In the U.S. Senate Tuesday evening, supporters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed by a single vote to pass a bill approving the project. The controversial pipeline is intended to link the Alberta oil sands in Canada with Gulf of Mexico refineries and distribution centers in the U.S.

Until this week, the pipeline had been a presidential decision, falling under the Obama administration’s executive authority. Yet emboldened by their midterm electoral success, Republicans have made approving the pipeline, and bypassing the president, a top legislative priority.

Tuesday’s Senate vote was an unexpected preview of more political gamesmanship to come in January, as Republicans attack what they claim are the “job killing” climate policies of the Obama administration.

Environmental activists counter Republican hyperbole with heavy doses of their own. They warn that approval of the pipeline would be catastrophic for the environment, accelerating development of Alberta’s oil sands, thereby spiking global greenhouse gas emissions. Building the pipeline would be in the words of scientist-turned-activist James Hansen: “Essentially game over for the planet.”

As the battle over the pipeline lives on for at least a few more months, a forthcoming study by the University of Texas-Austin’s Talia Jomini Stroud and Alexander Curry indicates that cable news and other partisan news outlets have played a significant role in distorting how Democrats and Republicans view even the most basic facts of the debate.

A reinforcing spiral

Across issues, previous studies including my own research shows that heavier news consuming Democrats and Republicans tend to be the most polarized in their opinions and beliefs about scientific issues. A main reason is that these better educated partisans tend to seek out news outlets that are consistent with their political outlook, and are more skilled at recognizing and countering contradictory information.

As the debate over the Keystone pipeline has taken place, selectivity in media choices has driven ever more intense commitment among strong partisans to their positions. This entrenchment – as shown in polls across years – has been further amplified by the brutally negative political ads that ran about the issue leading up to the midterm elections.

As I wrote about in a previous column, on climate change generally, studies show that conservatives who are heavier viewers of Fox News are predictably more dismissive of the issue than their lighter viewing ideological counterparts. In contrast, heavier viewers of MSNBC, along with other left-leaning and mainstream news sources, are more likely to be concerned about climate change and to support policy action.

Yet as I noted, several likely but under-examined impacts of MSNBC viewing are also important to consider. The new study on partisan perceptions of the Keystone XL pipeline debate offers important insight on these effects.

In the University of Texas-Austin study, Stroud and Curry examined how Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC coverage of a January 31, 2014 US State Department report influenced viewer perceptions of the proposed pipeline’s environmental impacts and job benefits.

The State Department report concluded that the Keystone project if built would not substantially worsen global greenhouse gas pollution since Alberta’s oil sands would still be extracted at similar rates and brought to market by other means such as rail. Approximately 1,950 annual construction jobs would be created over a two-year period, a modest benefit, concluded the report.

The conclusions appeared to open the door to approval by President Obama since they fit with his previously stated criteria that he would green light the project if it would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmentalists and bloggers immediately sought to discredit the report, arguing that the State Department’s conclusions had been unduly influenced by the oil industry, and were contradicted by the calculations of climate scientists such as Hansen.

These arguments were emphasized in coverage at MSNBC, and downplayed or ignored at Fox News which strongly exaggerated the job benefits. Mainstream outlets like NBC News tended to balance the report’s findings with statements from a mix of pipeline critics and supporters.

To assess the impact of cable TV news viewing on partisan perceptions, Stroud and Curry recruited 225 Democratic and Republican identifying adults to participate in an experiment.

These partisans were randomly assigned to watch 2 minutes of coverage of the State Department report headlined by either Brian Williams at NBC News, Bret Baier at Fox News, or Chris Hayes at MSNBC. [Watch a presentation about the study by Stroud below.]

For those assigned to watch NBC News, consistent with the findings of the State Department report, 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans believed that the analysis had determined that the pipeline would have “little environmental impact.”

Interestingly, nearly 90% of Republicans assigned to watch Fox News coverage also answered correctly that the report had concluded that the pipeline would have little environmental impact. These findings held even among Republicans who were assigned to watch a combination of Fox News and NBC News.

Yet in contrast, only approximately 20% of Democrats assigned to watch MSNBC coverage believed that the report had concluded there would be limited environmental impact – with the other 80% believing precisely the opposite about the State Department’s findings. These beliefs also remained consistent for Democrats assigned to watch a combination of MSNBC and NBC News coverage.

Less pronounced, yet similar partisan differences were observed relative to the impact of cable news viewing on beliefs about the report’s conclusions on job benefits.

Consistent with findings from other studies, Fox News, MSNBC, and other partisan media outlets both “reflect and intensify partisan divides among members of the public,” conclude Stroud and Curry. “Although not everyone uses partisan media, the audience that does may be particularly politically influential, making findings of increased polarization worrisome.”

The study appears as part of a forthcoming edited book examining “American Gridlock: Causes, Characteristics and Consequences of Polarization.”

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