This is a shared article.
May 30, 2023
In April, two political science scholars, professors David Broockman at UC Berkeley and Joshua Kalla at Yale, put up a working paper online for comment. It’s entitled, “Consuming cross-cutting media causes learning and moderates attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers.”
The study caught my attention because I teach a seminar in democratic institutions and am always looking for fresh material—my students enjoy and benefit from our discussion of the deliberate spread of misinformation and efforts to figure out the best strategies for combating it. But after reviewing the 80-page draft, I realized the study was equally suited for what we do here at Civil Discourse. And perhaps more importantly, it provides reason to be optimistic about the value of sustained engagement with people we care about on important issues, like holding onto the Republic. All too often, we’re told it’s impossible to reach people who have fallen under Trump’s spell. This study suggests that’s not right and we shouldn’t give up so easily.
There is a lot of difficult news these days. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Trump 2.0 is inevitable. This afternoon on MSNBC’s Deadline White House, Nicolle Wallace raised the issue of Fox’s reckless disregard for the truth in its reporting after the 2020 election. It reminded me of that feeling of disbelief that so many Americans could fall for obvious lies.
Just as some of the most effective voter suppression tactics work by convincing you it’s pointless to vote, that your vote won’t count, MAGA Republicans on the path to voiding democracy succeed when we succumb to a feeling of helplessness. So, here’s a chance to push back.
The study begins with a theory called “motivated reasoning,” which suggests that people attached to “aligned partisan media” would be pushed even further toward political extremes if they were exposed to views that contradicted their partisan alignment. The theory suggests that kind of exposure could backfire, making “beliefs and attitudes more extreme.”
But it turned out, that theory was wrong in this application. Broockman and Kalla’s study ran in September of 2020, and participants were selected based on data reflecting actual TV viewership to recruit a sample of regular Fox News viewers. The study group was paid $15 an hour to watch CNN for up to seven hours a week for the month. An immediate post-study assessment and one a couple of months out were used to assess the impact of a replacement source of information.
The data led to the conclusion that “watching CNN caused substantial learning and moderated participants’ attitudes in covered domains” immediately following the study. But the endline survey two months later found these results “largely receded as treated participants primarily returned to their prior viewing habits.”
Here’s what that means in plain English: With exposure to Fox News limited and replaced with viewing CNN, participants were more likely to accept that long Covid was real or that voting by mail was effective and not conducive to massive fraud. Participants moderated their views about Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.
The study focused on prime-time weeknight viewing, so participants were pushed away from watching shows like The Story With Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle. For one month, they watched CNN’s primetime line up: Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, Cuomo Prime Time, and the first hour of CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.
The study obviously had the benefit of focused attention and large blocks of time, but it still reinforces the likelihood that even in a divided America, there is benefit to having deliberate conversations with people about important issues. That’s what civil discourse is all about. It’s an idea we’ve worked with here from the beginning, whether it was one-on-one conversations with people we knew or writing postcards to strangers we’d never met, encouraging them to vote ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Your MAGA uncle may not want to have seven hours of weekly conversation with you, but take advantage of the time you have available. Be willing to think creatively about an issue that will engage people. Consider sending them an article and following up with a call or a cup of coffee to discuss it. Have a conversation, refuse to let it be a confrontation, and draw people out while focusing on facts. A single pinprick to a balloon deflates it. But we know from experience it’s not easy here. Success requires us to be thoughtful about the issues most likely to break through with specific people. Sadly, we saw some of this at the height of Covid, when people suffered the serious illness or death of a loved one and came to understand they’d been sold a bill of goods about the pandemic. Different people will be more in tune with different issues, but here are some ideas:
- A unanimous jury finding that Trump sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll, especially given that there are so many other similar allegations against him and that his own confession on the Access Hollywood tape describes the same MO with women that he used on Carroll. More here.
- Trump’s disrespectful conduct toward members of our military. He criticized John McCain for being captured in Vietnam. He called soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” and he failed to visit Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day in 2018, even though he was in Washington, D.C..