People learn most from NPR, Sunday Morning Shows, ‘The Daily Show’

fdu_public_mind_pollMADISON, NJ - According to a follow-up survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMindTM, NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge. This nationwide survey confirms initial findings presented in a New Jersey focused poll (from November of 2011).

In the study, 1,185 respondents nationwide were asked about what news sources they consumed in the past week and then were asked a variety of questions about current political and economic events in the U.S. and abroad. On average, people were able to answer correctly 1.8 of 4 questions about international news, and 1.6 of 5 questions about domestic affairs.

“Of course, knowledge of current events is predicted not just by watching news, but also by factors like ideology, education, age and gender,” said Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst. “Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge.”

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.”

Results for questions about international current events were similar. People who didn’t have any reported exposure to news sources were expected to answer 1.28 questions correctly, a figure which rose to 1.97 for people just listening to NPR, to 1.60 for people just watching The Daily Show or listening to talk radio, and 1.52 for people watching Sunday morning shows. By contrast, people who reported watching just Fox News were expected to answer just 1.08 questions correctly.

“Most news providers in the United States don’t spend much time on international affairs,” said Cassino. “It is not surprising that most media have little impact on how much people know about the world,” said Cassino.  “What is interesting is that when people are exposed to media that cover the world, like NPR, they do pick it up. It’s not that people aren’t interested, it’s that no one is giving them the information in the first place.”

The study showed that the effects of ideologically-pitched media, like Fox News, MSNBC and talk radio, depend on who is listening or watching. On the whole, MSNBC, for instance, had no impact on political knowledge one way or the other. However, liberals who watched MSNBC did better on the knowledge questions, answering correctly 1.89 of the domestic questions and 1.64 of the international questions correctly. Similarly, while moderates and liberals who watch Fox News do worse at answering the questions than others, conservatives who watch Fox do no worse than people who watch no news at all. Talk radio also had differential effects depending on the ideology of the listener, but they were much smaller. None of the other news media had effects that depended on ideology.

“Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience,” said Cassino. “This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.”

The domestic political questions covered the Iowa and New Hampshire primary contests, the composition of Congress, the unemployment rate and the Keystone XL pipeline. The easiest question was: “Which party has the greatest number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives?”  65% knew it is the Republican Party.  The hardest question was about last December’s short-term extension of the payroll tax cut: Only 9% knew it was tied to a deal on the Keystone XL pipeline. The international questions referenced sanctions on Iran, uprisings in Egypt and Syria, and the Greek bailout.

Respondents were also asked about 12 different news sources, and the study sought to measure the relative impact of exposure to each of these news sources on how well respondents were able to answer questions about current events.  Despite that most people get news from multiple sources, the aim of researchers was to isolate the effects of each type of news source. The effects were calculated using multinomial logistic regression, a technique that allows researchers to isolate the impact of one variable on an outcome. The results described control for the effects of partisanship, age, education and gender, all factors, which commonly predict vote choice.

The FDU PublicMind study was based on a poll of 1,185 resident adults nationwide, including an oversample of Republican voters, and was conducted by landlines and cell phones from Feb. 6 through 12, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.