Fair and Balanced?

Published: February 7, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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According to a survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind, “What you know depends on what you watch.”

“NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows,” the report says, “are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.”

This follow-up report, completed in May, 2012, confirms the initial findings from a November 2011 poll.

As the study points out, spin – both liberal and conservative – can sway a voter’s factual knowledge leading them to draw the wrong conclusions about an issue or individual.

“In the study, 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad. On average,” the study says, “people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs.

” ‘Of course, knowledge of current events is predicted not just by watching news, but also by factors like ideology, education, age and gender,’ said Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst. ‘Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge.’ ”

And here’s the kicker for me: “…the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly – a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all.”

Let me repeat that: People who watch NO NEWS are MORE knowledgeable than those who ONLY WATCH FOX News.

“On the other hand,” the study says, “if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well. And…” here comes another kicker, “people watching onlyThe Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.”

Let’s repeat that one: People who watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, a comedy show that discusses daily news stories, aremore knowledgeable about current events than those who only watch Fox News.

“The study showed that the effects of ideologically-pitched media, like Fox News, MSNBC and talk radio, depend on who is listening or watching. On the whole, MSNBC, for instance, had no impact on political knowledge one way or the other. However, liberals who watched MSNBC did better on the knowledge questions, answering correctly 1.89 of the domestic questions and 1.64 of the international questions correctly. Similarly, while moderates and liberals who watch Fox News do worse at answering the questions than others, conservatives who watch Fox do no worse than people who watch no news as all,” the study said.

“Talk radio also had differential effects depending on the ideology of the listener, but they were much smaller. None of the other news media had effects that depended on ideology.”

” ‘Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience,’ said Cassino. ‘This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.’ ”

So, what are the ethical implications?

“The problem,” columnist Charles Blow writes in The New York Times (Jan. 25), “is that viewers and readers don’t always know that they’re being hustled.

“[Glenn] Beck and his colleagues at Fox did their viewers and the country a tremendous disservice, not only riling folks up but outrightly misinforming them.”

As Cultural analyst Jamie O’Boyle points out in my book,Shameless: “One of the outcomes of this process is a confirmation bias – the tendency of our brain to easily accept information compatible with what we already know and – more importantly – minimize information that contradicts what we already know, even if what we ‘know’ isn’t true!

“The unconscious weighing of information is one of the reasons it is so difficult to change people’s minds using logic. The information goes in but the importance the brain allots to each bit minimizes the effect of negative data while weighting more heavily the bits that already fit their preconceptions and worldview. 

“This is a principal reason,” O’Boyle concludes, “why people don’t recall that commentators have given them information that was proven to be false. Their unconscious brain simply diminished its importance in favor of some other bit of information, and even the little that did get through faded rapidly from memory.”

In a head-to-head match-up, here are the numbers in terms of average number of correct answers to five questions about domestic affairs by source, beginning with the most correct:

NPR – 1.51 correct; Sunday shows – 1.47; The Daily Show – 1.42; Talk Radio – 1.35; CNN – 1.26; MSNBC – 1.26; No News – 1.22; and Fox News – 1.04.

As Fairleigh Dickinson political analyst Dan Cassino points out, “These differences may be small, but even small differences are important when we’re talking about millions of people.”

Maybe MSNBC and Fox should come with a warning label at the bottom of the screen: “The informational spin on this broadcast is dangerous to relevant, factual information.”


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