Here’s an actual fact – borne out by at least seven different scientific studies — that will make certain people squawk: those who watch Fox News are the most consistently misinformed media viewers.
There are two reasons for this: Fox News actively and intentionally transmits false and misleading information, as exemplified in the 2009 internal staff memo from Fox Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, exposed by MediaMatters, ordering correspondents to:
. . . refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.
But also because conservatives, and especially right-wing authoritarian personalities, are most likely to engage in “selective exposure” that University of Alabama psychologist William Hart explains “is the clearest way to look at how people create their own realities, based upon their views of the world.”
The driving force behind “selective exposure” is the desire to alleviate “cognitive dissonance” — the uncomfortable psychological state people experience when their core beliefs are in conflict with what they know to be true. Although liberals do it too, studies show that they are also more open to a variety of information sources.
This is your brain on Fox: Although the term “cognitive dissonance” would not be invented by Leon Festinger for another 34 years, this is exactly what Walter Lippmann was talking about in 1922 when he wrote, in “Public Opinion” referring to the world view of those who are certain in their beliefs, regardless of the actual facts:
Since my moral system rests on my accepted version of the facts, he who denies either my moral judgments or my version of the facts is to me perverse, alien, dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid because it saps the very foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole.
Although Calbuzz has written about the death of truth and the role of Fox News and the “Rovian Principle,” we are indebted to author Chris Mooney for advancing the idea in a chapter from his new book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.” The chapter, posted at AlterNet, is titled: The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed and is accompanied by this handy subhead: Authoritarian people have a stronger emotional need for an outlet like Fox, where they can find affirmation and escape factual challenges to their beliefs.
Here’s one juicy nugget:
The psychologist Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba has also documented an above average amount of selective exposure in right wing authoritarians. In one case, he gave students a fake self-esteem test, in which they randomly received either above average or below average scores. Then, everyone — the receivers of both low and high scores — was given the opportunity to say whether he or she would like to read a summary of why the test was valid.
The result was striking: Students who scored low on authoritarianism wanted to learn about the validity of the test regardless of how they did on it. There was virtually no difference between high and low scorers. But among the authoritarian students, there was a big gap: 73 percent of those who got high self-esteem scores wanted to read about the test’s validity, while only 47 percent of those who got low self-esteem scores did.
Authoritarians, Altemeyer concludes, “maintain their beliefs against challenges by limiting their experiences, and surrounding themselves with sources of information that will tell them they are right.”
Mooney walks the reader through studies that looked at misinformation about global warming, Iraq, health care and other subjects that found Fox viewers were the most misinformed and that viewing Fox News aggravates misinformation.
The Fox “effect” probably occurs both because the station churns out falsehoods that conservatives readily accept — falsehoods that may even seem convincing to some liberals on occasion — but also because conservatives are overwhelmingly inclined to choose to watch Fox to begin with.
The heartbreak of treacherous absolutism: Pew and others have found that while people are increasingly turning to the internet for political news, those who rely on television are sharply divided by partisanship, with Republicans overwhelmingly relying on Fox News and Democrats and independents divided among CNN, MSNBC, PBS and the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC.
Fox News viewers don’t trust any other TV source; those who view other sources distrust only one source – Fox News.
As Lippmann wrote 90 years ago:
It is only when we are in the habit of recognizing our opinions as a partial experience, seen through our stereotypes, that we become truly tolerant of an opponent. Without that habit, we believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition.
This just in: Fox denies the whole thing.