The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed
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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Chris Mooney’s new book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.
In June of last year, Jon Stewart went on air with Fox News’ Chris Wallace and started a major media controversy over the channel’s misinforming of its viewers. “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers?” Stewart asked Wallace. “The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.”
Stewart’s statement was factually accurate, as we’ll see. The next day, however, the fact-checking site PolitiFact weighed in and rated it “false.” In claiming to check Stewart’s “facts,” PolitiFact ironically committed a serious error—and later, doubly ironically, failed to correct it. How’s that for the power of fact checking?
There probably is a small group of media consumers out there somewhere in the world who are more misinformed, overall, than Fox News viewers. But if you only consider mainstream U.S. television news outlets with major audiences (e.g., numbering in the millions), it really is true that Fox viewers are the most misled based on all the available evidence—especially in areas of political controversy. This will come as little surprise to liberals, perhaps, but the evidence for it—evidence in Stewart’s favor—is pretty overwhelming.
My goal here is to explore the underlying causes for this “Fox News effect”—explaining how this station has brought about a hurricane-like intensification of factual error, misinformation and unsupportable but ideologically charged beliefs on the conservative side of the aisle. First, though, let’s begin by surveying the evidence about how misinformed Fox viewers actually are.
Based upon my research, I have located seven separate studies that support Stewart’s claim about Fox, and none that undermine it. Six of these studies were available at the time that PolitFact took on Stewart; one of them is newer.
The studies all take a similar form: These are public opinion surveys that ask citizens about their beliefs on factual but contested issues, and also about their media habits. Inevitably, some significant percentage of citizens are found to be misinformed about the facts, and in a politicized way—but not only that. The surveys also find that those who watch Fox are more likely to be misinformed, their views of reality skewed in a right-wing direction. In some cases, the studies even show that watching more Fox makes the misinformation problem worse.
So with that, here are the studies.
In 2003, a surveyby the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found widespread public misperceptions about the Iraq war. For instance, many Americans believed the U.S. had evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been collaborating in some way with Al Qaeda, or was involved in the 9-11 attacks; many also believed that the much touted “weapons of mass destruction” had been found in the country after the U.S. invasion, when they hadn’t. But not everyone was equally misinformed: “The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news,” PIPA reported. “Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions.” For instance, 80 percent of Fox viewers held at least one of three Iraq-related misperceptions, more than a variety of other types of news consumers, and especially NPR and PBS users. Most strikingly, Fox watchers who paid more attention to the channel were more likely to be misled.
At least two studies have documented that Fox News viewers are more misinformed about this subject.
In a late 2010 survey, Stanford University political scientist Jon Krosnick and visiting scholar Bo MacInnis found that “more exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of many mainstream scientists’ claims about global warming, with less trust in scientists, and with more belief that ameliorating global warming would hurt the U.S. economy.” Frequent Fox viewers were less likely to say the Earth’s temperature has been rising and less likely to attribute this temperature increase to human activities. In fact, there was a 25 percentage point gap between the most frequent Fox News watchers (60%) and those who watch no Fox News (85%) in whether they think global warming is “caused mostly by things people do or about equally by things people do and natural causes.”