The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed
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Authoritarians, Altemeyer concludes, “maintain their beliefs against challenges by limiting their experiences, and surrounding themselves with sources of information that will tell them they are right.”
The evidence on selective exposure, as well as the clear links between closed-mindedness and authoritarianism, gives good grounds for believing that this phenomenon should be more common and more powerful on the political right. Lest we leap to the conclusion that Fox News is actively misinforming its viewers most of the time—rather than enabling them through its very existence—that’s something to bear in mind.
Disinformation Passing as “News”
None of which is to suggest that Fox isn’t also guilty of actively misinforming viewers. It certainly is.
The litany of misleading Fox segments and snippets is quite extensive—especially on global warming, where it seems that every winter snowstorm is an excuse for more doubt-mongering. No less than Fox’s Washington managing editor Bill Sammon was found to have written, in a 2009 internal staff email exposed by MediaMatters, that the network’s journalists should:
. . . refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.
And global warming is hardly the only issue where Fox actively misinforms its viewers. The polling data here, from the Project on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) are very telling.
PIPA’s study of misinformation in the 2010 election didn’t just show that Fox News viewers were more misinformed than viewers of other channels. It also showed that watching more Fox made believing in nine separate political misperceptions more likely. And that was a unique effect, unlike any observed with the other news channels that were studied. “With all of the other media outlets, the more exposed you were, the less likely you were to have misinformation,” explains PIPA’s director, political psychologist Steven Kull. “While with Fox, the more exposure you had, in most cases, the more misinformation you had. And that is really, in a way, the most powerful factor, because it strongly suggests they were actually getting the information from Fox.”
Indeed, this effect was even present in non-Republicans--another indicator that Fox is probably its cause. As Kull explains, “even if you’re a liberal Democrat, you are affected by the station.” If you watched Fox, you were more likely to believe the nine falsehoods, regardless of your political party affiliation.
In summary, then, the “science” of Fox News clearly shows that its viewers are more misinformed than the viewers of other stations, and are indeed this way for ideological reasons. But these are not necessarily the reasons that liberals may assume. Instead, the Fox “effect” probably occurs both because the station churns out falsehoods that conservatives readily accept—falsehoods that may even seem convincing to some liberals on occasion—but also because conservatives are overwhelmingly inclined to choose to watch Fox to begin with.
At the same time, it’s important to note that they’re also disinclined to watch anything else. Fox keeps constantly in their minds the idea that the rest of the media are “biased” against them, and conservatives duly respond by saying other media aren’t worth watching—it’s just a pack of lies. According to Public Policy Polling’s annual TV News Trust Poll (the 2011 run), 72 percent of conservatives say they trust Fox News, but they also say they strongly distrust NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN. Liberals and moderates, in contrast, trust all of these outlets more than they distrust them (though they distrust Fox). This, too, suggests conservative selective exposure.