In 2014, I began working on an academic study that sought to determine whether conservatives and liberals exclusively got their news from ideologically aligned news organizations, or if they instead hewed to a small number of extremely popular, politically neutral outlets. At the time, no one questioned my assumption that ideologically centrist news outlets existed, something many no longer believe to be true. More importantly, no one took issue with my assertion that MSNBC and Fox News were comparable—two sides of the same, partisan coin.
A lot can change in four years.
Now, the US has a president who openly campaigns alongside Fox’s most prominent commentators, hires former Fox employees for top executive branch posts, and depends on Fox to both carry his message to his supporters as well as give him positive reinforcement for a job well done. In light of these circumstances, the notion that Fox is simply another partisan news outlet is increasingly under attack. Fox no longer deserves to be treated as news, some argue, but as something more akin to state propaganda.
The uncertainty surrounding Fox is a challenge for researchers attempting to study a constantly changing news media environment. It also hints at a deeper confusion when it comes to determining how news organizations are categorized within journalism research more broadly. What criteria should researchers rely on when it comes to labeling an organization “news,” “partisan news,” or outright propaganda? How should these distinctions affect which organizations are studied—and which are not? And finally, what are the implications of these decisions for the way that research is conducted and received?
To answer these questions, I interviewed a number of academics who have researched partisan news generally and Fox News specifically. I found that researchers use a variety of methods to characterize and describe Fox, but that they also hold a number of assumptions about the role of Fox in political discourse generally. They echoed Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias’ recent call for more Fox News studies, but also described the challenges awaiting those who attempt to heed it.
They did so for one simple reason: Fox is the most-watched basic cable network in America, far outstripping sports and entertainment networks as well as peers in TV news. As University of California Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in Strangers in their Own Land, “Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own.”
In short, however it gets characterized, Fox News plays a powerful role in US politics.
The classification of Fox
So how does a news outlet’s partisanship get assessed in academic research? Lauren Feldman, an associate professor at Rutgers, described three mechanisms:
- content analysis of an outlet’s news coverage,
- the ideological leaning of an outlet’s audience, and
- the outlet’s self-identification (not always reliable—Fox’s tagline, for instance, used to be “Fair and Balanced”)
Reece Peck, a CUNY Staten Island assistant professor (whose book about Fox’s political and commercial success will be released this year), said that one other mechanism exists, which he referred to as the outlet’s “social identifiers” and “aesthetic style.” NPR, for example, may aspire for accuracy, professionalism, and objectivity in its reporting, “but something about the culture of that organization. . . evokes the idea of a liberal and college professor.” Perhaps it’s the fact that, as Peck notes, NPR plays “smooth jazz” in its segment breaks, while Fox News plays country music. These social identifiers are especially important to pay attention to at a moment many assume that partisanship is assigned solely on the basis of editorial biases. Although the marketing for outlets like NPR and The New York Times stresses each outlet’s professionalism and commitment to objective reporting, each is still predominantly perceived as a liberal news source.
NPR plays smooth jazz in its segment breaks, while Fox News plays country music.
When it comes to examining the actual content that a news organization produces, Louisiana State University Assistant Professor Kathleen Searles points out the need to first distinguish between what’s news and what’s opinion. Comparing Fox to a daily newspaper, Searles explains that Fox’s opinion programming is “far more like an editorial page,” while its news programming is “guided by similar news values as more traditional, legacy media.” However, others argue that all of Fox’s programming, including its news shows, seems guided more by explicit appeals to its audience’s political and social leanings than by notions of objectivity, accuracy, and fairness. As Hochschild writes in her book, “Fox News stokes fear. And the fear seems to reflect that of the audience it most serves—white, middle- and working-class people.” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Associate Professor Daniel Kreiss makes a similar observation in Trump and the Media: “Fox’s appeal lies in the network’s willingness to explicitly entwine reporting and opinion in the service of Republican, and white identity.”
Furthermore, even if the channel includes traditional news reporting from people like Shepard Smith, all anyone wants to talk about is the editorial content from people like Tucker Carlson. “Fox News is almost exclusively considered for its role propagating conservative ideas and values,” New York University visiting assistant professor and Tow Center fellow A.J. Bauer says, “It is rarely, if ever, considered on its own terms as a news outlet.”
Then there’s the question of what scholars should do if and when an outlet ceases to be partisan and crosses the line into propaganda. Though scholars like Searles assert that the categorization of Fox as a partisan news outlet akin to MSNBC continues to be accurate, others think that kind of comparison no longer applies. As Feldman explains, “While MSNBC is certainly partisan and traffics in outrage and opinion, its reporting—even on its prime-time talk shows—has a much clearer relationship with facts than does coverage on Fox.” Princeton University Assistant Professor Andy Guess echoes this point: “There’s no doubt that primetime hosts on Fox News are increasingly comfortable trafficking in conspiracy theories and open appeals to nativism, which is a major difference from its liberal counterparts.”
The implications for news research
My interviews suggested that the emphasis on what is and isn’t partisan (as well as what is and isn’t news) is symptomatic of the research community’s fixation on the role partisanship in journalism—at the expense of other important variables. For instance, the big question driving Fox research—and conservative news outlet research in general—continues to be whether or not its existence leads to “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers,” despite a growing consensus that these phenomena are overstated. Some of the scholars I interviewed expressed concern that, by focusing solely on Fox’s conservative bent, the research about Fox has limited perspective on its impact. As Feldman explains, “A richer characterization of Fox News, beyond merely labeling it as conservative partisan news, will reinvigorate attention to Fox News’ political and cultural influence.”
Peck agrees: “All this energy spent in unmasking Fox’s political agenda, its comedic ridiculousness, and its unprofessionalism has done little to diminish its influence or ratings, nor has it yielded a satisfactory answer to the question of why this overtly conservative network was able to move from the periphery of the national public sphere to the center, transforming the entire ecology of the US news environment in the process.” Peck described growing up with relatives who he loved and respected that loved Fox News. It led him to believe that there was more to its success than its conservative slant. “There’s something more complicated about their messaging than I think is being accounted for.”
“All this energy spent in unmasking Fox’s political agenda, its comedic ridiculousness, and its unprofessionalism has done little to diminish its influence or ratings.”
—Reece Peck, CUNY Staten Island
Journalism researchers and stakeholders have been interested in Fox News since its inception, not least because it aspired—successfully—to be entertaining more openly than its competitors. When they launched the channel in 1996, during the heyday of talk radio, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes saw themselves as the victims of “liberal bigots” and believed there was a large audience of others who felt the same way. They both had experience working in tabloids and entertainment, which shaped Fox’s look and feel. As opposed to other conservative news networks that were founded by think tanks and advocacy groups and ultimately failed, Fox was built by people from the business and media worlds. “Ailes may have been just as politically motivated as Newt Gingrich and Paul Weyrich,” Peck explained, “However, unlike these figures, he had started his career in entertainment television, not politics, so he placed a far greater premium on visual communication and aesthetic presentation.”
Obstacles to more Fox research
A few of the scholars I spoke with described serious obstacles in the way of increasing the variety and scope of Fox-related research. For starters, there’s the issue of access. Peck, for instance, says he would like to see more studies that involve ethnographic methods like interviews with and observations of Fox News employees doing their daily work, but that it is unlikely Fox would ever agree to participate in such a project. In general, it is harder for academics to secure access from large, corporate news outlets like Fox because they include far more layers of bureaucracy to navigate through. However, Fox’s uniqueness both in its programming and its popularity means that no other news outlet could realistically function as a substitute.
As these interviews revealed, embracing a more complicated and varied mix of methodological approaches to Fox News would affect not only the kinds of studies generated, but their reception as well. Increasing the amount and complexity of research focused on Fox could inadvertently give legitimacy to an outlet many perceive as wholly undeserving of it. As Bauer explained, studying Fox “as an object of journalism studies” runs the risk of “extending the aura of esteemed outlets like the New York Times onto an outlet (Fox) with dubious ethical standards and loose commitments to empirical reality.”
But Bauer argues this is a risk worth taking, especially if it motivates journalists and journalism scholars to have hard conversations about how “news” and “journalism” get defined in the first place.
“Taking conservative news seriously—granting that it is, indeed, a form of journalism—destabilizes our traditional normative ways of thinking about news and journalism,” Bauer says. “[But] those categories are already thoroughly destabilized among the general public, and it’s long since time that journalists and scholars reckoned with this problem directly.”Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is also the author of Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public (Oxford University Press, 2021).