A Rigorous Scientific Look Into The 'Fox News Effect'
"What is the Fox News effect? What causes it? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answer by William Poundstone, Author of Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up, on Quora:
In 2012, a Fairleigh Dickinson University survey reported that Fox News viewers were less informed about current events than people who didn't follow the news at all. The survey had asked current events questions like "Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives?" and also asked what source of news people followed. The Fox viewers' current events scores were in the basement. This finding was immediately trumpeted by the liberal media—by Fox, not so much—and has since become known as the Fox News effect. It conjures the image of Fox News as a black hole that sucks facts out of viewers' heads.
I have done similar surveys, both of current events and more general knowledge. In my research too, Fox News viewers scored the lowest of over 30 popular news sources (though Fox viewers did at least score better than those saying they didn't follow the news). The chart’s horizontal black lines with tick marks indicate the margins of statistical error. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, a news satire, had the best-informed viewers.
Stereotypes aside, it's not that Fox News viewers live in a bubble and get all their news from that one source. The average Fox viewer listed 4.5 other source of news they regularly followed. Many also got news from the major broadcast networks, Facebook, and the liberal news channel MSNBC. Nevertheless, those who listed Fox News as one of their news sources had overall lower levels of knowledge on the factual questions. Fox viewers were less likely to know the capital of Canada, the religion of the Dalai Lama, or the size of the Federal budget. They couldn't find South Carolina on map or name the second digit of pi.
The Fox News effect is a correlation. It doesn't prove that watching Fox News causes people to be ill-informed.
Causes are much trickier to establish. I will give my guesses (along with the warning that they're only guesses). The first thing to realize is that every news medium has its own audience demographics. It's no secret to advertisers that the average Fox News viewer has less formal education and income than the average New York Times reader.
The Times is urban and urbane; Fox is small-town/suburban and populist. Fox competes directly against hundreds of other cable channels and has established a specialized niche in its media ecology. Fox trades in stories about the venality of big government, liberal overreach and little-guy heroes of the heartland. A large share of Fox stories deftly push emotional buttons (lest the viewer push the buttons on his or her remote…)
This format has been successful, but it has drawbacks. There's a lot that goes on in the world that doesn't easily fit the Fox template. There are important stories that don't make anyone angry, prove liberals are evil or otherwise carry an emotional punch. Fox viewers get less of them. Fox News is like an all-you-can-eat buffet, serving up red meat. A more balanced diet might be healthier in the long run."
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