Thursday, May 3, 2012

NPR Makes You Smarter?

Watching NPR or watching The Daily Show makes you smarter about politics.  Partisan cable networks like Fox and MSNBC?  Those make you dumber, at least according to a Fairleigh Dickinson national survey released today.

This is a follow-up to a November survey.  I wrote about that one here.

Back to the more recent release.  Respondents were asked about domestic and international affairs.  To save you a clickthrough here's a couple of interesting grafs that sum up the results:
However, the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well.  And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.

“These differences may be small, but even small differences are important when we’re talking about millions of people,” said Cassino. “We expect that watching the news should help people learn, but the most popular of the national media sources – Fox, CNN, MSNBC – seem to be the least informative.”
There's some wow here.  And a few concerns. Let's touch on the wow factor first.  The results suggest (and only suggest) that partisan-based cable news engages in a form of cog-sucking, as in sucking out cognitions (i.e., thinking, or facts) from its unlucky viewers.  It doesn't really, of course, it's a lot more complicated than that and involves where people choose to get their news and gets all confused with -- as Cassino notes earlier in the press release -- such factors as education and interest.  That's the main concern, the obvious methodological problems with correlations leading to cause-and-effect conclusions without statistical controls for the "usual suspects" (education, etc.) that tend best to predict what people know.  Sorry, PhDweeb methodological moment.

For those who love to dig deeply in these matters, the survey homepage offers details and you can find even more information here.  It's worth the visit.  Why?  Because there's a hint here as to why more partisan-based news might be bad, especially for those who lean the other way.

If you check the second table at the bottom, the one called "Ideology - International Questions" you get a possible answer to what's going on.  Look closely.  The lowest scores are for liberals watching Fox and conservatives watching MSNBC.  At the theoretical level we love the idea of cross-cutting news exposure, of hearing a side you may not normally agree with.  It's healthy for democracy, or so the argument goes.  But the result here suggests it's not particularly healthy for a person's political knowledge.  Perhaps arguing with the TV has a negative effect on learning.  Maybe the liberals watching Fox, or conservatives watching MSNBC, are just not smart enough in the first place and therefore suck at answering political knowledge questions.  We can't tell from here, not without some more sophisticated modeling, but there's something interesting happening here, something I'd love to dig into if I had access to the raw data.

I'd dig deeper, but a giant pile of papers needing grading are perched on my desk, staring at me.  There's fun material that perhaps I can explore later, when time allows.

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