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Survey on Fox News: Who defines 'misinformed'?

A survey that had been bouncing around left-wing websites since Dec. 10, got some traction Friday when The New York Times wrote about it at the "Media Decoder" blog.

Believe me, this is not a discussion I went looking for -- or want to get into now. I am on vacation, and the last thing I want to deal with is mass communications research. But apparently, I am the last living mainstream media critic who questions such surveys.

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You can read about the survey conducted by WorldPublicOpionion.org here under the heading: "Misinformation and 2010 Election." As described on the website: "WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO) is an international collaborative project, managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland."

Here is the way the survey has been presented on ideologically-charged website like News Corpse before finding its way to the Times: "Study Confirms That Fox Makes You Stupid." That was posted on Dec. 13.

Here's what the survey really says.

What the survey claims to find is that the more viewers watched Fox, the more "misinformed" they were on such matters as the stimulus, health care reform, the auto bailout and the state of the economy during the 2010 election cycle.

Viewers who watched MSNBC and CNN -- in fact all the TV news outlets -- were misinformed to some extent. But Fox News viewers were the most misinformed, according to the survey.

Here is the big, fat wonking problem with the survey: How do you define "misinformed" and "informed"?

The researchers seemed to understand this, and to their credit, they acknowledge it at the top of their findings. Bu they choose to deal with it only in what they term a "note."

Here is the key passage of their note: "A study of misinformation raises the somewhat delicate question of what is true....In the course of this study, to identify "misinformation" among voters, we used as reference points the conclusions of key government agencies that are run by professional experts and have a strong reputation for being immune to partisan influences...."

Deciding which experts and/or agencies do or don't have a "strong reputation for being immune to partisan influences" seems like a highly subjective business to me -- as talk of reputation always is.

And when you cut through such non-scientific talk, what you have for the definition of a respondent who is considered "informed" is essentially someone who agrees with the conclusions of experts in government agencies. When specific questions in the survey are framed around facts, like who was president when a certain piece of legislation passed, you can say someone is misinformed. But that is not always the case. And that is where one problem resides.

So, presumably, if you were to disagree with such top economic experts in government as Timothy Geithner or Larry Summers, you would be labeled as misinformed. If you dared to disagree with those experts in government who say that the Wall Street bailout was absolutely necessary and that the takeover of GM was desperately needed and that healthcare reform will actually be good for the economy -- you would be labeled as MISINFORMED.

Ditto if you disagreed with the notion that Cash for Clunkers was successful -- or those agency reports that Vice President Joe Biden was once citing about all the jobs the Stimulus legislation had created (until the reports from various states came out saying the jobs really hadn't been created). And wouldn't you also be labeled misinformed by these "points of reference" if you didn't believe all those "shovel ready" projects were really shovel ready? Both the jobs created and shovel-ready projects were presented as facts by agency experts.

Or, think of it this way: If this survey had been conducted when George W. Bush was president and his wall of "experts" in "government agencies" were working overtime to sell the New York Times on the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, you could have been "misinformed" if you said there were no such WMD's in Iraq. M-I-S-I-N-F-O-R-M-E-D. Agency experts did, after all, say the existence of such weapons was a fact.

That's what you are left with if you decide what is "true" can be defined by the "conclusion" of "experts" in "government agencies," because all the qualifiers that you offer about "reputation" are matters of judgment calls made by the researchers.

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Of course, Fox viewers are going to be more at odds with the "conclusions" of "experts" in government agencies now controlled by President Barack Obama. For far too long after the inauguration, Fox was one of the only news outlets consistently questioning the policies of the administration -- and its "experts" like Geithner and Summers. And thank goodness someone in the press was in those early days of bowing anchormen.

And here is an even bigger problem with the survey, in my opinion: In the introduction, the researchers say the study was designed to measure the impact of a court ruling that allowed unlimited funds to be spent by corporations on political advertising. They wondered how much misinformation that ruling might lead to on the part of viewer/voters. I share their interest and concern, and welcome any attempt to measure that impact on the electorate.

But maybe the "misinformation" that the viewers of Fox News allegedly evidenced was the product of the political ads they saw on Fox News and not the news and opinion content of the shows themselves. So, perhaps, the finding should have been, "The more political ads you watch on Fox, the more...."

In fact, most of the fact-based questions about whether certain programs were started under Bush or Obama were, in fact, the very subject matter of political attack ads. And it would be no surprise to find that far more of those ads aired on Fox, since it is by far the highest-rated cable news channel with the biggest audience. And the channel is watched by many indepedents and people who are likely to actually go to the polls and vote.

I read nothing in the report that addressed that possible misreading of the data -- that the "misinformation" came from the political ads viewers saw on Fox and not from Fox editorial content. Maybe I missed that. But I think that might be what this survey really found: exactly what it set out to discover in looking for a correlation between unlimited money for political attack ads and viewers being more misinformed. But suggesting that the news and opinion programs on Fox are "misinforming" viewers is going way beyond what the data supports without tracking the precise cause and effect.

At any rate, any conclusions about Fox News and its relationship to viewers being more or less "misinformed" is far more tenuous and bedeviled by variables than anything I have seen written about this survey would suggest. And I think we should at least try to be accurate and fair both as journalists reporting the survey and academics analyzing and reporting the data -- especially when the data seems to neatly fit a narrative that serves a highly partisan agenda. As a journalist and an academic, I understand that is not always easy

In addition to being TV/media critic for the Sun, I am a member of the academic community who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park. I studied research methods there in the 1990s with two of the school's top scholars, Maurine Beasley and Douglas Gomery. They  are both professors emeritus now. Gomery is also the scholar in resident at the school's Library of American Broadcasting. I not only have tremendous respect for the University of Maryland, College Park, I have the affection for it that only an alum can have. So, I am predisposed to be rooting almost any reearch that comes out of College Park -- that's my bias.

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My Ph.D. research (after much re-writing) was published as a book by the University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press. And I now teach a course in communication research methods at Goucher College where I am an assistant professor.

There are those who will try to characterize this as a partisan defense of Fox. Fine. I dealt with that sort of thing when I criticized the Obama administration for trying to ostracize Fox News in the fall of 2009.

I took that stand on principle: the need for a free press independent of control from the executive branch of government. I write this on principle as well: that such research should not be oversimplified, misunderstood, mischaracterized and misused to serve ideological agendas.

And if we learned nothing else from the Journolist scandal, it is that there is no shortage of journalists and academics more than willing to do that. (I want to make it clear, I am not suggesting any intentional bias about this survey -- rather the way it is being spun and presented on partisan venues on the Web.)

We live in a hopelessly partisan time -- especially in the media and particularly in the land of cable news. But we need not surrender to it.

Now I'm going back on vacation. My head hurts.

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