May 23, 2012

Fairleigh Dickinson University
People who watch no news at all can answer more questions about international current events than people who watch cable news, a survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind finds.

NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.

People who watch MSNBC and CNN exclusively can answer more questions about domestic events than people who watch no news at all. People who only watch Fox did much worse. NPR listeners answered more questions correctly than people in any other category.

The survey of 1185 random people conducted by landline and cell phone in early February follows a similar poll FDU conducted last November, which surveyed only New Jersey residents and returned similar results.

Each respondent was asked four of eight questions, which are at the bottom of this post. “On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs,” the report says. Here’s the breakdown by viewing habits.

The report explains:

The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly for a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well. And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.

Interestingly, the results of the poll controlled for partisanship. MSNBC, Fox and talk radio consumers answered more questions correctly when their political views aligned with those of the outlets they preferred. Moderates and liberals who watched only Fox did worse than conservatives who watched it. This mirrored the results at MSNBC, where a conservative viewer could be expected to answer an average of .71 international questions correctly, for example, and a liberal viewer could be expected to answer 1.89 questions correctly. “None of the other news media had effects that depended on ideology,” says the report.

“On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs,” but depending on the match between ideology and viewing habits, the score could be lower or higher.

FDU political scientist Dan Cassino said the results show “Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience…. This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.”

News organizations’ tone and allocation of resources also apparently affected respondents’ abilities to answer questions. NPR has as many domestic bureaus as foreign ones; its listeners did best on questions about international events. “Daily Show” viewers were next. On domestic questions, people who watched Sunday news shows did nearly as well as NPR listeners.

Questions: (all but the first two were open-ended)
• To the best of your knowledge, have the opposition groups protesting in Egypt been successful in removing Hosni Mubarak?
• How about the opposition groups in Syria? Have they been successful in removing Bashar al-Assad?
• 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?
• There have been increasing talks about economic sanctions against Iran. What are these sanctions supposed to do?
• Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives right now?
• In December, House Republicans agreed to a short-term extension of a payroll tax cut, but only if President Obama agreed to do what?
• 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?
• How about the New Hampshire Primary? Which Republican won that race?
• According to official figures, about what percentage of Americans are currently unemployed?

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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