s main source for knowledge about politics. It is predispositions, especially ideology, that influence what news channel one watches and ultimately what news channel one believes. This paper focuses on the difference in believability of two popular news channels: FOX and CNN. I hypothesize that ideology influences news channel believability, namely that conservatives will believe FOX and liberals will believe CNN. The results of the regression analysis are presented and discussed. Findings show that ideology is a significant factor in how much one believes the two news channels.
Americans spend almost the same amount of time watching television as they spend working. In fact, “the average household consumes the output of cable and broadcast supplies for nearly seven hours a day [and is] uniform across many demographic categories” (Woodward 1997, p3-4). Such high consumption could be due to the hundreds of channels viewers can choose from; more are being added every year. Among these channels are twenty-four hour news stations, which compete with local news programming. Each news station frames issues differently. Yet one cannot watch all news broadcasts on all stations in order to weigh each frame and then decide which provides the most accurate picture of the situation. Individuals must make a choice on which news channel to watch and whether they will believe the information with which they are presented. The ideological leanings of the news media have been the object of recent scrutiny since the rise of Fox News Channel. Conservative elites decry CNN’s liberal bias while liberals lambaste Fox News Channel for its conservative bias. Wicks (2001) writes that journalists, despite attempts at objectivity, have liberal or conservative leanings that reflect on their coverage of events and therefore frame the event in a way consistent with that leaning. They also have a tendency to affiliate themselves with news agencies that have the same conservative or liberal leanings.
2 The public recognizes journalistic cues, such as ideological rhetoric and images, and use them to form perceptions of the two channels. Comstock (1980) claimed that “television remains the most credible of the media, no matter how public opinion is measured” (p48). But, almost twenty years later, Domke et al (1999) found that there has been a “remarkable increase in the number of citizens who believe there is a liberal ideological slant in news content” (p36). The credibility of the news media has in fact declined (PEW 2003). Previous research examined the individual traits that are correlates with media credibility such as age, education, personality, and involvement (Gunther 1992, p148-149) but a connection between media credibility and ideology has yet to be examined.1 This paper examines the influence of ideology on an individual’s evaluation of media credibility using precepts from social psychology.
Ideology Social psychologists define ideology as an attitude. An attitude is a “psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor” (Brewer and Brown 1998, as cited in Weisberg and Greene 2003, p94). More simply, an attitude is a mental lens through which an individual sees and evaluates the world around them. For example, if one’s attitude is that people litter, then said person is more apt to only see the trash lying around. In addition to influencing how an individual perceives the world, ideology also leads to group belonging. One of the most defined set of groups is political parties (Campbell et al 1954). Furthermore, “group belonging may consist largely of a person’s
Westley and Severin (1964) found that there is hardly any difference in credibility of television, in general, between Democrats and Republicans (p334). This study compared credibility of television and newspapers, and unfortunately did not look at specific networks or papers.
3 considering himself a member of the group--of identifying himself with it” (p88). An individual may not necessarily be a group member but they will align themselves with the group. Once an individual identifies with a group, the group then “can become [a] reference point for the formation of attitudes and decisions about behavior” (Campbell et al 1960, p296). Specifically, identification with a group provides individuals with a set of values to draw upon. These values then guide the individual on how to react or behave when faced with new situations or information. Consequently, when an individual is faced with information from a news channel, their group membership influences their perception and evaluation of that information. However, despite the signals provided by the group, the individual still chooses the information they expose themselves to and where that information comes from. Although the individual chooses what to watch, group membership influences an individual’s news watching behavior. A recent public opinion poll (PEW 2004) found that over one third of respondents prefer watching news that agrees with their political views. Group membership influences channel preference but also channel believability. Gunther (1992) found that “group membership does indeed play a role in public perceptions of credibility of mass media” (p161). This paper examines the relationship between ideology and mass media credibility by focusing specifically on two major 24 hour news networks: CNN and Fox News Channel. My hypothesis is that liberals are more likely to believe perceived liberal television news and less likely to believe those stations that are perceived as conservative. In regards to conservatives, the opposite is
4 hypothesized; conservatives are more likely to believe perceived conservative stations and less likely to believe perceived liberal stations.2 The rest of the paper is organized as follows. First, a description of the data will be provided, followed by an explanation of the methods used to analyze the data. Second, results will be displayed and discussed. Lastly, implications of the findings and suggestions for further research will be presented.
Data and Methods Using survey data conducted in May 2002 from the PEW Research Center for the People and Press3 I was able to test my hypothesis using two standard ordinary least squares regression models, one for each news station. My dependent variables are television news station believability of CNN and FOX cable news. Believability was ranked from one to four, with one meaning, “can’t believe hardly anything” and four meaning, “believe all or most of what the organization says”. The independent variable I have the most interest in is ideology. Respondents were given a response scale from one, meaning very conservative, to five, meaning very liberal. Another independent variable was how often the respondent watches cable news. A one corresponds to watching cable news regularly and a four corresponds to never. Gender was coded one for male and two for female. Education was ranked on a scale of one to seven, with one representing up to grade level 8 and seven representing
The issue is not actual conservative or liberal slants but instead the perceived leanings of televisions news stations. My colleagues unanimously perceived CNN as liberal and FOX as conservative. 3 The PEW Research Center for the People and Press bears no responsibility for any conclusions reached based on this research.
5 post graduate training after college. The final independent variable is age. The results are presented in Table 1.
CNN Referring to Table 1, all variables are significant for CNN believability. In regards to ideology, as one becomes more liberal their believability of CNN increases. In other words, as one becomes more conservative their believability of CNN decreases. This result is in agreement with my hypothesis. Taking a look at the other independent variables shows us that cable news viewers who receive the majority of their news from cable are more likely to believe CNN than those respondents who never watch cable network news. Women are more likely to believe CNN than men. But the believability of CNN decreases as one becomes older or as one becomes more educated.
FOX All but one variable for the FOX model are significant. Interestingly, age is not significant in this model. Yet still my hypothesis is supported; as one becomes more conservative their believability rating of FOX increases. Conversely, as one becomes more liberal, their believability of FOX decreases. Women, just as with CNN, are more likely to believe FOX than men. The relationship between cable news viewing and believability of FOX is negatively related; the more often one get their news from cable the more likely one is to believe FOX. Believability of FOX decreases as one becomes more educated.
6 The relationship between cable news viewing and believability is an intuitive one, but does not tell us anything one way or another. If one does not watch cable news how would they determine its believability? Turning to Figure 1, which illustrates the mean believability of each news station, I found that people believe CNN much more than FOX. It is possible that name recognition of CNN could influence a respondent’s believability rating, especially if a respondent does not watch cable news often.4 In response to this I restricted the model to only include those cases in which respondents always or often get their news from cable television. While not a perfect method, it is hoped that this action will decrease the influence name recognition may have on believability ratings. Also, since only those respondents who get their news from cable always or sometimes will be included their frequency of cable news viewing is more likely to produce more accurate believability ratings. This is because the respondents know the stations and can better rate their believability. Figure 2 shows the mean believability of all news stations for the revised model. I reran the model with both independent values. The results are displayed in Table 2. Ideology is still significant for both FOX and CNN. The relationships are relatively the same as well, further supporting my hypothesis. There are two interesting differences from the original model and the revised model. First, age is now significant for FOX; as one gets older, one believes FOX more. This could be because older individuals watch cable often since they have more free time to spend on watching television and want more channels, which cable provides. Since they watch cable more often, they are more exposed to the FOX news channel and have the experience with the
A two sample t-test was conducted to see if the cable viewers (1 and 2) and the non-cable viewers (3 and 4) were significantly different from one another. The results of the test find cable viewers and non-cable viewers are significantly different from one another.
7 channel to rate it. But, there is the assumption that as one gets older, one gets more conservative. The age variable could be a variation of ideology. However, since age was not significant for the first model, my first explanation may be more accurate. The second difference is that education is no longer significant for CNN believability. However, the variable is just shy of being significant.5 While the variable is statistically not significant, the education variable is still substantially important. The relationship between believability and education is still the same as the original model; as education level increases, one is less likely to believe CNN is the same as the original model. The first test was conducted to just look at believability. But, referring back to Figure 1, there is a large difference between believability of FOX and CNN. Since I wish to explore ideology’s influence on believability, it would be appropriate to look at the influence of ideology on one’s believing one station over another. My hypothesis that ideology influences believability ratings is further tested by using a new dependent variable. This variable was created by subtracting one’s FOX believability rating from their CNN believability rating. A positive value means that the respondent believes CNN more than FOX. A negative value means that the respondent believes FOX more than CNN. A value of zero means that the respondent believes both stations equally. The results are presented in Table 3. The lowest level of education and the highest level of education make little difference on the dependent variable. Or, in other words, education makes no difference on the relative believability of CNN and FOX. However, what is most important is that ideology is still significant. Figure 3 below shows the relationship between the difference
If my significance level was p ≤ .06 then education would be significant.
8 in believability and ideology. It is evident that conservatives believe FOX more than CNN and liberals believe CNN more than FOX. This is consistent with my hypothesis. It is interesting to note that moderates, as represented in the middle column, believe CNN more than FOX.
Discussion A democracy thrives when citizens have access to information from a multitude of sources. These diverse choices and options make up a marketplace of ideas. However, this marketplace of ideas may not matter because, despite the many sources and ideas that are in the marketplace, individuals appear to believe the information that they agree with. Weisberg and Greene (2003) write that “attitudes can lead to selectivity in terms of exposure and attention to information, selectivity in terms of perception and judgment, and/or selectivity in terms of memory” (p104). In other words, a person’s ideology may influence their perception of the information source but also in their evaluation and recall of the information. When shopping in the marketplace, it seems people prefer to buy from only one store. Furthermore, in a time of increasing polarization between liberals and conservatives (Layman and Carsey 2000), group membership and attitudes are even stronger. In order for government to work, however, both sides need to compromise and work together. But if each side does not believe the information the other side is providing, how will citizens and government be able to compromise? And if people only believe information they agree with, will they refrain from exposing themselves to attitude inconsistent information. The answers to these questions can be found in the
9 social psychology literature; however, more recent tests and applications of such theories are needed to help us further our understanding so we can revive the competition of ideas and a willingness to listen to other choices in the marketplace.
Appendix: Survey Questions D1. Enter respondent’s sex. 1 Male 2 Female
D2. What is your age? _____ years 97 97 or older 99 Do not know/refused
D5. What is the last grade or class you completed in school? 1 None, or up to grade 8 2 Grades 9-11 3 High School graduate 4 Business, technical or vocational school after High School 5 Some college but no 4-year degree 6 College graduate (B.S., B.A., or other 4-year degree) 7 Post-graduate training (law or medical school, masters, or PhD, or working on one) 9 Do not know
Q9. Now, I’m going to read a list. Please rate how much you can believe each organization I name on a scale of 4 to 1. On this four point scale, “4” means you can believe all or most of what the organization says. “1” means you believe almost nothing of what they say. How would you rate the believability of… on this scale of 4 to 1?
10 Believe all (or most) b. ABC f. CNN g. NBC h. CBS u. FOX cable 4 4 4 4 4 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 2 2 Cannot Never Can’t
Believe Heard of Rate 1 1 1 1 1 8 8 8 8 8 9 9 9 9 9
Q11. In general, would you describe your political views as…? 1 Very Conservative 2 Conservative 3 Moderate 4 Liberal 5 Very Liberal 9 Do not Know/Refused
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11 Davis, Jessica L., and Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. 1999. “Racial Identity and Media Orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint.” Journal of Black Studies 29(3):367-397. Domke, David, Mark D. Watts, Dvahan V. Shah, and David P. Fan. 1999. “The Politics of Conservative Elites and the “Liberal Media” Argument.” Journal of Communication 49(4):35-58. Entman, Robert M. 1989. “How the Media Affect What People Think: An Information Processing Approach.” Journal of Politics 51(2):347-370. Graber, Doris A. 2002. Mass Media and American Politics. 6th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press. Gunther, Albert C. 1992. “Biased Press or Biased Public? Attitudes toward Media Coverage of Social Groups.” Public Opinion Quarterly 56:147-167. Joslyn, Mark R., and Steve Ceccoli. 1996. “Attentiveness to Television News and Opinion Change in the Fall 1992 Presidential Campaign.” Political Behavior 18(2):141-170. Klapper, Joseph T. 1960. The Effects of Mass Communication. New York: Free Press. Layman, Geoffrey C., and Thomas M. Carsey. 2000. “Parties at the Poles: Mass Party Polarization on Multiple Ideological Dimensions.” Presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C. Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. 1968. The People’s Choice. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press. Lipset, S.M. 1953. “Opinion Formation in a Crisis Situation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 17(1):20-46.
12 PEW Research Center for the People & Press. 2004 January 11. “Early January 2004 Political Communication Study.” http://people-press.org. Price, Vincent and John Zaller. 1993. “Who Gets the News? Alternative Measures of News Reception and Their Implications for Research.” Public Opinion Quarterly 57(2):133-164. Weisberg, Herbert F., and Steven H. Greene. 2003. “The Political Psychology of Party Identification.” In Electoral Democracy. Michael B. MacKuen and George Rabinowitz, eds. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Wicks, Robert H. 2001. Understanding Audiences: Learning to Use the Media Constructively. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Woodward, Gary C. 1997. Perspectives on American Political Media. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
13 Tables and Figures
CNN Estimate Ideology Education Age Gender Cable Constant .0859* -.0383* -.0086** .3622** -.1735** 3.141** Std. Error .0316 .019 .0017 .0604 .0323 .1917
FOX Estimate -.1769** -.0747** .0012 .1716* -.1909** 3.677** Std. Error .0317 .019 .0017 .0609 .033 .1915
Root MSE=.8628 N=818 Adj R 2 =.10
Note: *p ≤ .05, **p ≤ .001
Root MSE=.8258 N=735 Adj R 2 =.11
Believability of News Channels
2.8 2.7 ABC NBC CBS FOX CNN
Believability of News Channels
2.7 ABC NBC CBS FOX CNN
CNN Estimate Ideology Education Age Gender Constant .1019* -.0401 -.0088** .3693** 2.852** Std. Error .0352 .0208 .0019 .0666 .1958
FOX Estimate -.1937** -.0721** .0004** .1778* 3.465** Std. Error .0355 .0214 .0019 .068 .199
Root MSE=.8405 N=640 Adj R 2 =.09
Note: *p ≤ .05, **p ≤ .001
Root MSE=.8211 N=585 Adj R 2 =.07
Estimate Ideology Education Age Gender Constant .2985** .0253 -.0102** .195* -.5742*
Std. Error .0459 .0278 .0024 .0881 .2578
Root MSE=1.0453 N=566 Adj R 2 =.11
Note: *p ≤ .05, **p ≤ .001
Difference in CNN and FOX
-0.4 Strong Conservative Conservative Moderate Liberal Strong Liberal