Watching Fox News makes you dumber than watching no news

November 22, 2011 • 9:30 am

According to what seems to be a well-conducted and properly-analyzed PublicMind poll from Farleigh Dickinson University, how informed you are about world and national affairs is heavily influenced by where you get your news.

612 New Jersey residents were polled about where they got their news, and then were asked a few questions, like whether Egyptians successfully overthrew the Mubarak regime (yes), whether Syrians successfully overthrew the Assad regime (no), and whether the Occupy Wall Street protestors were predominantly Democrats or Republicans (Democrats).

Here’s the surprising results, though some of you will say you’re not surprised:

But the real finding is that the results depend on what media sources people turn to for their news. For example, people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news  sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers  are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their  government than those who watch no news.

Here’s the overall effect of your news source on how well you knew what happened in Egypt. Remember that these results are controlled for gender, education, and party affiliation by multiple regression, so these are the residual effects.  They’re also controlled for other news sources, so, for example, the effect of watching Fox News is independent of whether you also relied on other media sources. No matter where else you get your news, watching Fox makes you dumber.

Watching Sunday morning news (a special hobby of the elderly), watching the evening news, or reading a national newspaper all were able to improve your knowledge of this situation by more than 10% over those who watched no news.  Fox News, on the other hand, had a negative 18% effect, and, surprisingly, MSNBC had a negative 3% effect and NPR almost no effect.

NPR listeners take heart, though: you did better when answering the question about Syria:

By contrast, some media sources have a positive effect on political knowledge. For example, people who report reading a national newspaper like The New York Times or USA Today are 12-points more likely to know that Egyptians have overthrown their government than those who have not looked at any news source. And those who listen to the non-profit NPR radio network are 11-points more likely to know the outcome of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. However, the best informed respondents are those that watched Sunday morning news programs: leading to a 16-point increase in the likelihood of knowing what happened in Egypt and an 8-point increase in the likelihood of knowing what happened in Syria.

Here are the Syria results. Remember that a positive figure in the “no” column represents an improvement in your knowledge of what happened there.

And, finally, the results for the Occupy Wall Street situation.  Remember that a positive figure in the “Democrat” column shows the marginal increase in knowledge (over no news source) caused by that news source:

The moral?  No matter where you get your news, avoid Fox News or MSNBC, and watch the Sunday morning news shows if you have the time.

It’s surprising to me that watching any non-comedy news show could make you more ignorant than watching none: presumably both Fox and MSNBC accurately convey the news from Syria and Egypt, as well as the Wall Street business. And it can’t be that just uneducated people or Republicans watch Fox News, because those factors were controlled for.

The sample size is small, and limited to New Jersey, and the disparity of results for NPR listeners vis-à-vis Syria and Egypt worries me. But the margin of error is 3.5%, so these results aren’t completely meaningless.

h/t: Occam

53 thoughts on “Watching Fox News makes you dumber than watching no news

  1. This isn’t particularly new, they did the same survey regarding the Iraq war and found similar results; namely that Fox “news” viewers were more misinformed than people who didn’t follow the news.

    1. Fox News is NOT the most popular news station in the country. It is the most popular CABLE news station.

      NBC, ABC and CBS news are an order of magnitude more popular.

      1. that’s exactly what I was thinking.

        I mean, seriously, to prove that Fox News was to blame for missing those questions directly, you would have to assume they were deliberately feeding misinformation about those subjects.

        now, don’t get me wrong, we can certainly find enough examples of Fox News providing misinformation to suspect this might be the case, but you still actually have to go and show it so.

        and… why would even Fox News lie about whether the Egyptian people managed to overthrow their own government?

        oh… well, OK, I can actually see they might indeed have motivation to do just that.

        but it still would be worthwhile to show that statistically, Fox News actually DOES provide quantitatively more misinformation about political subject material than other news networks.

        1. “but it still would be worthwhile to show that statistically, Fox News actually DOES provide quantitatively more misinformation about political subject material than other news networks.”

          Fox actually went to court to sue for their right to deliberately lie to their viewers. Media Matters has done a yeoman’s job cataloging their ‘misinformation’ (propaganda).

          Fox “News” should have yanked off the air years ago for breaking the code of conduct of their broadcast license. Delivering propaganda under the guise of “News” is not fulfilling their obligations to broadcast for the public good. rant/

          1. Fox actually went to court to sue for their right to deliberately lie to their viewers. Media Matters has done a yeoman’s job cataloging their ‘misinformation’ (propaganda).

            not done statistically.

            this is my point.

        1. They controlled for education.

          not controlled for other sources of information.

          not controlled for pre-existing biases.

          …among many other things.

          1. here’s an example:

            Let’s take Oreily’s “Can’t explain the tides” meme.

            To show that someone who watches Oreily exclusively is statistically more likely than someone who doesn’t would get the answer wrong to how the moon causes tides would involve…


            and THEN this would provide only correct correlative data.

            To show that Oreily is CAUSATIVE of ignorance regarding tides would require…


    1. It could be that having a challenged viewership causes Fox to lower its journalistic standards. (I can’t believe that I just used “Fox” and “journalistic standards” in the same sentence…)

      1. yes, it is a feedback issue.

        Fox plays up to ignorant viewers, thus reinforcing their ignorance, which Fox then plays up to…

          1. It is very scary….and then add in the fact that billionaires can donate as much as they want in an effort to buy the WH. Where is the tipping point?

    1. a sample size of 600 if truly random is enough to get 97% confidence. you could argue NJ is not random. But the results should be representative of states with similar demographics, i.e., not the bible belt states.

  2. Watching Fox News …

    Fox is a racist propaganda network. Please don’t refer to using the word `news’ or other misleading or inaccurate terms.

  3. But the margin of error is 3.5%, so these results aren’t completely meaningless.


    that’s what you’re going with? The margin of error is the thing that makes or breaks this study?

    I have to assume exaggeration for effect.

    Now, if it were me, I would have phrased it like this:

    “Studies like this, while relying on small (600) and perhaps non-representative (Jersey only) sample sizes, and while only providing support for a correlative hypothesis, nonetheless provoke an interest in further investigation.”

    Yes, more and larger controlled poll studies, with followups on what the actual causative factors involved are would be useful.

    As it is though, this study is pretty close to completely meaningless in a causative sense, and the precision of it irrelevant.

    1. as an addendum, I’d add I really do think it would be very useful to quantify relatively how much misinformation is provided by various news networks.

      put out undeniable and clear evidence that some news networks are providing more misinformation about various subject matter than others.

      watch the patters emerge, that AREN’T reliant on poll data.

      Does Fox News actually report misinformation about what happened in Egypt and Syria?

      and, as a followup…

      these cable news networks typically have a relatively tiny portion of their on air time devoted to the actual REPORTING of news facts.

      instead, at least 75% of their time is devoted to providing opinions ON various news topics, which is what most people get exposed to.

      so, you’d also have to ask the question:

      Does the reporting of news facts differ in information content from the DISCUSSION of those news facts.

      …and this would be telling, as I think you will find that Fox actually DOES mostly report correct information while REPORTING the news, but not much so in their DISCUSSION of it.

      1. Does Fox News actually report misinformation

        It is a subtle and cumulative effect, well-documented on sites such as Media Matters, as someone above pointed out. It’s difficult to pinpoint the causative effect here, whether it’s viewers being made more ignorant by watching Fox, or Fox targeting ignorant viewers by giving them what they want. I suspect that it may be a bit of both.

  4. Is there a logical fallacy here, like the proverbial elephant repellant?

    CNN and TLC watchers are less likely to speak spanish than people who watch Telemundo, therefore CNN and TLC recrease spanish language ability?

  5. Odd. Last I heard, the military was still running things in Egypt, more or less the same people. And I would have thought that most OWS participants have given up on the idea that supporting a national party is going to be effective.

    1. more or less the same people.

      the “less” being the entire administration that was there before.

      are you really trying to say Mubarak ran NOTHING for the decades he was in power there?


  6. What you wrote:

    “like whether Egyptians successfully overthrew the Mubarak regime (yes)”

    is true, but different from what was asked:

    “have the opposition groups protesting in Egypt been successful in bringing down the regime there?”

    the correct answer of which is “No”.

    Maybe PublicMind should read some foreign newspapers like the Guardian which is reporting that the current ruler is Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi: “at least 36 people have been killed and more than 1,250 wounded since Saturday, according to medical officials.”

  7. No surprise that all you liberal hippie atheists only talk about Fox News as propaganda. Why no mention of MSNBC?

    Seriously though, MSNBC is a bad news source as well.

    1. Nope. Just the latest in the bullshit “both-sides-do-it” excuses.

      You know who else killed Jews besides Hitler? Other Jews, that’s who.

      MSNB may have its resident blowhard, but Rachel Maddow’s show (and now Chris Hayes on weekends) is the smartest news/commentary on TV, period. Nothing on Fox is remotely close, and only Zakaria’s GPS on CNN is in the ballpark.

      There is NOTHING on Fox that is based on reality and informed with intelligence and a true desire to make sense of what’s going on.

      Take that horseshit equivalency tic somewhere else.

      1. Just discovered Chris Hayes’ show a couple of weeks ago. Really great Sunday fare for those of us who are up early.

      2. I didn’t say they were equal. Nevertheless, Maddow is obviously liberally biased and getting news from a biased source isn’t a smart idea (and I’m a liberal myself!)

        1. But it is smart to get it from the source with all its biases listed on its nametag.

          Much like with candy, you’d want to know about the traces of nut.

  8. As far as NPR goes it isn’t very far any more. I’ve listened to public radio since about 1962 (California KPAC – I think it was) and to All Things Considered since its inception. ATC has morphed into All Things Poignant with news-stories running on and on so that a three minute bit of news now takes twenty minutes of interviews and incidental information that is just annoying. I read the NYT online every day and the Des Moines Register (now a very provincial paper). And I have never seen or heard a FOX “newscast” in my entire life. There are a few blogs I check with some regularity or am directed to by the Times, but it is hard to get “straight new” from almost any source. There are a few excellent public television programs but usually at odd and inconvenient times. The BBC new is pretty good and I here it occasionally and the Canadian program “As It Happens” is still good for a different perspective (although it used to be a lot better). Having taught anthropology for more than 30 years I am well aware of how indifferent people are to what is going on locally, nationally, and globally. I have to agree that the reason that FOX “news” followers are so ignorant is that they are fundamentally ignorant and are only reenforcing their biases. As readers of this blog are probably aware fMRI scans demonstrate a basic difference in information processing is built into the brains of liberals and conservatives. No amount of well founded information is going to alter conservative “thinking.” Thus it is that there is no such thing as a debate on issues. The Republican candidates are each frightening in their own ways, but they are also frightening in similar ways. If Gingrich represents one end of the spectrum and Bachmann or Cain the otherone still hears a world filtered through FOX. It’s a NASCAR world out there. Let’s boo the First Lady and cheer the executions.

  9. Yeah, I’m going with “correlation not causation.” Most people who bother to watch Sunday morning news probably have other news consumption habits as well (newspaper and evening news). Someone who watches Fox News has already decided what the “facts” are, including the “fact” that all other news sources are biased liberal.

    My best guess is that, just as one would expect, the most informed people are the ones who routinely access very diverse information sources and the least informed are those that shut themselves up in an echo chamber. The partisans whose most-accessed information sources are MSNBC or Fox have opted out of many information sources and that’s why they’re less informed. People hewing towards less-partisan primary information sources may either be info omnivores or specialists and I expect it’s this variation that makes NPR flat-line (NPR-listening info omnivores give a positive contribution, NPR-listening specialists give a negative contribution summing to about zero).

    This poll was set up and analyzed in such a way as to hide what are almost certainly the real causal factors behind the numbers.

  10. And it can’t be that just uneducated people or Republicans watch Fox News, because those factors were controlled for.

    My guess is that watching Fox News is a proxy for “not giving a shit about what is true and what isn’t”, which presumably they did not control for (since I don’t know how you would measure that directly).

    Or perhaps more to the point, it is a proxy for “cares more about ideological consistency than reality” — which would also explain the modest negative effects of MSNBC.

    This is still awesome 😀

  11. There is also a selection bias in the quiz itself. Different fact-claims are uncomfortable to different ideological camps.

    How many favorable facts did NPR listeners know about the Tea Party?

    And, as others have pointed out, even basic fact claims are difficult to establish.


    The egyptian opposition did not overthrow the government. So FOX News was actually the most informative.

    The republican right has been more critical towards the Arab Spring and conservative news sources tended to report more negative news. They turned out to be on the right track.

    It used to be the exact opposite during the Bush years. The liberal media tended to pessimistic and FOX News optimistic wrt Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other places.

  12. Some one ought to do a study that includes noncorporate media, ie: Democracy Now!, The Real News, Free Speech Radio, etc. I’d be willing to bet over 90% of them would get the right answer on each question.

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