Warning: Fox TV feeds falsities

Study: The more you watch TV news, the more misinformed you’re likely to be

One in five people surveyed in a recent study said they believed Iraq had actually used chemical or biological weapons during the war.

One in five people surveyed in a recent study said they believed Iraq had actually used chemical or biological weapons during the war.

Photo By David Robert

The more commercial TV news you watch, the more wrong you are likely to be about factual elements of the Iraq War and its aftermath, according to a major new study released in Washington this month.

And the more you watch the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News channel, in particular, the more likely it is that your perceptions about the war in Iraq are wrong, adds the report by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Findings were based on several nationwide surveys conducted with California-based Knowledge Networks since June, along with results of other polls.

PIPA found that 48 percent of the public believe U.S. troops found evidence of close pre-war links between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Another 22 percent thought troops found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Some 25 percent believed that world public opinion favored Washington’s going to war with Iraq.

All three are misperceptions. No link has ever been shown to connect Iraq with al-Qaeda or to be responsible for the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The report, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” also found that the more misperceptions held by the respondent, the more likely it was that he both supported the war and depended on commercial television for news about it.

After receiving an e-mail about the study’s findings, University of Nevada, Reno, journalism assistant professor Donica Mensing forwarded the study to journalism graduate students on the Reno campus.

“It’s one of the few studies I’ve seen that connects the knowledge of consumers with the news product they watch,” she said. “That’s a link media researchers study all the time. This showed such a direct correlation.”

The study provides fodder for a growing public and professional debate over why mainstream news media—especially the broadcast media—were not more skeptical about the Bush administration’s pre-war claims, particularly regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD stockpiles and ties with al-Qaeda.

“This is a dangerously revealing study,” said Marvin Kalb, a former television correspondent and a senior fellow of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

While Kalb said he had some reservations about the specificity of the questions directed at the respondents, he noted that, “People who have had a strong belief that there is an unholy alliance between politics and the press now have more evidence.” Fox, in particular, has been accused of conveying its political agenda in its news coverage despite its motto, “We report, you decide.”

Overall, 60 percent of the people surveyed held at least one of the three misperceptions through September. Thirty percent of respondents had none of those mis- perceptions.

Surprisingly, the percentage of people holding the misperceptions rose slightly over the last three months. In July, for example, polls found that 45 percent of the public believed U.S. forces had found “clear evidence in Iraq that Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda.” In September, 49 percent believed that.

Likewise, those who believed troops had found WMDs in Iraq jumped from 21 percent in July to 24 percent in September. One in five respondents said they believed that Iraq had actually used chemical or biological weapons during the war.

The question of whether the rest of the world supported going into Iraq demonstrates well the link between what people watch and how they view the world, Mensing said.

“The evidence was so overwhelming that we were going it alone,” she said. “Anyone who asserts otherwise is clearly looking through the prism of her own perspective.”

In 1922, social commentator Walter Lippman theorized that media directly and powerfully shape our images of the world. His ideas were scrapped by later scholars, who argued that people are natural skeptics, able to think for themselves. These days, theorists argue that media may not have immediate powerful effects—but can have mighty, society-changing effects over time.

With its study of Iraq War falsities, PIPA considered a number of variables in looking at why people hold on to factually incorrect ideas.

For one, people hear and remember what they are predisposed to hear and remember from a news broadcast. People who supported the Iraq War, the study found, also had the most misperceptions about al-Qaeda, WMDs and world support for war. Only 23 percent of those who held none of the three misperceptions supported the war, while 53 percent who held one misperception did so. Of those who believe that both WMDs and evidence of al-Qaeda ties have been found in Iraq and that world opinion backed the United States, a whopping 86 percent said they supported war.

More specifically, among those who believed that Washington had found clear evidence of close ties between Hussein and al-Qaeda, two-thirds held the view that going to war was the best thing to do. Only 29 percent felt that way among those who did not believe that such evidence had been found.

Another factor that correlated closely with misperceptions about the war was party affiliation, with Republicans substantially “more likely” to hold misperceptions than Democrats. But support for Bush appeared to be an even more critical factor.

Frequency of misperceptions among respondents who planned to vote for Bush was an average of 45 percent, while among those who plan to vote for a hypothetical Democrat candidate, the frequency averaged only 17 percent.

When asked: “Has the United States found clear evidence Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda?” 68 percent of Bush supporters replied affirmatively. Two of every three Democrat-backers said no.

But news sources also accounted for major differences in misperceptions, according to PIPA, which asked more than 3,300 respondents since May where they “tended to get most of [their] news.” Eighty percent identified broadcast media, while 19 percent cited print media.

Among those who said broadcast media, 30 percent said two or more networks; 18 percent said they watch Fox News; 16 percent watch CNN; 24 percent watch the three big networks and three percent get news from the two public networks, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service.

Viewers of Fox held on to the most misperceptions (80 percent), with those who get news from NPR or PBS holding the fewest (23 percent) by far. All the other media fell in between.

CBS ranked right behind Fox with a 71 percent score, while CNN and NBC tied as the best-performing commercial broadcast audience at 55 percent.

Mensing thought it interesting that NPR listeners did better with what the study framed as “correct” answers.

Overall, she was impressed by the study’s findings.

“Besides creating a link between what we watch and how we feel, [the study shows how] the news we watch is so heavily filtered by political perspective.”

The study backs up an idea taught even in introductory journalism courses that people perceive and retain information selectively, running it through the grid of their perspectives.

“This [study] had such nice empirical evidence that that’s true,” Mensing said.

By the way, newspaper readers were not immune to being misled by unproven factoids.

The study found that 47 percent of print media readers held at least one misperception.

Mensing thinks that what people read in a newspaper—and some read only the sports and comics pages—has much to do with this.

“It doesn’t seem shocking that readers get some things wrong,” she said. “We’re selective in what we read. People are busy, and this issue wasn’t high on the agenda for a lot of people.”

Jim Lobe writes for the Inter Press Service. RN&R news editor Deidre Pike contributed to this story.