When Donald Trump dined with noted white nationalist Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago recently, CNN and MSNBC covered the story extensively. By contrast, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, Fox News had remarkably little to say. Previous academic research has suggested that Fox News coverage is racially biased and amplifies racial resentment and prejudice.
Analysis | Just seeing a Fox News logo prompts racial bias, new research suggests
But why might Fox News affect viewers that way?
Political scientists usually suggest that media can affect viewers 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 narratives that regularly emphasized riots and looting, while CNN and MSNBC (sometimes to the point of ridicule) depicted the events as “mostly peaceful.” Meanwhile, Fox News has tended to cover what it has referred to as “Black-on-Black” crime, while centrist and socially liberal outlets have emphasized anti-Black police brutality.
Both media framing and selective coverage clearly influence their audiences. But in a new study co-written with political scientists Chris D. DeSante and Candis Watts Smith, two of us found that Fox News’s day-to-day racial coverage isn’t the only thing that could influence its audience’s racial attitudes. Our research suggests that just tuning in to Fox News might be enough to activate racial bias.
Measuring how news sources shape racial attitudes
Using a national, opt-in survey fielded digitally by the public opinion research firm Bovitz in October and November 2020, we asked roughly 1,100 White participants to read a fictitious news article about a U.S. soldier charged with an alleged war crime. The article, which reported details resembling actual charges lodged against U.S. service members, told of a highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger killing a defenseless Taliban detainee.
We presented this scenario reasoning that respondents would be least likely to respond with racism when judging members of the U.S. military. American soldiers, who are part of an all-volunteer armed forces, are widely respected across partisan lines.
However, not all respondents read the same version of the story. We randomly varied two details: the race of the soldier (White, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern or unidentified) and the media outlet reporting the story (Fox News, CNN or no branding). After reading the vignette, respondents were asked, on a scale of one to seven, whether they agreed that: 1) the soldier’s actions were justified; and 2) he should be convicted.
Results showed that respondents were significantly more inclined to convict the accused and to find his actions less justified if and only if two conditions were true: The alleged criminal was presented as Black, and the story was reported by Fox News. In other words, just seeing a Fox News logo — keeping all other details the same — was enough to make White Americans think Black Americans were more likely to be guilty of a crime.
The result wasn’t what we necessarily expected. We didn’t anticipate that the Fox News logo might negatively affect attitudes toward the Black service member any more than soldiers of other races. So what could explain this outcome?
One plausible explanation is what social scientists call “priming” — a stimulus that prompts a person to think or behave in a particular pattern. Research has already found that looking at an image of a Confederate flag can make Americans less likely to vote for a Black candidate. Another study has discovered that exposing respondents to an American flag can make citizens more likely to vote Republican.
Similarly, simply spotting the Fox News masthead may be enough to prompt some Whites to expect that Blacks are guilty. Other research finds that Fox News has regularly blamed Black people for rioting and that Fox News’s website is more likely to show Black people in stories about crime. That in turn suggests that Fox News might reinforce racial stereotypes. Other scholars have found that different racial groups tend to be associated with distinct stereotypes — for example, Middle Eastern populations are associated with terrorism, Latinos with illegal immigration and, relevant to our study, Blacks with violence and criminality.
The findings suggest a plausible hypothesis. Perhaps the media brand of Fox News has become such a potent symbol in American politics that, all by itself, it can activate racialized attitudes. When Americans enter partisan “echo chambers,” they don’t just watch or read different news — they enter a hyper-ideological, value-laden environment that alters how they digest and interpret even the same facts.
Of course one study is hardly definitive. Our analysis points to the need for more research into how Fox News and other media may or may not prime racial attitudes across a range of political and social issues. For one thing, there are ongoing debates regarding the representativeness of opt-in online surveys — a more traditional survey might possibly lead to different results. Furthermore, the results raise other pressing questions: Do other right- and left-wing media venues trigger similar responses? Would we find similar responses for a situation that didn’t involve criminal justice?
Even so, our research provides evidence on an important debate about how channels such as Fox News influence their viewers. Such channels don’t just frame stories, or decide selectively which issues to cover. Over time, they develop their own brands and identities, which may independently prime viewers to respond in particular ways.
Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is associate professor of political science at University College London (UCL) and director of the UCL Centre on U.S. Politics (@CUSP_ucl).
Andrew M. Bell (@AndrewBellUS) is assistant professor of international studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.
Julie M. Norman (@DrJulieNorman2) is associate professor of politics and international relations at UCL and co-director of the UCL Centre on U.S. Politics (@CUSP_ucl).