Watching the News Over … and Over Again
For many of us, the national news media are our number one source for political information. From the moment we check our favorite news website in the morning to when we watch the evening news, we are bombarded with a loop of news reports about the events of the day. This is likely to have an effect—to some extent—on our political opinions. But does it also make a difference how often we are shown a certain news message? Our research suggests that it does, but only for negative news.
How strongly can news media really influence our political views? The answer to this fairly basic question is, as is so often the case, complicated. Menacing tales of media propaganda exerting mind control are naturally overstated. But communication research has clearly shown we do learn and change our views as a result of watching, reading, or listening to the news. One of the most interesting theories communication researchers have worked with in recent decades is the so-called “framing effect.” According to framing scholars, people are not so much blindly persuaded by what the media say, but are influenced by how the media phrase and present a certain issue.
For example, there are certainly many different arguments that are important when thinking about abortion laws in the United States and other countries. Different countries have varying legislation on the issue, and recent cases show there are gray zones that require an ongoing political and public debate. But news media have the tendency to always “frame” reports on the topic with two catchy labels: pro-life and pro-choice. Research has shown many people adopt such media catchphrases. So, when we talk about politics later on, we inadvertently tell our story in ways that are similar to how the news media did earlier.
We like to think when we see such frames, we can consciously decide whether we accept and use them or not. We conducted a study to show to what extent this really is the case. We tested whether the natural resistance people have in accepting media frames is perhaps worn down by simply repeating a certain frame over time. In other words, does being exposed to the same frame over and over again yield (1) stronger and (2) longer lasting effects on people’s opinions about a topic? Repetition is one of the most basic techniques of good advertising. So why shouldn’t it work in the political realm?
To answer this question, we conducted an experiment with a representative sample of the Dutch population. Our respondents were divided into four different groups and either received a positively or a negatively framed news article on the topic of elderly care in the Netherlands. To see if repetition changes the effect such an article has on a person, different groups either received only one news article or were exposed three more times to similar articles containing the same frame later on; that is, after one day, one week, and again after two weeks. To test if repetition works, we measured people’s opinions right after they had read the first article and again after two weeks and after six weeks.
Our results show that people who were repeatedly shown the same news article did change their opinionsmore than those exposed only once. However, interestingly, this was only the case for those who read the negative news article. The positive article did have an effect, but repetition did not strengthen the effect.
We also checked whether repetition led to longer lasting effects. Here we found repetition indeed leads to longer lasting effects, which are still detectable even after six weeks. This is remarkable when considering the respondents in our study received no more articles to read after two weeks. Thus, even four weeks after having read the last article, people’s opinions were still influenced. This suggests repeated exposure to the same news frame really does matter.
People who were only exposed to one news article were still influenced in their opinion after two weeks, albeit less so compared with those with repeated exposure. However, after six weeks, these effects had disappeared entirely. Looking a bit deeper into the question of who was particularly influenced, we find that both for the strength and the duration of these framing effects, the level of a person’s political knowledge matters. We find people with average or moderate levels of knowledge, as opposed to those who have only low or very high knowledge, were most strongly affected by repetition. We assume this is so because these people have enough skills to understand the information provided by a news article, yet they also do not know enough to resist its influence.
Of course, the reality of watching the news is far more complex than our study could grasp. Still, our work presents a small snapshot of how important repetition really is for mass media audiences. Considering that today we use many different channels to stay informed (websites, social media, TV, and so on), repetition is unavoidable. So next time you hear that news report, think if your agreement with the news anchor cannot be led back to the fact you have heard it all before.