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.