Back in 2003, the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a survey on public knowledge of terrorism and the then-recently launched Iraq war. The report found that "[t]hose who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions" about these issues of grave national importance. And the difference was stark: According to the report, Fox News viewers were "three times more likely than the next nearest network" to hold inaccurate views of 9-11, WMDs in Iraq, and international support for the war.
Last week, the Program on International Policy Attitudes released another, wider-ranging report on "Misinformation and the 2010 Election," which examined the accuracy of news consumers' views on tax policy, government bailouts, the economy, climate science, and President Obama's background. The findings were in line with the 2003 survey -- Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely" to be misinformed:
In the great majority of cases, those with higher levels of exposure to news sources had lower levels of misinformation.
There were however a number of cases where greater exposure to a news source increased misinformation on a specific issue.
Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:
- most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
- most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
- the economy is getting worse (26 points)
- most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
- the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
- their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
- the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
- when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
- and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)
These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant. The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it--though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.
It's a disturbing trend. The growth in Fox News' popularity has coincided with rising distrust of the rest of the media, which the right tends to dismiss as "liberal" and view with reflexive suspicion. That, coupled with Fox's commitment to producing distorted, right-wing journalism, has essentially created a competing media culture in which counter-factual information with palate-pleasing right-wing spin is considered "the news." What the UMD studies show is the necessary result of a news organization putting ideology over accuracy. It's not news, and it's not healthy for a functioning democracy.