In this era of bitter partisanship and unfettered spending by campaigns and political action committees, the American public is constantly barraged with attack ads financed by various organizations, including corporations and special interest groups. Recent research finds that Americans are more politically polarized than ever before, and that being presented with factual information that contradicts their strongly held opinions may not be enough to make them change their minds.

A new study by Tisch College researchers provides a possible antidote: when directly exposed to information and data about the role of money in politics, readers become informed, alarmed, and more motivated to take action.

Those findings are the result of a Tisch College experimental study with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), which produces the Consider the Source (CTS) series of in-depth investigations on the role of money in politics. In the experiment, the participants were randomly assigned to either read a journalistic piece from the CTS project, or another investigative article. Both pieces cast large corporations in a negative light and shared many characteristics such as length, use of quantitative data, and mention of household corporation names. However, only the CTS piece specifically provided information about the role of corporate finances in politics.

The study’s findings indicate that respondents who read the CTS piece were more engaged with the topic, compared to the people in the comparison group. They were more likely to report that they would share and discuss it on social media and with their acquaintances, and more interested in learning more about the topic. The CTS group was also more knowledgeable about campaign financing after they read the article, and felt more threatened by the power of special interest groups. Respondents in the CTS group were more likely to say that they will take some kind of action against abuses of the campaign finance system, and the intent to take action was positively correlated with the level of anger that participants felt while reading the article.

However, there was no significant difference between readers of both articles in their intent to prioritize money in politics as a campaign issue. This suggests that readers’ personal reactions did not necessarily correlate with an immediate change in their interactions with candidates or their vote choice, and that further experimentation and research are needed.

Nevertheless, our study’s findings make it clear that investigative journalism can play a powerful role in informing and mobilizing citizens. It is also important, especially in the current political climate, that readers have access to high-quality and informative news, and have proficiency in understanding and using media in order to take action. At Tisch College, we will continue to explore the various ways in which research and practice can promote a more informed and engaged citizenry in order to promote civic renewal.

Read the full report.