USA Society

Is watching Fox News the ultimate conservative calling card?

In a Pew Research Center survey, 40 percent of Donald Trump voters say they got the bulk of their information from Fox News. Why some experts say those numbers aren't accurate.

President-elect Donald Trump is interviewed by Chris Wallace of 'Fox News Sunday' at Trump Tower in New York City in December.
Richard Drew/AP/File
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Republicans as a whole identify themselves by supporting conservative social and fiscal causes, but for some, a major sign of loyalty to the party could involve supporting Fox News.

Fox’s dominance as a news network is not new. Its conservative perspective has pushed it to become the most watched 24-hour cable news network, with media commentators dubbing its influence “The Fox Effect.” But some observers warn that American democracy is weakened when voters rely on partisan sources as viewers and readers end up in “media bubbles” that given them information – some times accurate and sometimes not – reinforcing their own opinions or biases while disregarding information put forth on the other side.

While other politically slanted channels and pundits have loyal followings, Fox News stands out as chief among partisan sources, maintaining a consistently loyal viewership of conservatives during its two decades on the air. A Pew Research survey published Wednesday found that 4 in 10 respondents who said they voted for Mr. Trump also said they received most of their information regarding the presidential election from Fox News, a number that far outweighed any other source among the voting bloc. (CNN, Facebook, and NBC all followed with 8, 7, and 6 percent of responses.)

But there are likely disparities between the Pew numbers and actual viewership, experts say, cautioning that people might be misreporting their news gathering habits, aligning themselves with partisan media in order to express a political identity and appear as “good conservatives.”

“Many people who say they watch Fox News do not actually watch Fox News. They tell researchers that as a way of expressing political identity,” says Dan Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and author of the 2016 book “Fox News & American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics & Society." “It is certainly the case that watching Fox News is a political marker. People who want to say, ‘I’m a good Republican’ say, ‘I watch Fox News.’ ”

But Fox’s loyalty among conservative voters has no counterpart across the political aisle. A plurality of 18 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton cited CNN as their main news source, followed by MSNBC, Facebook, local TV, NPR, and The New York Times taking less than 10 percent of viewers each, says Pew. But when researchers have compared past, similar surveys to more stable numbers, such as television ratings derived from Nielsen ratings, they often find a disparity In ratings and reported viewing habits.

The popularity of Fox, Dr. Cassino tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, likely stems from trustworthiness perceptions. On the left, there's no single, solitary trustworthy source. While it’s likely respondents may have falsely reported watching MSNBC or reading The New York Times for similar reasons Trump supporters say they watched Fox, the absence of one liberal news source means Democratic voters are less likely to rally behind one network or paper.

“Fox News has done a great job of inoculating its viewers to not trust other news sources. MSNBC is not going around telling everyone that they cannot possibly trust another news source,” he says. “A lot of the reason Fox has such a loyal viewership is that the viewers have been told you can’t trust anyone else.”

That divide took hold more than a decade ago, when Fox News continued to support former President George W. Bush and the war efforts in Iraq. Since, loyal Fox viewers have grown distrustful of other sources, a perception that may have grown during the election as Trump championed Fox and made his supporters distrustful of critical information of the then Republican presidential candidate in other venues.

Pew conducted the write-in survey between Nov. 29-Dec. 12, asking 4,183 members of Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel to respond. In the weeks leading up to the election and throughout the month of November, Fox bested CNN and MSNBC in audience size, with nearly 3.3 million people tuning in to Fox during primetime coverage.

Still, the idea that 40 percent of Trump’s voters regularly tuned into Fox News is hard to argue, as that portion would translate to more than 24 million people getting the bulk of their political information from the channel.

“I’m sure there are some Trump voters who did in fact watch a fair amount of [Fox News] and little other news,” Markus Prior, a politics and public affairs professor at Princeton University who has studied self-reporting behavior in such surveys, tells the Monitor in an email. “But we simply don’t know how many, and the idea that 40 percent of Trump voters are in this group is highly implausible.”

It’s also possible, he says, that a few million of those who voted for Trump watched hours of Fox News each day, while many others tuned in for several minutes of broadcasting. With that disparity in mind, it can be difficult to gauge the effect Fox’s coverage had on the election.

But it is undeniable that the 2016 election turned the camera back on the media in unprecedented ways after years of slowly separating viewers and readers into political camps. From Trump’s feud with Fox News host Megyn Kelly and other reporters at nonpartisan publications he decried as liars and publishers of “fake news” to actual unfounded reports circling in social media, many have begun to question the merits and validity of both traditional and new, digital-only sources such as Breitbart.

“Running against the media has been part of the Republican playbook for about 30 years now. And it works for them,” Jonathan Morris, a political science professor at East Carolina University, tells the Monitor. “Of course, Donald Trump took it to a different level in such a skillful way that he even picked out some people on Fox News to go after. This is a danger because we’re moving further and further into this era of polarizing politics that we haven’t seen since after the Civil War.”

Despite Trump’s criticisms, responses to the Pew survey showed that most people still report that TV and established newspapers are their main sources for information. Only 1 percent of respondents overall named sources such as the controversial Breitbart or progressive Huffington Post as their main sources of information regarding the election.

“What [the survey] does show is that these mainstream, well-established news organizations are what people remember when they’re asked to report their media consumption,” Kevin Arceneaux, a political science professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, tells the Monitor. “My guess is that they still do hold a great deal of sway and influence.”

But for those who cited Facebook as their main source of news, concerns regarding fake stories remain. It’s unclear what information those respondents accessed through the platform, as Facebook does not produce its own news content, but acts as a platform for sharing stories produced by other individuals or organizations. For many, the names of fake news sources wouldn’t immediately come to mind in a self-reporting survey.

“The way fake news works is [readers] don’t realize it’s fake,” Dr. Arceneaux added.

Many political analysts express concern about the influence fake news had on the election, and while Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg first decried assertions that false information spread unfettered across the platform could have influenced voters, he has since walked back that idea, developing new ways for readers to flag false information and tightening restrictions on false reports.

Most experts don't see another conservative news outlet rising to challenge Fox's dominance among Republican voters.

“The success of Fox News has been in their branding. They have successfully established themselves as the alternative to all other media,” Dr. Morris says. “In a way that I’ve never seen before in our fragmented era, Fox cornered the market and became the goto source of news for half of the voters.”