Pushback on Fox-NPR Pushback

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I don't mean to make this an endlessly recursive loop, Escher-style, but some readers object to previous readers' objections to an earlier item about Fox News. The first item described a survey suggesting that Fox News viewers were flat-out worse-informed than people who relied on other news sources, especially NPR. The response questioned the survey's methods. Now, one more round from the readers.

1) The survey might be flawed, but the findings are still "true". A reader writes:

The pushback comments you published are quite correct about the shortcomings of the study and why it should be interpreted with caution.  Nonetheless, there are good reasons to conclude that Fox News does a poor job of delivering "news," that is to say accurate information about important current topics. 

As one reader whose comment you featured noted, this survey is consistent with the conclusion that Fox viewers are less knowledgeable (he or she used the term educated, but in a sense equivalent to knowledgeable) than NPR listeners.  There can be no doubt about this conclusion. 

If you polled large samples of regular Fox viewers and regular NPR listeners, which group would have the larger percentage of viewers/listeners accepting the existence of global warming, the validity of evolution, that we can't drill our way to energy independence, that that President Obama was born in Hawaii, or even that the Chevy Volt project was started by the very conservative Bob Lutz?  These are not obscure topics but have been featured over and over in media like Fox and NPR for several years.

Given the strong human tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance, what would happen to its viewership if Fox actually pursued real accuracy in its reporting?  Viewers would flee in droves.  The Fox business model depends avoiding real information on a wide array of topics. 

2) A 'tribal' world view. From another reader:

Think Progress often reports on the coverage density across the major news outlets for a given story.  And apparently there ARE some stories that Fox tries to avoid covering in detail, apparently because they would challenge the "Fox Worldview"....

But in general, I don't think Fox News' overarching negative contribution to the American conversation can be specifically described as a lack of knowledge, or a less well-informed viewership.  I think its bigger than that, and much, much worse. 

The Fox news programming, taken as a whole, promotes not just a particular ideological viewpoint but a larger, generalized point of view that is often toxic and even dangerous.  Part of it is the insistence that empirical evidence is wrong, or experts like scientists are corrupt and/or serving a particular ideological agenda.  So you get beliefs like supply side economics and its handmaiden, so called "dynamic scoring" of fiscal policies, a blunt refusal to confront climate change and a gross misunderstanding of health care policy. 

Even worse, the general worldview Fox promotes is deeply tribal, always casting doubts about and fostering fear of "the other". The Fox viewership is told that they are at risk, that they are victims, that everything they love and value is on the brink of destruction.  Of course that's ridiculous, it's how we arrive at conclusions like white males are oppressed and the Catholic Church is under attack.  But it's also dangerous, as it has created a powerful us vs. them dynamic in America that will almost certainly color everything we try to do for the next twenty years...

3) Not all Fox News programs are created equal:

The poll you cited is not the first one to show Fox viewers being uninformed.  Here is a rundown of several such polls.

Granted, PolitiFact's final determination is that Stewart was wrong to say that "every poll" shows Fox viewers to be the most misinformed.  However, every poll they linked shows NPR listeners to be significantly better informed than viewers of the generic "Fox News" category.  That said, viewers of specific Fox programs -- such as the O'Reilly Factor -- tend to do significantly better than the generic "Fox News" category as well.

p.s. You'll probably appreciate that at least one poll shows readers of The Atlantic (subscribe!) to top the list of the most informed news consumers.

Escher's_Relativity.jpg4) Phone surveys are still OK:

Points 2 through 4 [of the critique] are all more-or-less valid criticisms, and I'm in broad agreement with him there--Farleigh Dickinson should have released the full crosstabs (I used to work at a polling firm, so this isn't totally uninformed speculation). 

But his first point would invalidate all phone-based polling, and that's a leap too far.  It's true that response rates have been falling; but smart people have looked into this and found that so far, it doesn't seem to be affecting results. 

Pew released a fascinating study of this just a few weeks ago that you might enjoy.  The short version is that they did a normal survey and compared the results to a "high effort" survey (with frequent callbacks, financial incentives to participate, etc) that got a much higher response rate.  Nevertheless, the results of the two surveys was mostly identical, with the exception that those who answered the normal survey were more likely to report civic engagement.  For the moment, the polling edifice remains intact.

5) If it's the viewers' fault, it's also Fox's:

[The previous reader] is right that it may be premature to draw the conclusion that Fox News actually turns out uneducated viewers as a result of watching Fox's programs.

However, I would suggest that if Fox was doing a decent job providing information to its viewers, then - even if they were ignorant of certain events or uneducated - the viewers should be coming away better informed about the facts.  This should be particularly true when Fox viewers are compared with people who watch no news at all. 

6) The perils of amateurs writing about statistics:

It's great that you are trying to be fair-minded by presenting a critique of the NPR-FOX study, but as is often the case with journalists who don't understand statistics as well as they might, you are swayed by somewhat weak arguments.

The main response to the criticism of the study is that there's no argument suggested that there is any bias in the sampling method that would lower the fox scores and raise the npr scores. [JF summary: Maybe the survey was flawed, but there's no reason to think that it was flawed in a way that worked against Fox.]...

The bias of the critic is also evident in their question.. " For example, what if Fox News reported particularly poorly on one or more of the topics included in the survey, but reported much better on some other topics not included?".

Couldn't we just substitute 'NPR' for 'FOX News' and have an equally valid question?

The failure to report margins of errors is a weakness, but again people so often make the mistake that scores within the margin of error indicate that the scores are essentially "equal". This is just plain wrong. The margin of error applies to a specific confidence interval (95% usually), but scores that are different but within the margin of error are by no means "equal". Instead, if Sample A is higher than sample B, but the difference between A and B is less than the margin of error, Population A is still more likely to score higher than Population B, even if that probability is less tan 95%. If I told you something was 85% likely to be correct, you would be foolish to ignore it because it didn't reach the 95% level, which of course has been arbitrarily set by researchers in the first place.

Let me finish by agreeing with the critic when they say ...
" You note in your post "that NPR aspires actually to be a news organization and provide 'information', versus fitting a stream of facts into the desired political narrative" . While this could be true, it is also possible that even if the survey results were correct there may be a bit of self-selection when choosing news networks.  In that case, ignorance could be the viewer's fault rather than the fault of Fox News."

The part about self-selection is almost certainly true and likely a huge factor in the effect.  Also, your claim that NPR aspires to be a provider of information and FOX news aspires to fill a narrative is way too strong. I agree that there is more 'narrative filling' by FOX than NPR, but you can't wave away a whole group of journalists on Fox that way. Shep Smith and Bret Baier are two Fox news journalists who are obviously conservative, but can't be fairly accused as supporting a narrative.

For the record, I agree that some figures on Fox -- Shepard Smith most of all, often Bret Baier, plus others -- conceive of their job in "normal" journalistic terms. But overall, to imagine that Fox and NPR are doing the same thing, just from different perspectives, strikes me as classic false equivalence. There is more to say, but this is plenty on the topic for the foreseeable future! Thanks to all who have weighed in. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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