Watching Fox News Addicts Viewers And Misinforms Them On Climate Change

A new study finds that both conservative and non-conservative media are addictive to viewers. But conservative media like Fox News is much more addictive. It is the “crack” of cable news.

Of course, Fox News is also far more inaccurate on issues like climate change than non-conservative media (such as CNN and MSNBC — see figure below). Thus its viewers are far more misinformed on a broad range of issues, as many studies have found.

CREDIT: Union of Concerned Scientists
CREDIT: Union of Concerned Scientists

This latest study specifically points out that “our results suggest that governmental inaction on climate change can partially be attributed to the echo chamber created by conservative media on the issue.” That’s obvious, I know, but it always bears repeating because the stakes are so high. We have a death spiral of disinformation for conservatives — “death” spiral because inaction on climate change is ultimately self-destructive for all humans, not merely those who are accurately informed on science.

The new study, “The Mutual Reinforcement of Media Selectivity and Effects: Testing the Reinforcing Spirals Framework in the Context of Global Warming,” by Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, and Leiserowitz, appears in the “Journal of Communication.” Significantly, the new study used a “two-wave” approach to track “respondents’ climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and related behaviors.” In 2008, the first wave of data collection surveyed 2,164 respondents. Of those, 1,036 took part in a second survey wave in 2011.


Here are the key findings. First, in general, as other studies have found, “conservative media use is negatively related to global warming belief certainty and support for mitigation policies, while nonconservative media use is positively associated with belief certainty and policy support.”

Second, and more importantly, the media are both addictive and persuasive: “The results show that consuming conservative or nonconservative media at Wave 1 makes people more likely to consume those same media at Wave 2, partly as an indirect result of the media’s effects on global warming belief certainty and policy preferences. Wave 2 media use, in turn, further strengthens audiences’ global warming belief certainty and policy preferences.”

Third, Fox News is more addictive than nonconservative media:

Finally, it is notable that in testing the direct effects among media use, belief certainty, and policy support, the association between Wave 1 policy support and Wave 2 nonconservative media use was not significant, while this relationship was significant for conservative media use. As a result, the mutual reinforcement of media effects and selectivity … was stronger when they involved conservative media use than when they involved nonconservative media use.

Fox News appears to be more addictive by design, as the study and the Yale news release note. A key strategy is “conservative media’s attempts to insulate their audiences from opposing views — in part, by denouncing the mainstream media (i.e., other news sources) as liberal, biased, and not to be trusted.”


These core findings “may help to explain why the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is happening and caused by human activities has failed to gain traction among conservatives, or at least among users of conservative media in the United States”:

“In essence, conservative media audiences are consuming messages that both challenge the reality of global warming and warn that any contrary information from scientists or the mainstream media should be dismissed,” the study notes. “This perpetuates further use of conservative media, which reinforces their current beliefs about global warming, and so on in a continuing feedback loop.”

What of the question of whether Fox News influences their viewers’ views or whether people with those (conservative) views simply choose to watch Fox? Lead author Dr. Feldman of Rutgers, told me the answer was a combination of both. She explains, “Our paper demonstrates a dynamic relationship between media effects on public opinion and the effects of opinion on media use.”

This finding matches that of earlier studies (see here). For instance, Jon Krosnick of Stanford analyzed this question in “Frequent Viewers of Fox News Are Less Likely to Accept Scientists’ Views of Global Warming.” Krosnick notes that his “Figure 1 shows how more exposure to Fox News was associated with less endorsement of the views of mainstream scientists about global warming.” While he can’t know for sure whether people were persuaded by Fox or selectively chose Fox, Krosnick argues they “are likely to result from a combination of persuasion by Fox News coverage and of selective exposure by Republicans and conservative viewers to Fox News.

An earlier study, “Climate on Cable: The Effects of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC on Global Warming Beliefs and Perceptions,” led by Feldman found that “the views of Republicans on climate change may be less solidified than Democrats, thereby making them more easily influenced by the content of cable news,” specifically Fox News. That study explicitly says its findings are “suggestive of direct persuasion, whereby the views of conservative-Republicans are reflective of the cable news outlet they watch.”

Thus multiple papers find that the viewers of Fox News’ biased climate coverage are less likely to accept scientists’ views of global warming — and that direct persuasion appears to have played a role in shifting their views (see also “Foxgate: Fox News boss Bill Sammon ordered staff to cast doubt on climate science”).


And so, to repeat, the latest study concludes, “Our results suggest that governmental inaction on climate change can partially be attributed to the echo chamber created by conservative media on the issue.” Much like crack, Fox News does damage to far more people than just its users.