Elected judges impose harsher criminal sentences on defendants if they watch conservative news media, in particular Fox News, according to a Columbia Business School research paper posted on May 3rd.
“Higher Fox News viewership increases incarceration length, and the effect is stronger for black defendants and for drug-related crimes,” wrote Elliot Ash, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Law, Economics, and Data Science at ETH Zurich, and Michael Poyker, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University.
Building on the assumption that “greater exposure to partisan television news has an impact on voting in presidential elections and congressional position-taking,” the study authors scrutinized whether partisan news has an effect on judges’ rulings, scrutinizing data on almost 7 million criminal sentencing decisions in the United States for the years 2005 to 2017.
Their conclusion: “Conservative television media exposure has a causal effect on judge decision-making.”
To research their paper, “Conservative News Media and Criminal Justice: Evidence from Exposure to Fox News Channel,” Ash and Poyker used word clouds, compared national sentencing data, and examined Fox viewership.
“We use combined microdata on criminal sentencing decisions from the National Corrections Reporting Program and a unique dataset with the universe of sentencing decisions linked to judge biographies from ten states … paired with data on cable news viewership at the county level,” they wrote.
Conservative-news watching had no measurable effect on appointed judges, according to the research paper.
“The appointed judges have tenure, and therefore face minimal political pressures once in office,” Ash and Poyker wrote. “We find that Fox News increases sentencing only for elected judges. Voters might become more conservative due to Fox News exposure, and in particular due to media attention on felony cases.
Meanwhile, lawyers/prosecutors put active pressure on judges threatening to find candidates to displace then; that would increase electoral pressures on judges to be harsher in sentencing decisions.”
The study authors trained word2vec, a popular word embedding model, on transcripts for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, for the years 2001 through 2013. “This model works by reading through sentences and locating words close to each other in a vector space if they tend to occur in similar contexts (that is, windows of neighboring words). Similarity between words can then be measured using the cosine of the angle between the vector representations of each word.
In the transcripts data, the most similar words to ‘crime’ were ‘crimes,’ ‘murder,’ ‘homicide,’ ‘perpetrator,’ ‘felonies,’ and other synonyms or closely related terms.”
Ash and Poyker took sentencing data from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) that contains information for “all prison admissions in the United States from 2000 to 2014.” NCRP’s data was cross-referenced with sentencing data from a previous study done by Poyker and Dippel (2019) because of its case-level detail of accessible judge’s information.
From there, Ash and Poyker only used data from 10 states with judges’ information in the case files. Those states are Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.
“We establish a racial bias in the effect of conservative discourse on criminal justice decisions, and this is linked to drug crimes,” they wrote. “As Blacks are disproportionately arrested for non-violent drug related offenses, the effect could be driven by racial bias in media messaging. Alternatively, it could be that ‘tough-on-drugs’ rather than ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric matters in this setting.”
Ash and Poyker looked at viewership based on Nielsen’s channel positions and ratings analytics that categorized viewership with zip codes. (Ctrl-F Media Data)
Interestingly, the effect of Fox News on elected judges becomes weaker in the run-up to the election date, according to this report.
“One interpretation of this result is that politicized information and politicized incentives are substitutes, rather than complements. As electoral pressures become stronger, media effects are reduced.
Another possibility is that Fox News content becomes more election-focused, and less devoted to crime, in the run-up to elections.”
A full copy of this report can be found here.