Fox and MSNBC Viewers Largely Misinformed: Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll

on November 22 2011 12:51 PM
Bill O'Reilly
Fox News political commentator Bill O'Reilly Reuters

Did the Egyptians overthrow their government in the Arab Spring revolts? How about the Syrians?

If you read a national newspaper like The New York Times or watch a Sunday morning news program, you probably know that Egyptian protesters successfully drove Hosni Mubarak from power, while Syrian protesters have thus far been unsuccessful in deposing President Bashar Al-Assad. But if you watch Fox News, you probably don't know that.

So says a new study by PublicMind, an independent research group at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. In fact, the study found that people who watched Fox News regularly were even less likely to know the outcomes of the Egyptian and Syrian revolts than people who followed no news at all.

Battle of the Partisan Cable Networks

Compared to people who didn't follow the news, Fox News viewers were 18 percentage points less likely to know that the Egyptian protesters had overthrown Mubarak and six percentage points less likely to know that the Syrian protesters had thus far failed to overthrow Al-Assad. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News, Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and a PublicMind poll analyst, said in a press release. Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don't watch any news at all.

Conversely, people who got their news from MSNBC -- which is widely seen as the liberal counterpart to the conservative Fox News -- were more likely to know the results of the Arab Spring protests but less likely to know that the Occupy Wall Street movement is composed primarily of Democrats.

MSNBC viewers still knew less about the Arab Spring than people who didn't follow the news -- they were three percent less likely to know that the Egyptian protests had been successful and two percent less likely to know that the Syrian protests had been unsuccessful -- but they performed significantly better than Fox News viewers on those questions.

The reverse was true when respondents were asked whether the Occupy Wall Street protesters were predominantly Democrats or Republicans. Both MSNBC and Fox News viewers performed below average, but MSNBC viewers ranked lowest on that question. They were 11 percent more likely than people who didn't follow the news to misidentify the protesters as Republicans, while Fox viewers were three percent more likely than non-news followers to make that mistake.

MSNBC viewers might be more naturally sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, but they might not be getting a lot of coverage of that, Peter Woolley, the executive director of PublicMind and a comparative politics professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, told IBTimes.

Fox News and MSNBC viewers both fared poorly overall, but on different issues.

The similarity, of course, is the level of misinformation, but the differences are reflective of the kinds of things those two media units choose to cover, said Woolley.

In-Depth Reporting Helps

MSNBC viewers did very well on one question: who are the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Woolley called that unsurprising. Their viewers would know Herman Cain or Mitt Romney are, in fact, the leaders for the Republican nomination, because MSNBC is spending a lot of time looking at those candidates and criticizing them, he said. (The poll was conducted between Oct. 17 and Oct. 23, before Cain fell in the polls.)

People who got their news from talk radio, which tends to be conservative, dominated that question for a similar reason: Whatever its flaws may be, talk radio has spent a lot of time talking about the nomination, and the basic facts seem to have gotten through, said Cassino.

The winner of the Occupy Wall Street question was unexpected: Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

Jon Stewart has not spent a lot of time on some of these issues, said Cassino, but the results show that when he does talk about something, his viewers pick up a lot more information than they would from other news sources.

On the majority of the questions, though, less partisan sources were better.

The best-informed people on the Arab Spring questions were those who watched Sunday morning news shows. These viewers were 16 percentage points more likely to know the Egyptian protests were successful and eight percent more likely to know the Syrian protests were unsuccessful.

Sunday morning news show viewers also did well on the Occupy Wall Street question, as did people who got their news from NPR.

It helps that Sunday shows and NPR tend to be less partisan than Fox News or MSNBC, but they have an edge even over other nonpartisan sources, like The New York Times or USA Today. The primary factor, said Woolley, is more the format of a news source than its partisan leaning.

In a Sunday morning show, they [viewers] are putting aside time, they're focused on the show, and the show typically is choosing topics one at a time and spending some significant time on it, he said. They have selected your consumption for you. They've decided what's important and they're going to spend some time on it, so you're going to come away informed a bit differently than if you just flipped through the newspaper and chose the items you already had an interest in.

Sunday shows are also less likely to degenerate into people shouting at each other, said Cassino. Viewers pick up more information from this sort of calm discussion than from other formats. Unfortunately, these shows have a much smaller audience than the shouters.

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