What You Know Depends On What You Watch, Survey Says

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STATE — NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative broadcast news outlets, according to a new survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind TM, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge. This nationwide survey confirms initial findings presented in a New Jersey focused poll from November 2011.

In the study, 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad. On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs.

“Of course, knowledge of current events is predicted not just by watching news, but also by factors like ideology, education, age and gender,” said Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst. “Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge.”

However, the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well. And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.

“These differences may be small, but even small differences are important when we’re talking about millions of people,” said Cassino. “We expect that watching the news should help people learn, but the most popular of the national media sources – Fox, CNN, MSNBC – seem to be the least informative.”

Results for questions about international current events were similar. People who didn’t have any reported exposure to news sources were expected to answer 1.28 questions correctly, a figure which rose to 1.97 for people just listening to NPR, to 1.60 for people just watching The Daily Show or listening to talk radio, and 1.52 for people watching Sunday morning shows. By contrast, people who reported watching just Fox News were expected to answer just 1.08 questions correctly.

“Most news providers in the United States don’t spend much time on international affairs,” said Cassino. “It is not surprising that most media have little impact on how much people know about the world,” said Cassino. “What is interesting is that when people are exposed to media that cover the world, like NPR, they do pick it up. It’s not that people aren’t interested, it’s that no one is giving them the information in the first place.”

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