To opine or not to opine: The consequences of opinionated news for political information processing, attitudes, and knowledge

Lauren Feldman, University of Pennsylvania


Recent years have introduced American news audiences to new models of opinionated broadcast journalism, as exemplified by the cable news programs of Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, and others. This trend has fueled an ongoing debate among those who disagree as to whether opinionated news contributes to or detracts from the goals of democratic citizenship. For some, opinionated news offers a remedy to objective journalism, helping to compensate for the limitations seen imposed by the latter on political learning and discourse. Others are not so sanguine, fearing that opinionation in the news will mislead audiences by masquerading opinion as fact. Critics are further concerned that opinionated news will exacerbate the partisan biases of audiences and thereby contribute to an unhealthy polarization of public opinion. ^ In an effort to inform this debate, this dissertation focuses on how the presence of journalist opinionation—and its interaction with partisanship—alters the effects of broadcast news on audience perceptions of bias, political information processing and attitudes, and learning. To this end, a series of three experiments was conducted that compared audience responses to opinionated and non-opinionated news stories about Iraq war policy, healthcare reform, and immigration reform, respectively. ^ Results indicate that, overall, audiences perceive opinionated news as more biased and opinionated than non-opinionated news, but that the extent of these perceptions varies as a function of partisan agreement with the source. Perceptions of bias and opinionation also only rarely interfere with the persuasive impact of opinionated news. Although these perceptions fuel negative source processing, the more important predictor of attitude change is message processing, which generally follows the direction of the news' opinionation. Analyses further suggest that the persuasive effects of opinionated news occur irrespective of partisanship. Thus, there is no evidence that opinionated news intensifies attitude differences among opposing partisans, relative to non-opinionated news. Finally, learning of news content is generally equivalent across opinionated and non-opinionated formats. This is because opinionated news stimulates a complex set of information processes, some of which enhance learning and others which detract from learning. ^ Implications of these findings for communication theory and research, democratic politics, and journalistic practice are discussed. ^

Subject Area

Mass Communications

Recommended Citation

Feldman, Lauren, "To opine or not to opine: The consequences of opinionated news for political information processing, attitudes, and knowledge" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3328557.