But why is Fox News able to influence viewers in this way?
Political scientists generally believe that the media influence audiences through "framing" ( how a story is told) or "selective coverage" (whether a story is told). For example, in the summer of 2020, Fox News framed Black Lives Matter protests with stories that regularly covered violence and looting, while CNN and MSNBC (sometimes mockingly) described the events as "largely peaceful." Meanwhile, Fox News tends to cover what it describes as "black-on-black" crimes, while centrist and social-liberal media highlight police brutality against blacks.
Both mass media and selective coverage clearly influence their audiences. But in a new study co-authored by political scientists Chris DeSante and Candace Watts Smith, we found that Fox News' daily coverage of race isn't the only factor influencing public racial attitudes. Our research shows that just watching Fox News can be enough to activate racial bias.
Measuring How News Sources Shape Race Attitudes
In October and November 2020, we asked nearly 1,100 white respondents to read a fictional news story about an American soldier accused of war crimes in a national survey conducted by digital polling company Bovitz. The article, which contains details similar to actual allegations against the US military, claims that US Army Rangers killed a defenseless Taliban prisoner.
We hypothesized that respondents would not respond with racism when evaluating the US military. The US military, an all-volunteer military, is highly respected across parties.
However, not all respondents read the same side of the story. We randomized two lists: the soldier's race (white, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or anonymous) and the media reporting the story (Fox News, CNN, or unbranded). After reading the cartoon, respondents were asked on a scale of one to seven whether 1) the soldier's actions were right and 2) whether they should be punished.
The results showed that respondents were more likely to condemn the accused and his actions only under two conditions: the alleged perpetrator was identified as black and the story was reported on Fox News. In other words, seeing the Fox News logo, other things being equal, was enough to make white Americans think that black Americans are more likely to be guilty of crime.
The result is not what we expected. We did not think that the Fox News logo would negatively affect the perception of black service members in relation to soldiers of other races. So, how can this result be explained?
One possible explanation is what sociologists call "priming," a stimulus that causes a person to think or act in a certain way. Studies have shown that an image of the Confederate flag makes Americans less likely to vote for a black candidate. Another study found that respondents with an American flag made citizens more likely to vote Republican.
Likewise, the Fox News revelation may be enough to make some whites expect blacks to be held accountable. Other studies show that Fox News blames blacks for violence and that the Fox News website is more likely to feature blacks in crime stories. This suggests that Fox News may be perpetuating racial stereotypes. Other researchers have also found that different racial groups are associated with different attitudes; for example, Middle Easterners are associated with terrorism, Hispanics with illegal immigration, and in our study, blacks are associated with violence and crime. .
The results indicate a reasonable assumption. Perhaps the media brand Fox News has become a very powerful symbol in American politics, which itself can activate racist sentiments. When Americans find themselves in partisan "echo chambers," they're not just watching or reading different news stories, they're entering a hyper-ideological, value-laden environment that changes how they perceive and interpret even the same facts.
Of course, the research is fruitless. Our analysis highlights the need for further research into how Fox News and other media may or may not present racial stereotypes on various political and social issues. First, there is an ongoing debate about the representativeness of online surveys. a more traditional survey might produce different results. The findings also raise other pressing questions. Will other media on the left and right react in the same way? Would we get the same response in a non-criminal justice situation?
However, our research provides evidence of how channels like Fox News influence their audiences. Such channels do not simply create stories or choose which issues to cover. Over time, they develop their own brands and identities, which can lead to different responses from individual audiences.
Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is Associate Professor of Political Science at University College London (UCL) and Director of the UCL Center for American Politics (@CUSP_ucl).
Andrew M. Bell (@AndrewBellUS) is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the Lugar School of International and International Studies at Indiana University Hamilton.
Julie M. Norman ( @DrJulieNorman2 ) is Associate Professor at UCL's Department of Politics and International Affairs and Associate Director of the UCL Center for American Politics ( @CUSP_ucl ).