Research News

Power of the press: Can the media influence voting behavior of legislators? New Vanderbilt research says “yes.”

politician with tv remote

Whether politicians and the press seem like friend or foe, elected officials regularly use news outlets to share and defend their views to the public. New research from Vanderbilt University finds certain media actually influenced the voting behavior of politicians.

Associate Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions Joshua Clinton and former Vanderbilt graduate student Ted Enamorado studied the impact of the FOX News Channel on the voting behavior of members of Congress in the late 1990s. The researchers used a statistical method to analyze and compare the lawmakers’ voting behavior.

“We found the presence of FOX News in some districts caused those legislators whose constituents were exposed to FOX News to become more conservative and vote accordingly,” said Clinton. “This transformation occurred despite the fact that the average legislator in this sample was becoming slightly more liberal.”

Why FOX News Channel

The researchers chose to focus on the FOX News Channel for two key reasons:

  • FOX News content is ideologically distinct from other broadcast news outlets. Such a distinction makes the effect of its expansion especially strong.
  • The emergence of FOX News in certain congressional districts instead of others occurred in a manner unrelated to the voting behavior of elected officials and policy preferences of their districts. In other words, FOX was not introduced in only consistently conservative districts.

The researchers say the second point was crucial to their research design.

“Had the channel’s entry and expansion in certain geographic areas been linked to either of those factors, it would be difficult to disentangle the true effect of FOX News from pre-existing characteristics of either the legislators or their constituents,” said Clinton.

Research theory

The researchers’ theory was that FOX News Channel affected the behavior of elected officials by changing politicians’ incentives for taking certain policy stances.

Josh Clinton (Vanderbilt)

“Either politicians in districts that received FOX News anticipated and adjusted their voting behavior to match potential changes in their constituents’ ideological beliefs, or voters who received the conservative channel replaced incumbents with more right-leaning legislators,” said Clinton.

To test the first possibility, Clinton and Enamorado compared lawmakers’ votes in congressional sessions that took place in 1995-1996 versus those that occurred in 1997-1998. Their analysis clearly showed that FOX News’ presence resulted in a conservative shift for members of Congress, despite the fact that the average legislator in their sample was drifting slightly to the left.

Interestingly, they found that the bulk of the observed change occurred among Democrats. The effect of FOX News’ entry on Republican members was negligible.

“I think Democrats were sensitive to partisan conservative shifts among swing voters in their district because of the content of FOX News,” said Clinton.

Comparisons of members’ votes between 1997-1998 vs. 1999-2000 and 1995-1996 vs. 1999-2000 yielded similar results and demonstrate that the conservative shift observed in the initial comparison persisted across time.

Power at the polls?

Did this influence go so far as increasing a lawmaker’s chances of being kicked out of office? No. The researchers did not find any significant evidence that FOX News generated a replacement effect. The introduction of Fox News in a legislator’s district did not increase his or her chance of being kicked out of office by a more conservative candidate.

To establish this claim, the researchers identified districts in which incumbent legislators either retired or faced defeat in the Congress directly prior to the introduction of FOX News. They further analyzed the change in voting behavior of representatives in those districts before and after the channel’s creation, and ultimately found that exposure to the conservative news outlet did not significantly affect these differences in votes.

“Because members of Congress anticipated a shift in their constituents’ ideological preferences, they adjusted their views to avoid electoral punishment at the polls,” said Clinton.

Making the study fair

Before starting the study, the researchers wanted to ensure that they isolated the true effect of the conservative news outlet, so they did several tests:

  • They compared the voting behavior of lawmakers whose districts received and did not receive FOX News. They found the voting behavior was statistically identical.
  • They measured the political ideology of the district and the voting behavior of the lawmakers prior to the creation of FOX News to estimate the probability that a district was targeted to receive the conservative cable news channel. They found no statistically significant relationships between either of these variables, showing that when FOX News was created, it was not targeted to run in certain districts.
  • They checked for potentially omitted factors by using the emergence of FOX News to predict prior changes in lawmakers’ voting behavior. They found no relationship between the voting behavior of members of Congress and the entry of FOX News in their districts at a later time.

As a whole, these tests provided evidence that the introduction of FOX News was not systematically assigned to certain congressional districts, which is a crucial preliminary finding necessary to ensure that the researchers isolate the true effect of the conservative news outlet.

Read the full study, titled “The Fox News Factor: How the Spread of Fox News Affects Position Taking in Congress.”

This story was written with the assistance of Vanderbilt graduate student Allison Archer.