How the Fire Starts

How the Fire Starts

THE SOURCE: “All the News You Want to Hear: The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Political Participation” by Susanna Dilliplane, in Public Opinion Quarterly , Summer 2011.

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The charged rhetoric of conservative Bill O’Reilly and liberal Rachel Maddow have won their television news shows sizable audiences. Do their fighting words actually inspire fans to put down their remotes and become politically active? According to Susanna Dilliplane, a PhD candidate in communications at the University of Pennsylvania, the answer is yes. The wrinkle is that it matters a great deal what else the viewers watch.

Dilliplane studied the television news viewing habits of more than 10,000 Americans who identified as Republican or Democratic during the 2008 presidential election campaign. They all watched shows that reflected their views with about the same frequency. But when they switched to other offerings, Republicans were more likely to view programs headlined by partisans of the opposing stripe, while Democrats were more likely to tune in to neutral shows, such as PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

Partisans of both parties who frequently watched like-minded shows became politically active earlier in the campaign cycle than others, Dilliplane found. But partisans who watched any conflicting news sources—taking in both conservative firebrand Glenn Beck and liberal flamethrower Keith Olbermann, for instance—were much slower to volunteer to hand out campaign buttons, post signs on their front lawns, or donate money to candidates. Even those who viewed neutral programs on top of their partisan fare were quicker to jump into the political fray.

Differing tastes in partisan news shows didn’t have much to do with who showed up at the polls, however. Survey respondents voted at about the same rate, regardless of political orientation. The biggest impact of partisan news, Dilliplane concludes, may be that it sparks the people who are least likely to be familiar with the other side’s case to get involved in political campaigns early. That may be good news for candidates eager for zealous volunteers, she says, but it’s hardly ideal for citizens looking for a more nuanced political culture.

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