When propaganda is a poor substitute for news

WHEN PROPAGANDA IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR NEWS…. I’ve long been fascinated by studies documenting public awareness of current events based on preferred news outlets. More to the point, the fun comes by realizing that Fox News viewers know* less than everyone else.

This isn’t exactly new. Seven years ago, just six months into the war in Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that those who relied on the Republican network were “three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions — about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq.”

Ben Armbruster added, “An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out last year found that Fox News viewers were overwhelmingly misinformed about health care reform proposals. A 2008 Pew study ranked Fox News last in the number of ‘high knowledge’ viewers and a 2007 Pew poll ranked Fox viewers as the least knowledgeable about national and international affairs.”

The problem has arguably gotten worse. This week, PIPA published a report, this time on “Misinformation and the 2010 Election” (pdf). The point was to measure Americans’ understanding of a variety of key developments that news consumers would likely be familiar with. As was the case seven years ago, Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely” to be confused about reality.

Researchers found that Americans who paid more attention to the news were more likely to know about current events. But Americans who relied on Fox News were “significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe”:

* 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)

This point, in particular, seems especially noteworthy — in some cases, regular Fox News viewers would have done better, statistically speaking, if they had received no news at all and simply guessed whether the claims about current events were accurate.

What’s more, this isn’t party affiliations — Democrats who watch Fox News were worse off than Democrats who relied on legitimate news organizations (though Dems who watch Fox News were still less confused than Republicans who watch Fox News).

It would take an unlikely twist of self-reflection, but at a certain point, Fox News and its audience might take a moment to ponder why these viewers are so wrong, so often, about so much. That almost certainly won’t happen, of course, in part because the network and its viewers aren’t quite informed enough to realize they’re uninformed.

*D’oh!