Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Politifact Gets it Wrong
Fox News Viewers are Consistently Misinformed

Today, Politifact wrongly rated Jon Stewart’s claim that every poll consistently shows that Fox viewers are the most misinformed media viewers. Politifact rated his claim false. Stewart made the claim on Fox News Sunday.

Politifact relies on 5 studies to make its conclusion. The first three came from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. These studies asked whether the US has a trade deficit, who the current Secretary of State is, and who controls the House of Representatives, among other questions. These studies found that viewers of the O’Reilly Factor and Hannity answered these questions quite well. They also found that Fox News viewers as a whole were close to but not quite at the end of the pack among news programs among their ability to answer the questions.

The problem is that these studies study how uninformed viewers are, not how misinformed they are. An uninformed person doesn’t know the answer to a question, so they guess. A person either knows who controls the House or they don’t. A misinformed person actually believes something that is false to be true.  A person can (correctly) believe that Health Care Reform didn’t kill jobs, not know whether Health Care Reform kills jobs, or (wrongly) believe that Health Care Reform kills jobs.

The other two studies were done by worldpublicopinion.org, a project of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes. These studies focused on the kinds of things that people believe to be true which aren’t true, like whether the stimulus created jobs (it did), whether climate scientists  have reached a consensus that global warming is man-made (they have), and whether Heath Care Reform increases the deficit over the next ten years (it actually reduces the deficit). These are the misconceptions I have created this blog to combat. They are the things that politicians and pundits lie about, and those who believe them are misinformed.

The results of these studies are overwhelming. The first study was “Misperceptions and the Iraq War” which asked if there is clear evidence Iraq acted with Al Quaeda (they didn’t), whether we found weapons of mass destruction (we didn’t), among other questions. The study found Fox News viewers have a misperception rate of 45 percent. The next highest was 36 percent, and the lowest was NPR/PBS with 11 percent.

The Second worldpublicopinion.org study, “Misinformation and the 2010 Election,” was much more comprehensive, covering the stimulus, the bailouts, and global warming. The study stated,

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.

Other outlets did create an effect where viewers were more likely to be misinformed if they watched than if they didn’t, but at most they only promoted two falsehoods, compared to the 9 promoted by Fox.

Bafflingly, Politifact dismissed this study.

We think there’s a difference between bestowing a False rating on an elected official -- whose job it is to know about public policy -- and calling an ordinary American "misinformed" for getting the exact same question "wrong." At the very least, these questions seem less clear-cut than asking who the vice president is.

For this reason, we believe that this study should carry less weight in analyzing Stewart’s comment.

Knowing about the facts surrounding debates on public policy is actually more important than knowing who the vice president is. The 2010 study clearly showed that Fox viewers are substantially misinformed in a variety of public policy areas. These are the types of studies that actually reflect the effect of the falsehoods promoted on the news sources studied. Fox doesn’t lie about who the vice president is, but they do lie about the stimulus. This was the only study in the Politifact article that actually measured misinformation across multiple policy areas.

The only two studies that were cited in the Politifact article that actually measure how misinformed viewers are rather than how uninformed they are wholeheartedly confirmed Stewart’s statement that polls consistently show that Fox viewers are the most misinformed media viewers.

P.S. See this awesome Countdown video where guest host Chris Hays talks about the 2010 University of Maryland study with Media Matters’ Ari Rabin-Havt.

Originally written June 21, 2011

UPDATE (6/22/11): On his show last night, Jon Stewart issued a correction for his true statement based on the Politifact article. He then went through a list of Politifact articles that rated Fox News claims false or pants on fire. The lies filled the screen and included the only two lies of the year that have yet been awarded by Politifact. Stewart ended the segment by saying, “I’ll tell you what, they’ve got a lot of fucking correcting to do.”

If Fox News did issue a correction for every false statement they have made that Politifact has checked, I would be ecstatic. But I’m not counting on it.  

UPDATE (6/26/11): Media Matters did a masterful takedown of the faulty Politifact article. It pointed out some of the studies on how misinformed Fox News viewers are that I had been unaware of. The incorrect Politifact article was promoted as true on a variety of Fox News shows as well as CNN's Reliable Sources. Politifact itself highlighted criticism it had received on the article, but refused to change the rating. 

This is highly disappointing, but I will no doubt continue to use Politifact as a means of understanding the truth behind issues of public policy. I suppose we are all entitled to a mistake now and then.

No comments:

Post a Comment