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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:53 PM ET, 05/23/2012

The dumbing effect of cable news

Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) earlier this month came out with a survey indicating a bifurcation. NPR and the Sunday punditathons inform people; ideologically driven cable tube — chiefly Fox News and MSNBC — disinform people, or, in the words of the study, have a “negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.”

Now for the shockers.

Shocker No. 1: NPR has issued a cheery statement on the findings: “It’s great to see – our own research tells us that NPR listeners are engaged, knowledgeable of domestic and world events, and that being well informed is important to them. That’s why people tune to member stations and come to us online and on mobile – they know they’ll get fact-based reporting and analysis from journalists with deep knowledge of their beats.”

Shocker No. 2: Fox News didn’t respond to an inquiry and MSNBC no-commented it.

If the study’s findings sound familiar, it’s becauase they are. Last November, FDU did a smaller version of the same study that was limited to 612 adults in the state of New Jersey. The recent one polled 1,185 “resident adults” across the country.

The reaction to the November data helps explain why the FDU people took a bigger bite this year. They got pelted after those findings, that is. “It was mostly people who were fans of Fox News,” says Dan Cassino, an assistant professor of political science at FDU. “They tell you all sorts of things about yourself that you didn’t know,” he says. “Apparently I’m a communist, anti-intellectual and I make stuff up.” Cassino fielded requests from detractors who demanded to see the data — not the data presented in the study, but rather the data “before I had changed it.” Here’s a sample e-mail that Cassino received:

I watched Fox News with Chris Wallce this morning, and boy do I feel stupid! That Chris Wallace is a real [expletive] moron, and so are all of his panelists. Do’H!!!

Another:

Your “research” shows that someone that watches Fox news knows less than someone that watches ZERO news.
Someone that watches news knows less than someone that doesn’t.
Please forward your RAW data and your adjusted data. I’d like to review it.

In one of the more bizarre twists, Cassino recalls fielding an attack from someone who alleged that he was serving as a “shill” for Fox News, even though his study said dire things about the cable network’s product. Though ostensibly assaulting the study, these people were affirming its core findings: Folks were interpreting the FDU data however they wanted, in ways that solidified their own convictions. Just like cable news.

Hard to blame America’s cable devotees for taking exception to the findings. After all, the FDU people are saying, for instance, that as a whole, viewers of MSNBC register no gain of political knowledge from watching the network’s programming. Fox fares worse. According to the study, “moderates and liberals who watch Fox News do worse” on the survey’s questions than do people who watch no news at all. Conservative Fox viewers come out about even on the deal.

Peter Woolley, the director of the poll and a political science professor at FDU, says that a misconception about the study supposes that people would be better off hiding under a rock than watching Fox News. That’s not the lesson. “What we’re really saying is that if you’re just relying on your general education and general conversation through the course of the day, you might be better off” keeping your cable news stifled, says Woolley. Not such a radical notion there.

The key is how the cable nets choose stories, says Woolley, noting that this process carries an “opportunity cost.” “If you’re spending all your time bashing President Obama or bashing liberals, if you’re cherry-picking stories that are about the stupidity of the political folks you dislike, then you are not reporting the thousands of things going on in the world that are important. You’re not talking about Greece or the Euro or the uprising in Syria,” says Woolley.

Cable news aside, the survey’s killer finding comes in the form of an oval. Precisely zero of the 1,185 people polled, says Cassino, got all of the nine questions correct. Here are those questions:

1. To the best of your knowledge, have the opposition groups protesting in Egypt been successful in removing Hosni Mubarak ?
2. How about the opposition groups in Syria? Have they been successful in removing Bashar al-Assad?
3. Some countries in Europe are deeply in debt, and have had to be bailed out by other countries. To the best of your knowledge, which country has had to spend the most money to bail out European countries?
4. There have been increasing talks about economic sanctions against Iran. What are these sanctions supposed to do?
5. Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives right now?
6. In December, House Republicans agreed to a short-term extension of a payroll tax cut, but only if President Obama agreed to do what?
7. It took a long time to get the final results of the Iowa caucuses for Republican candidates. In the end, who was declared the winner?
8. How about the New Hampshire Primary? Which Republican won that race?
9. According to official figures, about what percentage of Americans are currently unemployed?

By  |  04:53 PM ET, 05/23/2012

Tags:  fairleigh dickinson university, fdu, npr, msnbc, fox news, new jersey, dan cassino, peter woolley

 
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