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Fox News top source of voter misinformation, study finds

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Smart v. Stupid

Fox News top source of voter misinformation, study finds

In the 2010 election, the big winners were lies and liars

In the first election since the Citizens United decision, misinformation played a central role. That’s the finding of a new study, Misinformation and the 2010 Election, from the University of Maryland’s World Public Opinion. Voters believe they heard more lies than in past elections. Researchers found voters were also influenced by the lies they didn’t catch.

The bad news for Fox News viewers is that merely watching the channel appears to be toxic. Most voters believed a few whoppers during the 2010 election cycle. But daily watchers of Fox News believed more misinformation than everyone else.

Are Fox viewers simply people who watch the station to reinforce misinformed views they already have?

“No,” says Clay Ramsay, research director* for the project. “Even Democratic voters who watched Fox News were more misinformed than others.”

“Fox displays a particular pattern of misinformation. The more you watch the more inaccurate your views.”

While all cable news earns some criticism from Ramsay, “Fox displays a particular pattern of misinformation. The more you watch the more inaccurate your views.”

The researchers didn’t originally intend to rank news outlets. They simply wanted to know sources of voter misinformation. Ramsay discovered the unusual Fox correlation —the more you watch the worse it gets — unexpectedly, while sifting through the data. Fox was alone in this regard.

The study strengthens a widely held view that Fox News is a source of political propaganda. Days after the study was released, Media Matters reported leaked e-mails from Fox’s Washington managing editor to on-air talent.

He instructed them to call “the public option” “the government option,” wording recommended by a Republican pollster (according to Media Matters.) In another e-mail, the editor instructs them to muddy the waters concerning settled science about climate change. These leaks offer further corroboration of the surprise findings of the study — that Fox News Channel is a singularly notable source of misinformation.

While less of a bombshell, the study also made other important findings about the information used by voters in 2010.

“I believe the most significant aspect of the study is that people believed they’d been exposed to much greater levels of misinformation,” said Ramsay.

An overwhelming 91 percent said they encountered misinformation “frequently” or “sometimes” during the election cycle. 54 percent said the level of misinformation was higher than in past elections.

While voters said the economy was their top issue, only 8 percent believed the true statement that most economists (who’d studied the stimulus bill) thought it created or saved millions of jobs. Only 13 percent believed that most economists (who’d studied the new healthcare law) said it would reduce the deficit, also a true statement. And 55 percent believed the economy is still getting worse even though it’s been improving for over a year now.

Only a slim majority knew that President Bush signed the TARP legislation. And nearly 6 in 10 didn’t know the stimulus legislation signed by President Obama included a tax cut. Only 10 percent knew their taxes had gone down since Obama took office. And incredibly, 42 percent still have some doubt about the President’s citizenship even though the word “birther” is now synonymous with “fool.”

Although none of the 24-hour cable news outlets are free of misinformation, Fox viewers as a group are significantly less well informed than consumers of CNN, MSNBC, NPR or PBS. 

The study found that the best informed voters are people who get their news from print sources (either paper or online)

The study found that the best informed voters are people who get their news from written sources (either paper or online) or from what Ramsay calls “disorganized sources”—a combination of written media and say, listening to news while driving to work.

To discover the truth, he recommends variety and “a willingness to challenge your own beliefs.”

The Citizens United decision opened up a floodgate of opportunity for lying and cheating by unnamed sources, and voters noticed. Last week, I detailed how the President’s reelection would be stymied because of the lies he enabled with his tax cut deal.

Now we have research that political misinformation works — and works quite powerfully. In fact, misinformation may have carried the most recent election. This is a particularly ugly moment in American Democracy. But the next election may be even uglier.

Correction: Clay Ramsay is the research director for the University of Maryland’s World Public Opinion project. This report originally referred to him as the lead researcher.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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