Authoritarian people have a stronger emotional need for an outlet like Fox, where they can find affirmation and escape factual challenges to their beliefs.
By Chris Mooney
In June of 2011, 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.”
In a much more comprehensive study released in late 2011 (too late for Stewart or for PolitiFact), American University communications scholar Lauren Feldman and her colleagues reported on their analysis of a 2008 national survey, which found that “Fox News viewing manifests a significant, negative association with global warming acceptance.” Viewers of the station were less likely to agree that “most scientists think global warming is happening” and less likely to think global warming is mostly caused by human activities, among other measures.
In 2009, an NBC survey found “rampant misinformation” about the healthcare reform bill before Congress — derided on the right as “Obamacare.”It also found that Fox News viewers were much more likely to believe this misinformation than average members of the general public. “72% of self-identified Fox News viewers believe the healthcare plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly,” the survey found.
By contrast, among CNN and MSNBC viewers, only 41 percent believed the illegal immigrant falsehood, 39 percent believed in the threat of a “government takeover” of healthcare (40 percentage points less), 40 percent believed the falsehood about abortion, and 30 percent believed the falsehood about “death panels” (a 45 percent difference!).
In early 2011, the Kaiser Family Foundation released another survey on public misperceptions about healthcare reform. The poll asked 10 questions about the newly passed healthcare law and compared the “high scorers”—those that answered 7 or more correct—based on their media habits. The result was that “higher shares of those who report CNN (35 percent) or MSNBC (39 percent) as their primary news source [got] 7 or more right, compared to those that report mainly watching Fox News (25 percent).”
"Ground Zero Mosque”
In late 2010, two scholars at the Ohio State University studied public misperceptions about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—and in particular, the prevalence of a series of rumors depicting those seeking to build this Islamic community center and mosque as terrorist sympathizers, anti-American, and so on. All of these rumors had, of course, been dutifully debunked by fact-checking organizations. The result? “People who use Fox News believe more of the rumors we asked about and they believe them more strongly than those who do not.”
The 2010 Election
In late 2010, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) once again singled out Fox in a survey about misinformation during the 2010 election. Out of 11 false claims studied in the survey, PIPA found that “almost daily” Fox News viewers were “significantly more likely than those who never watched it” to believe 9 of them, including the misperceptions that “most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring” (they do), that “it is not clear that President Obama was born in the United States” (he was), that “most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses” (it either saved or created several million), that “most economists have estimated the healthcare law will worsen the deficit” (they have not), and so on.
It is important to note that in this study—by far the most critiqued of the bunch—the examples of misinformation studied were all closely related to prominent issues in the 2010 midterm election, and indeed, were selected precisely because they involved issues that voters said were of greatest importance to them, like healthcare and the economy. That was the main criterion for inclusion, explains PIPA senior research scholar Clay Ramsay. “People said, here’s how I would rank that as an influence on my vote,” says Ramsay, “so everything tested is at least a 5 on a zero-to-10 scale.”
Politifact Swings and Misses
In attempting to fact-check Jon Stewart on the subject of Fox News and misinformation, PolitiFact simply appeared out of its depth. The author of the article in question, Louis Jacobson, only cited two of the studies above--“Iraq War” and “2010 Election”—though six out of seven were available at the time he was writing. And then he suggested that the “2010 Election” study should “carry less weight” due to various methodological objections.