Study hits war views held by Fox fans

October 04, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Heavy viewers of the Fox News Channel are nearly four times as likely to hold demonstrably untrue positions about the war in Iraq as media consumers who rely on National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting System, according to a study released this week by a research center affiliated with the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.

"When evidence surfaces that a significant portion of the public has just got a hole in the picture ... this is a potential problem in the way democracy functions," says Clay Ramsay, research director for the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes, which studies foreign-policy issues.

Fox News officials did not return repeated requests yesterday for comment on the study.

Funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation, the study was conducted from June through September. It surveyed 3,334 Americans who receive their news from a single media source. Each was questioned about whether he held any of the following three beliefs, characterized by the center as "egregious misperceptions":

Saddam Hussein has been directly linked with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Weapons of mass destruction have already been found in Iraq.

World opinion favored the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

To date, as measured by government reports and accepted public surveys, each of those propositions is false, according to the center. The Bush administration has argued that evidence will be found of the weapons in Iraq as will direct links between Saddam and the al-Qaida members who planned the 9/11 attacks. But President Bush has been forced to acknowledge that no such proof has surfaced.

Sixty percent of all respondents believed in at least one of the statements. But there were clear differences in perceptions among devotees of the various media outlets.

Twenty-three percent of those who get their news from NPR or PBS believed in at least one of the mistaken claims. In contrast, 80 percent of Fox News viewers held at least one of the three incorrect beliefs.

Among broadcast network viewers there also were differences. Seventy-one percent of those who relied on CBS for news held a false impression, as did 61 percent of ABC's audience and 55 percent of NBC viewers. Fifty-five percent of CNN viewers and 47 percent of Americans who rely on the print media as their primary source of information also held at least one misperception.

The three evening network news shows command the largest audiences, together typically reaching between 25 million and 30 million viewers nightly. But Fox News, the top-rated cable-news outlet, has steadily increased its viewership by offering a blend of hard news and opinionated talk that often takes on a patriotic sheen. Its top show draws more than 2 million viewers nightly.

"Among those who primarily watch Fox, those who pay more attention are more likely to have misperceptions," the report concludes. "Only those who mostly get their news from print media have fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention."

The PIPA study suggests a strong link between people's understanding of the news and its source. That link held true throughout different demographic segments, such as those based on education level, viewing habits, and partisan leanings, Ramsay said.

"It proves that what we're doing is great journalism," says NPR spokeswoman Laura Gross. "We're telling the truth and we let our audience decide."

More information on the study can be found at www. pipa.org

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