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Jan. 27 2010 - 12:42 pm | 8,312 views | 3 recommendations | 17 comments

Confirmation News Network

Al Jazeera English

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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    This is a really great analysis, Ryan. I’ve always believed that FNC’s power comes in the fact that it’s aggregated an audience that has a monoculture approach to news consumption. They’ve successfully targeted people who only want to watch FNC, they don’t switch between MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, etc., for a variety of perspectives and purposes, or not even switch on the TV at all because they rely on NPR, the New York Times, and local media sources to tel them what’s happening in the world.

    • collapse expand

      We all read a ton of stuff because we’re in the media — but even with all that I’m sure I’m filtering, too.

      I feel like RSS feeds could help people with that. You make a conscious decision to seek range, and then it comes bundled every day.

      Of course, not many people want to make that conscious decision.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    As I get older, I really appreciate Fox. I cannot watch the other networks, the bias is not even thinly veiled.
    Born and raised a democrat, now I’m neither rich nor poor enough to be one.
    Thumbs up here for FNC

    Stop panic attacks

    • collapse expand

      You’re making the authors point blatantly clear. Maybe you were born and raised a dem, but your beliefs are more in line with the types of individuals FNC caters to.

      Fox, along with all the other news stations, is beholden to the shareholders of the corporations they belong to. All these corporations really want is high ratings to garner more ad dollars from other corporations. The “message” is tailored for a specific audience to reinforce what they already believe.

      Hell, the bias isn’t supposed to be thinly veiled. And furthermore, it isn’t thinly veiled on FNC either.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    The second finding cited in the abstract you reference states:

    “the longer viewers have been watching Al-Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they are in their thinking and thus more open to considering alternative and clashing opinions.”

    I have not read the full study as you have, and I don’t watch much televised news of any sort, much less Al-Jazeera… but doesn’t the study’s second finding sort of contradict the first?

  4. collapse expand

    I try to watch doses of Fox, CNN and MSNBC mainly because I can’t stomach any one of them for very long by itself. But they are all part of the same confirmation bias circus. Seeking “range” as you say is the only intellectually honest approach to media consumption. Great post.

  5. collapse expand

    What if you got it backwards… I believe cable news became biased in the first place and that has caused viewers to take sides and seek what’s confortable.

    If I’m a republican why would I watch MSNBC which is an overtly liberal/democrat outlet and bashes republicans all day log. Vice versa, why watch fox news to be told that Obama can’t get anything right?

    I believe cable news outlets became biased first and that caused the viewers to seek the “news” that matches their bias.

    And since people have a life of their own you’d have to excuse them for not having the time to equally watch FOX and MSNBC and ABC.

    Maybe you can share with us what news channel is closest to being impartial and independent?

  6. collapse expand

    If it is any condolence there are regular people out there who try not to watch any cable news. T/S has become a great resource for views across the spectrum, and it is good to read all of them. Keep up the good work!

  7. collapse expand

    Bravo for doing the real reporting behind this “story”. It’s not sexy, researching the stats but it’s essential for stopping runaway misconceptions that might persist for decades. I sent it to all my outraged left-leaning friends. Hell, I sent it to myself!

  8. collapse expand

    When I was a teenager, I used to listen to all sorts of news broadcasts on Shortwave radio. I used to listen to the same news story told by five or six different propaganda outlets.

    From that experience I developed a very finely tuned ear to bias in news reporting. I find it the height of arrogance that any group would claim to be unbiased. This means I rate CNN about as well as I would rate FOX. In any case, I do not trust any popular news outlets to deliver accurate news about subjects that matter to me.

    The bias is usually anti-technological, over-simplified, ignorant twaddle. Journalists want to interpret legislation for the masses and summarize it in to nice sweet little sound bites. And while that is undeniably popular, real life ain’t like that.

    The real story is usually far more complex than what a Journalist with barely a high school physics and math background can understand.

    I also suspect that many journalists do not understand the philosophical and practical principles behind the political wheeling and dealing. Instead they revert to the old tried and true: making a horse race out of vote counting instead of attempting to shine a more nuanced light on things.

    The real problem is not bias. It’s the aim toward the lowest common denominator of societal comprehension.

  9. collapse expand

    The more I consider/read about journalism as an industry, the greater appreciation I have for Walter Lippmann.

    The entire essence of this post could be told (foretold?) through some of Lippmann’s more memorable quotations. To that end, I offer you the following:

    “When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute.”

    and also

    “It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.”

    It seems that the Lippmann was optimistic about the direction American media was heading when he said : “The theory of the free press is not that the truth will be presented completely or perfectly in any one instance, but that the truth will emerge from free discussion”

    Perhaps he did not realize how political psychology would evolve to a point where people believe their viewpoints are the only correct ones and they should not justify opposing viewpoints with thoughts or discussion.

    We will, of course, all be worse off for it in the long run as our democracy is bound to suffer. When dialogue stops, so do new ideas.

    And a random note – I’m with you on disliking the phrase “mainstream media”. Perhaps if someone took the initiative to re-define the word “news” the phrase “mainstream media” would be re-defined in the process…

  10. collapse expand

    Fox News Channel picked up a lot of new viewers after the Obama administration decided to go after them on a personal level. When the “mainstream media” was percieved to be in the tank for Obama and not covering real news that wasn’t complimentary to Obama, FNC’s viewership went up. Another influence to their viewership is the tea party movement. The other channels discounted this movement and use infamatory terms to degrade the people participating. You can argue a chicken and egg situation that people watch to their bias, or are they looking to hear the other side. All sides show bias, but the viewers can listen to the message without drinking the messengers Kool-Aid.

  11. collapse expand

    Bravo! I couldn’t agree more. If there is a solution at all, it’s in us demanding more from the news – but they listen to feedback about as well as the government does IMO. Like Downsizer Dispatch is fond of saying, pressure only works if it’s applied consistently and constantly, and I think we don’t apply pressure for change until we get so uncomfortable we can’t stand it, if then! We’re just too well-entertained & entertainment sells – and that’s all networks whoring for market share understand.

    This makes me feel somewhat vindicated in my source of TV news – virtually none. I do record BBC news half-hour segments, watch about half of those, & read a little online news from CNN, FOX & occasionally CBS or MSNBC, when I see a headline that catches my attention.

  12. collapse expand

    “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.” just wanted to say i love this line. my hate for the sensationalism of most tv news is bottomless. i posted you on reddit and was surprised to see the amount of comments. thanks for putting into words something i always thought.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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