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The “long-term” effects and non-effects of watching politically-oriented TV shows

- June 22, 2009

Here’s a familiar research scenario: A research team conducts an experiment designed to assess, say, the effects of viewing a certain type of TV program. They round up some participants (maybe college students, maybe not), assign them to treatment and control groups, ask them some questions, expose them to some stimulus materials, ask them some more questions, and bid them goodbye.

Does any of this matter? Well, it could help the researchers get tenure, but in the sense of contributing much to our ability to answer the research question, what’s been learned? In a typical study, the researchers will have designed a very strong set of stimulus materials – strong in the sense of exposing the participants to clear-cut experimental manipulations – and will have assessed the implications of these manipulations immediately after exposing the participants to them. In the real world, though, many (most?) political stimuli that people react to are likely to be a bit more mixed than that, and, more importantly, the real issue is whether such exposure will have any long-term effects.

Bethany Albertson and Adria Lawrence are interested in both of these issues. In an article published in the March 2009 issue of American Politics Research, they analyze viewers’ reactions to two television programs: a five-part, Bill Moyers-hosted PBS series on drug abuse treatment, relapse, and recovery, and a fair and balanced Fox News special on California’s Proposition 209. Albertson and Lawrence’s analysis of data from a field experiment that NORC conducted in conjunction with the PBS series indicates that watching it did not increase knowledge about addiction a month later, despite viewers’ claims that they did learn from it. Watching did, however, increase the support that viewers expressed a month later for increasing the availability of treatment centers. Albertson and Lawrence put an “online-processing” spin on this pair of results: people evaluate new information as they encounter it and put it to use in developing attitudes; then, with the passage of time, they forget the information that they learned but retain the attitude. The Fox program was shorter (half an hour) and rather than presenting factual information showed a heated debate between two opponents and two proponents of Proposition 209. As with the PBS series, NORC conducted a field experiment to assess the effects of the show. Again, watching made viewers feel more knowledgeable several days after the program aired, but this time there was no effect on support for the policy issue or on polarization concerning Proposition 209.

How to account for the difference in the effects of the two experimental stimuli? The PBS series conveyed unequivocal arguments in support of funding and treatment, and it had marked effects on viewers’ attitudes. The Fox News special, by contrast, didn’t take a stand, but presented both sides of an issue – so unsurprisingly, it didn’t affect where viewers stood on the issue. The PBS series was also much longer, and it’s a well established principle that repeated exposure to a message can enhance its impact.

Albertson and Lawrence conclude that educational broadcasts “can have persistent effects on attitudes.” The results for the Fox News program, though, lead them to caution that “only particular kinds of program can induce attitude change over the long term.”

Of course, there is long-term and there is long-term. One might legitimately ask whether results from surveys conducted a few days or even a few weeks after the experimental stimulus really speak to the issue of long-term effects. But I’m encouraged by an emerging emphasis among researchers in gauging effects after the dust has at least begun to clear.