Monday, January 10, 2011

Survey Says: Fox News Viewers Bad at Reading Comprehension

Hey, a study! A new study! Gather 'round everyone, there's a new study out!

It comes from the University of Maryland's Program on International Something-or-Other, where researchers have used biased methodology to reach a pre-conceived result made a number of fascinating discoveries. One finding, in particular, is ideally suited to the sort of vapid, substanceless news reporting people tolerate for some reason very interesting: Apparently, regular viewers of Fox News are more likely than those who get their news elsewhere to be "misinformed" misinformed. Of course, research like this frequently raises serious questions about the integrity and/or competence of everyone involved is rarely met with universal acceptance. This study would, if printed out, actually devalue the paper it's printed on is no exception.

Alright, enough with the strikethroughs—I think I've made it clear how little respect I have for this kind of counterproductive bullshit flawed research.

Why is it flawed? A bunch of reasons, but this article from Right Wing News nicely summarizes the one I want to talk about:
[S]ome of the questions asked by the World Public Opinion Dot Org are framed around "what the experts think." So there is another obvious point to be made about the flaw in their research: It is inclined to bestow the title of "well informed" upon people who place great weight on what "experts" think, and then just slavishly mimic them. I suppose there is a certain fairness to that, along with a worthy fidelity to the intent of the study—you need to track down some information in order to find out what the so-called experts are thinking, so you can copy it—but it occurs to me. When we seek to establish and maintain an "informed" democratic republic of participating voters, this seems somewhat far-flung and distant from what we should be trying to build.

What good is information if you aren't thinking independently about it means?
Along the same lines, here's's Brent Bozell:
Fox viewers were more likely to believe "Among economists who have estimated the effect of the health reform law on the federal budget deficit over the next ten years, more think it will increase the deficit."

That is misinformation? This question is not about facts at all. It's about the opinions of economists looking into a crystal ball, and PIPA's "economists" estimate that herding 35 million uninsured Americans into a new federal entitlement program is going to reduce the deficit. This assertion by liberals that ObamaCare would cut deficits isn't technically a "lie"—yet. It is merely a patently ridiculous claim that doesn't acknowledge the real world. But somehow, Fox News viewers are tagged as the "misinformed" dummies, because their opinions are grounded in logic.
Those devious pollsters! It seems people weren't asked if, for example, healthcare reform will increase the deficit, they were asked if economists believe healthcare reform will increase the deficit. Several other questions were similarly phrased.

That the researchers used biased methodology is so obvious it's not worth talking about up here in the main text,[1] so I'm setting that aside for now. At the same time, let's not treat these Fox News-viewing respondents as paragons of enlightenment. Bozell, like most conservatives who've weighed in on the study, acts like they were tricked into giving "wrong" answers, because God forbid Fox News viewers be expected to know what the so-called experts think about anything.[2]

Conservatives have gotten into the habit of dismissing "experts" as out-of-touch elitists who care more about promoting an ideology than objective truth-seeking. (Note: Does not apply to experts who endorse conservative views.) As usual, they're kind of right and kind of wrong, but Bozell is taking it a step further. Later in the same article, he asks:
Is it fair—whether the pollsters are liberals or conservatives—to expect the American people to identify correctly the estimates made by a panel of economists organized by news editors of The Wall Street Journal?
Is it fair to ask a difficult question? I'd like to think so, especially if your goal is to determine whether the answers to such questions have reached the public, which, nominally (if not actually), is what the study was about. Nobody's trying to deprive anyone of their fundamental right to disagree with the experts as obstinately and as unjustifiably as they see fit. Besides, I'm not sure it's even logically possible to disagree with the experts if you aren't, you know, informed about what the experts think.

So let's criticize the hell out of this study for all sorts of reasons, but not that one. I guess Bozell would be happier if this were just another opinion poll, but if you're not informed enough to answer at least a few questions about what the experts think, I'd rather not hear your opinions anyway.

1. Basically, if you went in with the attitude that everything liberals do is right and everything conservatives do is wrong, you would've given the "informed" answer to almost every question.
    The content of a lot of the questions was suspect too. This video probably isn't flawless, but it's a pretty good overview of some of the problems. (That's twice in just over a month I've praised something on one of the Breitbart sites, so…haha, [snarky comment about the frigid conditions in Hell, maybe a Michael Bloomberg reference and something about snow plows, etc., etc.])
2. Or, on the chance some thought they were being asked for their opinions, God forbid they be expected to read an entire sentence and evaluate the semantic contribution made by every single word.
    All that said, this isn't really about Fox News, because I have no doubt that, given an ideologically-neutral set of questions, those who get their news from other sources wouldn't fare much better. A follow-up article elaborating on that is in the works, but, for now, I'll just point out that the researchers threw in a token question for conservatives (about whether there was proof the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had been raising foreign money for Republican candidates), and, shockingly enough, on that one MSNBC and NPR viewers/listeners were the most "misinformed." That completely undermines the reported findings, doesn't it? How they could just shrug it off and proceed with their "Fox News viewers are misinformed!" publicity grab is beyond me, but I guess that's why I'll never climb to the top of academia.

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