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Does Biased News Have a ‘Time Bomb’ Effect?

• November 09, 2009 • 5:00 AM

A European study shows that, over time, even the most sophisticated readers can be manipulated.

There’s nobody more cynical about the media than your average European.

Only 12 percent of Europeans claim to trust the media, compared to 15 percent of North Americans, 29 percent of Pacific Asians and 48 percent of Africans, the BBC has found.

Yet new research out of the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that even the most hardened Europeans may succumb to media manipulation and change their political views if they are bombarded long enough with biased news.

Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union — either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over two years.

Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn’t register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.

Bruter calls this the “time bomb” effect of one-sided news. His study paints a blunt picture of how cynicism, far from inoculating citizens to resist political persuasion, merely delays the impact.

“We know that an increasing proportion of citizens distrust the media and that some explicitly claim to discount bias in the news that they receive,” he wrote. “However, we show that despite this qualified reading strategy, the effect of news resounds over time.

Bruter did not study American media, but his research raises questions about the effects of long-term exposure to polarized television news on outlets such as the FOX and MSNBC networks — which are currently first and second respectively in cable news ratings. The Obama administration recently called FOX News Channel a political opponent and not a legitimate news organization.

The “time bomb” effect calls into question whether the cynicism of modern-day citizens actually makes them more vulnerable to the very journalistic sources they distrust and feel immune to, Bruter said.

Thus, British citizens, the most cynical of all, may be alert to the anti-EU slant of their media, yet the study suggests they can be nonetheless be manipulated to feel significantly less European than others, Bruter said.

The media, he said — and particularly, the tabloids — should stop brushing aside accusations of bias with assertions that “their audiences are mature and sophisticated and can take what they say with a pinch of salt.”

“By contrast, my findings suggest that even sophisticated audiences are indeed susceptible to manipulation,” he said. “As such, the big lesson for the media is that it does have a responsibility.”

Bruter became intrigued with the question of media and identity after the citizens of France and the Netherlands voted down a proposed constitution for the European Union in 2005. This setback, he said, made it imperative to figure out whether the media was influencing “why some citizens feel more European than others.”

Bruter designed a two-year experiment in which he sent biweekly newsletters containing biased news about Europe and the EU to up to 200 each in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. These countries represented both large and small, rich and poor, pro-European and “Euroskeptic” members of the EU.

Each four-page newsletter, compiled from daily and weekly European papers, included two pages of articles exclusively about Europe and the EU, either all positive or all negative.

Thus, for example, one group of participants would read about how European heads of state agreeing to jointly fight drug trafficking, Airbus overtaking Boeing as the world’s No. 1 airplane manufacturer, and the value of the euro going up, while another group would read about the value of the euro going down, Airbus losing a large order in China to Boeing, and heads of state failing to agree on how to fight organized crime from the former Eastern bloc.

In addition, the “good news” newsletters contained three photographs or drawings of pro-European symbols such as maps of Europe and photographs of the EU flag (a circle of yellow centered on a blue background), while the “bad news” newsletters contained placebo photographs of people and landscapes.

Before the first newsletter was mailed out, participants filled out a questionnaire designed to measure their civic, cultural and European identity. They answered such questions (in different languages) as, “In general, are you in favor or against the efforts being made to unify Europe?” “In general, would you consider yourself a citizen of Europe?” “Would you say that you feel closer to fellow Europeans than, say, to Chinese, Australian or American people?”

Also, participants were asked to describe their reaction if they saw someone burning a European flag, and their reaction if they saw someone burning the flag of their own country.

They received essentially the same questionnaire twice more — right after the newsletters stopped and six months after that.

The findings showed that biased news had virtually no effect on whether citizens felt more or less European or more or less in favor of the EU, directly after the two-year experiment ended. But six months after the last newsletter arrived, the results showed that they were unmistakably affected.

Consistent exposure to symbols of Europe and the EU — flags, maps and euro banknotes — worked immediately to make people feel more European, the study found. And six months after the experiment, participants who were regularly exposed to the symbols were increasingly aware of them in real life. In effect, they had been “primed” by the newsletters to notice them.

But the “time bomb” of biased news was more effective than the exposure to symbols in manipulating members of the “vastly cynical European public,” Bruter said.

“It shows that even the most ‘unbelievable’ propaganda may have an effect over time and that the most fallacious and baseless rumors, for instance, may shape opinion to an extent,” Bruter said.

Today, the European Union has grown to 27 member states, from the original six that first engaged in mutual economic cooperation in 1957. The Lisbon Treaty, a replacement for the failed 2005 European Constitution, is poised to go into effect this year: 26 of the 27 member countries have ratified it, including France and the Netherlands. The Czech Republic is the last holdout.

But regardless of what governments do, the question of why and how the citizens of different countries in Europe begin to feel less British or Danish or Portuguese, say, and more European at heart is still very much an open one. The media, Bruter said, can impede or encourage that feeling over time.

“The effect of news ultimately kicks in and so influences citizens’ European identity with remarkable efficiency in the long term,” he said.

“Time Bomb? The Dynamic Effect of News and Symbols on the Political Identity of European Citizens,” appeared earlier this year in the journal Comparative Political Studies.

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Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

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