It is no secret that many in the climate science world are critical of Fox News. The prevailing view seems to be that the conservative network, although claiming to be “fair and balanced,” is in fact quite biased in its treatment of this and other issues.
The opinion isn't without foundation. It's not just Fox's coverage itself (see image at left, courtesy of Media Matters ): Last year, Media Matters exposed an internal email from Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon, commenting on the network’s coverage of global warming and seeming to demand a misleading treatment of the issue. The email told reporters they should
...refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.
Given that warming is indeed a fact, it's little wonder that when it was released, this email drew a lot of attention.
Clearly, there's much concern about Fox coverage. But many critics of the network seem unaware of what may be their best argument: the existence of several public opinion studies showing a correlation between watching Fox and being misinformed about one or more public policy issues.
These studies tend to take the same basic form. First, they survey Americans to determine their views about some matter of controversy. Inevitably, some significant percentage of citizens are found to be misinformed about the core facts of the issue--but not just that. The surveys also find that those who watch Fox, or watch it frequently, are more likely to be misinformed.
Here are five such studies—and note that this list may be incomplete. This is just what I've come across so far:
1. Iraq War. In 2003, a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found widespread public misperceptions about the Iraq war. For instance, many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been involved in 9/11, or that it possessed weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion. But not everyone was equally misinformed: "The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news," PIPA reported. "Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions.” For instance, 80 % of Fox viewers held at least one of three Iraq-related misperceptions, more than a variety of other types of news consumers, and especially NPR and PBS users.
2. Global Warming. In a late 2010 survey , Stanford University’s Jon Krosnick found that "more exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of many mainstream scientists’ claims about global warming, with less trust in scientists, and with more belief that ameliorating global warming would hurt the U.S. economy." Notably, there was a 25 percentage point gap between the most frequent Fox News watchers (60 %) and those who watch no Fox news (85 %) in whether they think global warming is “caused mostly by things people do or about equally by things people do and natural causes.”
3. Health Care. Earlier this year, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey on U.S. misperceptions about health care reform. The survey asked 10 questions, and compared the "high scorers"--those that answered 7 or more correct--based on their media habits. The result was that "higher shares of those who report CNN (35 percent) or MSNBC (39 percent) as their primary news source [got] 7 or more right, compared to those who report mainly watching Fox News (25 percent)."
4. Ground Zero Mosque. In late 2010, two scholars at the Ohio State University studied public misperceptions about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—and in particular, the prevalence of a series of rumors depicting those seeking to build the mosque as terrorist sympathizers, anti-American, and so on. The result? “People who use Fox News believe more of the rumors we asked about and they believe them more strongly than those who do not.” Respondents reporting a “low reliance” on Fox News believed .9 rumors on average (out of 4), but for those reporting a “high reliance” on Fox News, the number increased to 1.5 out of 4.
5. 2010 Election. Late last year, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) once again singled out Fox in a survey about misinformation during the 2010 election. Out of 11 false claims studied in the survey, PIPA found that “almost daily” Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely than those who never watched it" to believe 9 of them, including the misperception that “most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring.”
It’s important to note that these studies do not prove causation. In other words, they do not prove that watching Fox makes people believe incorrect things. After all, it could be that those who are more likely to believe the incorrect things listed above are also more likely to watch Fox, to seek out Fox, etc. The causation could go in the opposite direction.
Still, the evidence above is striking.