Does media coverage influence American openness to imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine?

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In a recent analysis of our March 16-28 University of Maryland Critical Issues Survey on the Russian-Ukrainian War (conducted by Nielsen Scarborough among a nationally representative sample of 1,320 Americans, a margin of error of +/- 2.7%), I mainly focused on the US partisan divide. As I noted in my 12 takeaways, the American public seemed to transcend the deep partisan divide on several issues regarding US policy toward Ukraine and Russia, but not on the issues at the heart of our electoral politics, including the views of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. In fact, more than a month into the war, far more Republicans (49%) named Biden first when asked which two “national or world leaders” they hated more than the Russian president. Vladimir Putin (23%) first.

But many, like Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop, have raised questions about the impact of American media coverage on American public attitudes expressed about the Russian-Ukrainian war, even beyond the partisan divide. Our new poll provides an indication of the variation in opinions among viewers of different media that, in some cases, goes beyond party identification.

It is true that there is a strong correlation between party identification and media audience. For example, in our poll, 92% of Americans whose top source of political news is Fox News identify as Republicans, and 79% of Americans whose top source is MSBNC identify as Democrats. As I have pointed out elsewhere, on issues of political identity, viewers tend to turn to media that reflect their views but are in turn affected by those media on issues where they have not yet well-formed opinions. Yet most Republicans and Democrats don’t identify Fox or MSNBC as their primary source of political news, but instead get their news from social media, newspapers and magazines, or CNN or other major news networks. television. It is therefore useful to probe the differences between the different sources of information.

One of the results of our poll was that, despite strong public concerns about a military confrontation with Russia and even a possible nuclear conflict, most Americans said they would support enforcing a safety zone. no-fly over Ukraine if the war persists – although NATO and US officials have warned that enforcing such a zone risks direct conflict with Russia, given the risks of shooting down Russian planes, having American planes shot down, and the likely need to attack Russian anti-aircraft defenses on Russian territory. An analysis of our data indicates a possible impact of the media on opinions, transcending partisan divides.

Those who primarily get their news from Fox tend to be less supportive of the no-fly zone than other major media viewers (54% vs. 70% for MSNBC viewers and 62% for CNN viewers). Republican Fox viewers expressed about the same level of support (51%) as all Republicans (52%); Democratic MSNBC viewers tended to be more supportive of a no-fly zone (67%) than Democrats overall (61%).

Those who use newspapers and magazines as their primary source of information tend to be less supportive of a no-fly zone than others (48% to 56%). Notably, Republicans and Democrats who primarily turn to newspapers and magazines for information were less likely to support a no-fly zone (36% and 51%, respectively) than Republicans and Democrats overall ( 52% and 61%, respectively).

Previous research published by three of my colleagues and I has shown that social media has a polarizing effect, even going beyond sorting people into partisan or other bubbles. In our new poll, Americans who turn to social media for information were indeed the most polarized group, on many issues, including the imposition of a no-fly zone over the ‘Ukraine. Two-thirds of Democrats who rely on social media for political information supported a no-fly zone, while 60% of those Republicans opposed it. This contrasts with the majorities of all respondents among Democrats (61%) and Republicans (52%) supporting a no-fly zone.

One of the striking findings of our poll was the apparent disconnect between support for a no-fly zone and fear of a military confrontation with Russia. Our question did not directly link the two issues for respondents, so readers’ responses could have been influenced by media coverage of the link; he simply asked respondents if they were prepared to “enforce a no-fly zone by the United States with NATO allies, if the Russian invasion of Ukraine persists.” As others have pointed out, it’s important that you link the act to possible consequences in your question, and we plan to run an experiment to probe the difference in our next UMD poll.

Although we had no questions about the link, when probing the correlation between fear of confrontation with Russia and support for a no-fly zone, we found no obvious link. Fifty-eight percent of those who were “very concerned” about confrontation with Russia favored a no-fly zone, compared to 56% of all poll respondents. Similarly, Fox News watchers, for example, tend to be less concerned about confrontation with Russia than others (54% vs. 61%), but also less supportive of a no-fly zone than others ( 54% versus 56%). Meanwhile, 60% of MSNBC viewers say they are very concerned about confrontation with Russia (vs. 61% of total respondents), but 70% support a no-fly zone (vs. 56% of total respondents) .

All of this suggests that many respondents, regardless of their primary sources of political information, do not directly link a no-fly zone to a military confrontation with Russia. Another indication of this point is seen in the way Americans are reacting about their readiness to pay the price for confronting Russia. A large majority (68%) of Americans said they were unwilling to risk American lives, even if they were prepared for oil price increases and inflation. In fact, a majority of those who supported a no-fly zone (64%) also said they were reluctant to risk American lives. This lack of connection in public perceptions, seemingly across partisan divide, and regardless of the sources of information – coupled with increasing Ukrainian devastation and civilian casualties, as well as the proliferation of reports of atrocities committed by Russian troops – are key to understanding the emerging public openness to imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

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