Post-9/11 TV news drove liberals toward a harder line

Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher shows. In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a UW-Madison journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

Scheufele says post-9/11 television coverage quickly switched to war themes, such as CNN’s “America’s New War,” MSNBC’s “America on Alert” and Fox News’ “War on Terror.”

In addition to repeated images of the terror attacks, Scheufele says television news coverage emphasized flag-waving ceremonies, religious services and celebrity telethons.

“It wasn’t just a Fox News phenomenon. It was across all of the TV coverage,” says Scheufele, who was the lead investigator on the project. His associates were Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, and Ronald Ostman, a professor at Cornell University.

If his research offers a lesson, Scheufele says, it is that citizens need to have a varied diet of news from a variety of sources and viewpoints.

“Newspapers have been on the decline,” Scheufele notes. “But this is a very strong argument for keeping newspapers alive. They provide more in-depth and two-sided coverage. Results like these are one of the strongest arguments why newspapers are needed.”

A copy of the study is available here.

From University of Wisconsin-Madison

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