Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fox News and Conservative Talk Radio Promote False Beliefs

A survey of 750 Americans showed that people who relied on Fox News for their information were more likely than others to know four rumors about the New York City mosque—all of which have been refuted—and to believe them. Survey participants were all asked to rate how much they relied on various media outlets for their news. They were also asked whether they heard any of the rumors and if they believed in them.

The rumors were that:

  1. the proposed center is scheduled to open on September 11, 2011 in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks
  2. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam backing the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, is a terrorist sympathizer who refuses to condemn Islamic attack on civilians
  3. the Muslim groups building the center have deep ties to radical anti-American and anti-Semitic organizations
  4. the money for the center is coming primarily from foreign financial backers associated with terrorist organizations.

The results showed that people who said they relied on Fox News, either online or on television, were more aware of rumors about the mosque and were more likely to believe the rumors though they were untrue than those with low reliance on Fox. An average respondent with a low reliance on Fox News believed 0.9 rumors on average, while an otherwise average respondent with a high reliance on Fox believed 1.5 rumors—an increase of 66 percent. Respondents who relied heavily on CNN or NPR believed fewer false rumors, the study found. High reliance on CNN reduced the number of rumors believed by 23 percent, while heavy use of NPR reduced belief by 25 percent.

Erik Nisbet, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, conducted the study with R Kelly Garrett, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State. All the comparisons were made while holding constant other variables, such as education, party affiliation, ideology, and other media use. Garrett said:

Our analyses demonstrate that the relationships we found aren't just a side effect of some other characteristic, such as political ideology or party affiliation. These results suggest that even a well-educated, liberal Democrat would be more likely to believe the rumors, if he relied heavily on Fox for his news.

Reliance on conservative talk radio had a similar effect on users as did Fox News. Those with a heavy reliance on conservative talk radio heard on average two rumors, compared to 1.5 rumors for those with a low reliance—an increase of 33 percent. People who relied heavily on broadcast television news—ABC, CBS or NBC—were less likely to have been exposed to the rumors. Heavy reliance on those sources was linked to a 22 percent decrease in rumor exposure compared to those with low reliance on those outlets. Broadcast news placed less emphasis on the mosque controversy than did the cable news outlets.

People who said they relied heavily on newspapers for their news (either print or online) increased their exposure to rebuttals by 67 percent when compared to people who relied little on papers. These rebuttals were shown to strongly promote accurate knowledge about the rumors.

The best way to get accurate information about the proposed Islamic cultural center seemed to be newspapers, according to the study. Nisbet noted that it was not just because newspaper readers are more attuned to politics. Comparing people who paid similar attention to the mosque controversy, those who read newspapers still had greater exposure to the rebuttals. Nisbet said:

This is one of the unique contributions of newspapers in the media landscape. When you consider that newspaper readers are more likely to be exposed to rebuttals of false information compared to other media outlets, it is worrying that newspapers in general have been struggling. It is something we should be concerned about.

The findings suggest that among those who believed none of the four rumors, two-thirds are opposed to the proposed project. But that increases to 82 percent among those who believed three or more rumors. Even more dramatic is the effect that belief in these rumors has on support for mosques outside of New York. Predicted opposition to building of a mosque in the respondent's own neighborhood increased from 39 percent among people who believed none of the rumors to 63 percent among those who believed three or more of the rumors. Nisbet observed that:

These rumors have a negative effect well beyond the specific controversy in New York City. They seem to shape attitudes about Muslims and their role in our society, no matter where we live. That's a big concern.

The survey was designed to focus on how differences in exposure and belief in rumors and support for the proposed New York mosque were associated with media use. That is what it did but it is too small to accurately represent the whole American population. Nevertheless, the survey worryingly indicated the potentially unsocial effects of a type of reporting that falsely emphasizes human prejudices rather than seeking to correct or minimize them for the sake of social harmony.

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