No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal Discussions

By James N. Druckman, Matthew S. Levendusky, and Audrey McLain

No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal DiscussionsMedia in the U.S. has changed. Over the last quarter-century, there has been a proliferation of media outlets, as well as a rise in partisan media—outlets that eschew journalistic norms of objectivity and present a particular partisan/ideological viewpoint on the news. Today’s citizens are not limited to just mainstream news, but can watch Fox News, MSNBC, listen to talk radio, or visit a wide number of partisan websites.

At first glance, it might seem like the influence of these websites would be quite limited. After all, their audience is quite modest: most estimates suggest that no more than 10-15 percent of the population regularly consume partisan media (of any sort). So even if they matter to their audience (and prior evidence suggests that they do), their limited reach suggests that their overall effect will be small.

But we argue that this view is too limited. Those who consume partisan media can spread its effects via inter-personal discussion. So if I watch partisan media, and then talk to my parents, the effect of me watching can spread to them. This is an example of the canonical two-step communication flow model, which posits that media may affect a small group of watchers who then, in turn, pass that influence along to non-watchers via inter-personal discussion. We update this idea for the partisan media age, and argue that the same principle explains why interpersonal communication amplifies the power of partisan media outlets.

We test this general prediction via a laboratory experiment. In the experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to two factors: to either watch partisan media (or not), and to discuss the issues raised in their partisan media segments (the debate over expanding oil/natural gas drilling in the U.S.) or not. So our experiment allows us to compare four groups of individuals: those who neither watch partisan media nor discuss the issue (the control), those who simply watch partisan media, those who discuss the issue in small groups, but do not themselves watch any partisan media, and finally those who both watch partisan media and discuss it.

Our experiments show clear evidence of a two-step communication flow – those who did not watch partisan media but talked with those who did end up holding opinions that resemble those who watched. Indeed, we show that discussion (especially in partisan homogeneous groups) can produce effects that are even larger than just watching these outlets. This highlights that discussion can not just transmit partisan media messages, but it can also amplify them. While the extent to which these processes occur outside the laboratory is not clear, what is clear is there is a strong potential that partisan media effects may extend well beyond its viewership. Interpersonal discussion—and social networks more generally—help to spread and amplify partisan media’s messages.

About the Authors: James N. Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor (also Associated Director, Institute for Policy Research) at Northwestern University, Matthew S. Levendusky is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania, and Audrey McLain is at Temple University. Their article “No Need to Watch: How the Effects of Partisan Media Can Spread via Interpersonal Discussions” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.