Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Faux News beats No News,
but not Real News

People do not learn as much from fake news programs such as The Daily Show as they do from real news, according to an account of a new study.

According to the release:

People watching television news learned more about a candidate’s position on issues and about political procedures compared to those watching the fake news shows, while fake news shows primarily taught viewers about a candidate’s personal background.

I've not read this issue of Journal of Communication yet, so I'm basing my comments on the news report. When I see the actual research I'll post again.

The authors conducted an experiment with 85 real people (as opposed to college students). Some watched NBC or CNN, some watched The Daily Show, and some watched a control group science documentary. Then subjects wrote what they remembered, ranked them as positive or negative toward a person or group mentioned, and then took a 29-question knowledge test.

The results showed that people who watched the NBC and CNN news segment were able to recall more details about all topics than those who watched The Daily Show clip. They also averaged two more questions correct in the test. The real news clip led viewers to learn about who the nominee was and where he stood on important issues, while also increasing their understanding of political policies and issues.

In contrast, people watching The Daily Show remembered details about the nominee’s college choice and family members, but were less informed on important political issues and the nominee’s stance on those issues.
As a controlled experiment, this tells us a lot that survey-based research cannot easily tease out, in part because of the interest and education differences between those who watch faux news and those who watch mainstream, traditional news. What I can't tell from the press release are the differences between the entertainment-based segment and the news segment and whether the facts were more or less identical and a host of other methodological problems that can crop up in studies like this. JoC is a helluva journal, so I'm assuming all is kosher on the methodology front, but I'll report back when I can look at the study.

The abstract, all that's available online, suggests this is a much deeper piece of research than reported in the press release. That's not unusual since a news release goes for the "news" angle, not the theory.

But I can't say I'm terribly surprised that you'd learn more from being forced to watch a real news program than you'd learn from watching a funny, entertainment-based, fake news program. But in mass comm we sometimes dare to research the obvious, in part because someone has to test the obvious before we move on to other possible effects. In that, this study appears to provide support for what we'd expect to find.

This has little to do with motivation, though. People seek out such faux programs because they're either tuned out from news or because they find the approach of journalists to be, ahem, dreary. That's more real world in its significance, both for journalism and the fate of democracy.

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