For the past year, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, or PIPA, a consortium organized through the University of Maryland, has been using a California-based research group called Knowledge Networks (and existing Roper polling data) to test what Americans know and how they came to know it.
Since June, PIPA has been refining data that showed disturbing misperceptions related to the following three questions:
- "Is it your impression that the U.S. has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaida terrorist organization?"
- "Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the U.S. has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?"
- "Thinking about how all the people in the world feel about the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq, do you think the majority of people favor the U.S. having gone to war?"
The survey was released late last week, and the news of it was this: Those who cited Fox News as their primary news source were far more likely to harbor fundamental misperceptions about one or more of these three questions than those who cited National Public Radio or PBS as their primary sources for news.
But for all the anecdotal information, opinions and accusations, here was a comprehensive survey with a thoroughly professional, scientific methodology. We don't get enough of that.
Eighty percent of the 3,334 respondents said their primary news source was television or radio networks. Of that figure, 18 percent cited Fox News as their primary news source. A mere 3 percent cited NPR or PBS. (Thirty percent cited two or more sources; CNN 16 percent, NBC 14 percent, ABC 11 percent, CBS 9 percent.)
Twenty percent cited newspapers and magazines as their primary news source.
On the question of a link between Saddam and al-Qaida, a frankly startling 67 percent of the Fox News primary-source crowd believed this to be true. It's a claim that was one of the centerpieces of the Bush administration war policy but has never been proved, and, as PIPA asserts, is now largely dismissed by the intelligence community (and lately the White House itself).
It is probably no great solace to NPR and PBS that 16 percent of listeners glued to them also believe the Saddam-Osama link. But last time I checked, 67 percent was more than four times greater than 16 percent.
On the question of whether we have found weapons of mass destruction, a matter of enormous controversy heavily reported in every major source, 33 percent of Fox News watchers somehow still believe that we have. (The president at one point said we did.) Only 17 percent of those consuming mostly print media thought so, and only 11 percent of the NPR-PBS crowd was operating under the same rather astonishing misperception.
On the matter of world opinion, 35 percent of Fox News-viewing respondents believe world opinion supported the U.S. war with Iraq, while only 5 percent of the NPR-PBS crowd believed this in the face of almost daily international criticism and/or consternation.
The study also made an effort to gauge the quantity of time spent consuming news from a specific source and the relation between additional exposure and misperceptions of these three issues.
The conclusion: "While it would seem that misperceptions are derived from a failure to pay attention to the news, overall, those who pay greater attention to the news are no less likely to have misperceptions. Among those who primarily watch Fox, those who pay more attention are more likely to have misperceptions. Only those who primarily get their news from print media, and to some extent those who primarily watch CNN, have fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention."