Confirmation News Network
A new poll finds that Fox is now the most trusted name in news. This is not, shall we say, an intuitive finding. And if you guessed there’s a catch: You’re right. “Most trusted,” in the context of this particular poll means a 49%/37% trust/don’t trust split — meaning Fox beats out CNN at 39/41, NBC at 35/44, CBS at 32/46, and ABC at 31/46. And, unsurprisingly, that 49% number for Fox is driven not by widespread trust, but by partisan polarization: 74% of Republicans trust Fox News, but no more than 23% of Republicans trust any of the other four sources. Democrats are the mirror image, with a majority trusting all of the other outlets and only 30% trusting Fox.
Of course, all the people who distrust Fox News probably haven’t watched it, just as the Fox News fans who distrust the rest of the “mainstream media” — God how I hate that phrase… how exactly is Fox not mainstream? — probably tune in to CNN, MSNBC, etc. next to never. The sad thing that most people fail to realize is that we don’t watch cable news to be informed, we watch it to have our opinions flattered.
Take this new study (abstract) of international cable news viewing habits. Looking at a sample of international cable news viewers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UK, and the US, and measuring the viewerships of three networks (CNN International, BBC World, and Al-Jazeera English), the study found that pre-existing biases and beliefs determined the selection of news sources.
What’s more, not only did people choose news sources based on their biases, but watching those news sources strengthened those biases:
Importantly, while viewers are likely to choose to watch international news broadcasters that will tell stories in ways that reinforce their opinions, we found that the more frequently a participant watched AJE, the less supportive they were of US policy towards the Palestinian–Israeli conﬂict. Similarly, the longer participants had been tuning into AJE, the more critical they were of US policy in Iraq. Thus, while the news media are unlikely to change people’s opinion on politically salient issues, it may often be the case that they do reinforce and deepen already held opinions.
Is any of this surprising? It shouldn’t be by this point. Jonah Lehrer points to a study of 35,000 viewers conducted by TiVo: for each Democrat who watches Fox News there are eighteen Republicans, and for every Republican who watches MSNBC there are six Democrats. And, of course, we engage in the same confirmation-seeking online.
We have a major bias toward seeking out information that confirms what we already know. The flip side is that information that challenges our preconceptions makes us feel uncomfortable. After all, suddenly the world isn’t as we thought it is — and that’s a scary prospect for a shaved monkey.
The incentives for the news media are clear: Tell people what they want to hear and what they already believe. It’s the path to ratings. And the electorate will be exactly as informed as it wants to be.