Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bloggers, Fox News, and an Informed Audience

In April of 2007, the Pew Research Center released a study about the knowledge levels of individuals in the United States. Many self-identifying liberals and liberal bloggers have pointed out that the study showed that regular viewers of Fox News have one of the lowest levels of political knowledge compared to many other groups. Only 35% of Fox News viewers were classified as being in the high knowledge group. This was low compared to many other samples. For example, 41% of CNN viewers, 54% of Daily Show watchers, and 54% of users of major newspaper websites were classified as being in the high knowledge group.

However, these bloggers have ignored other data in the study. In particular, the study found that people who use blogs as a news source are almost as ignorant as Fox News viewers. Only 37% of people who use blogs as a news source are in the high knowledge group. The difference between the Fox News viewers and the blog readers is statistically indistinguishable. Moreover, although Fox News viewers performed poorly, by some metrics conservatives performed better than liberals.

How were people determined to be in the high knowledge group? A series of 26 questions was asked of which 23 (decided in advance) were used to judge the examinees' knowledge level. An example of the questions asked is what party is currently in control of the House. People who correctly answered 15 questions or more were placed in the high knowledge group; people who correctly answered 10 to 14 questions were classified in the middle knowledge group; people who answered fewer than 10 were classified in the low knowledge group. The study had a total sample size of 1,502 and a percent error of 3.5%.

One interesting question to ask is if a breakdown of the mid -and low level knowledge groups allows us to distinguish the knowledge levels of the blog readers and the Fox News viewers. Here again, Fox News viewers perform poorly. 35% of Fox News viewers fall into the low knowledge group. Fox News has the second highest percentage of people in the low knowledge group (excepting people who do not get news regularly). However, the real poor performers are the blog readers of whom 37% fall into the low knowledge category. What is happening with these blog readers? I propose five possible explanations.

First, it is likely that part of this result stems from the aggregation of all blogs compared to just a single news network. Thus, the group of blog readers includes those who are reading Perez Hilton or TMZ and not much else. Thus, they only know about what celebrity is cheating on whom or what celebrity threw a tantrum. These celebrity gossip mongers could be reducing the apparent knowledge base of blog readers. One way to test this hypothesis is to examine the breakdown of what blogs people are reading. However, the study does not do so. It is likely that the inclusion of Perez Hilton readers and the like is bringing down the knowledge numbers for the blog readers. However, I doubt that this explains entirely the extremely poor performance of blog readers.

Second, a liberal can point to the low knowledge level of Fox News viewers and suggest that conservatives as a whole have poorer knowledge levels. From this premise, the argument would continue, what is bringing down the knowledge level of the blog readers is the presence of conservative blog readers who have abysmal levels of knowledge. However, this argument doesn’t fit with the other data from the Pew survey: viewers of the O’Reilly Show and listeners to Rush Limbaugh both score relatively high for news awareness (51% and 50% in the high knowledge group respectively). Furthermore, Democrats were substantially more likely to fall into the low knowledge group than Republicans, with 26% of Republicans in the low knowledge group and 31% of Democrats. This may be due in part to the slightly lower average income of Democrats .The study confirmed a strong correlation between income level and knowledge level, but did not investigate whether Democrats and Republicans have closer knowledge levels when income is a fixed variable.

In short, the Pew data refute the standard liberal perception that viewers and listeners of conservative shows are uninformed. Presumably, O’Reilly and Limbaugh’s audiences are at least as conservative as the generic Fox News viewer. Consequently, there is no reason to think (given this data) that readers of conservative blogs are less informed than readers of moderate or liberal blogs or that conservatives are in general less informed than liberals.

Third, the apparently low knowledge numbers for blog readers could be due to the highly specialized nature of many blogs. If a person only cares about a small number of issues, he may only read blogs focusing on those issues. If those issues have little to do with general political concerns, he may not have reason to learn or recall data such as who controls Congress. This is again a hypothesis that could be tested by looking in more detail at what blogs people are reading.

Fourth, many of the most successful news blogs are hosted on major news websites. A variety of New York Times reporters have blogs at where they report on stories, add their own commentary or add follow up notes to earlier articles they have published. This leads to the question of what one means by blog. The Pew study made no attempt to provide a coherent definition. Thus, people who read blogs by reporters may be classifying those blogs as part of major newspaper websites which could be leading to an artificially uninformed collection of people who identify themselves as reading blogs.

Fifth, blog readers could be genuinely unknowledgeable. This is, to me, the most distasteful explanation. However, it is the simplest explanation for the data and does bear serious consideration.

Note that the percentage of Fox News viewers who are in the high knowledge group is not low compared to the overall percentage of people in the United States who are in that group. That number is also 35%, and is brought down primarily by the large number of viewers of local TV news and viewers of network morning TV shows. So under this metric, blog readers and Fox News viewers look very much the same, with political knowledge levels close to those of the general population.

One implication of the Pew data is clear: Liberal bloggers need to stop using this study to attack Fox News and must stop attacking the knowledge base of conservatives as a whole. More studies need to be done. If this data continues to hold under further scrutiny and when Hilton-type blogs are removed from the picture, then bloggers as a whole need to ask why their readership is so dismally ignorant and what bloggers can do to alleviate the situation.


Hollander said...

The Pew data is great (I use it a lot in my own research and blog about it myself) but remember the results presented in the tables do not statistically control for such factors as education, income, sex, political interest, etc.

Also there is a respondent bias in saying they watch, read, or listen to certain programs or publications more than they really do. PBS and NPR, for example, have nowhere the audience suggested in poll data.

As to the "blogging" item, I'd take care with that one. Blogs could be anything from a serious political blog or semi-serious nonsense -- even if a respondent does say it's for news.

But yeah, the Pew data are always good for their results. I'm shameless in my use of them.

Joshua said...

Yes, having corrections for the various factors would be very nice. It would be great if Pew would publish their raw data so people could crunch those sort of things.

I agree that the blogging issue. That's more or less what I was trying to get at with point 1 about Perez Hilton type blog.

Lautreamont said...

Excellent post, esp. in regards to blogs. However, one doesn't even need pew polls, or their varied results, to come to the conclusion that Fox panders in the journalistic equivalent of pork rinds. I don't care how intelligent or knowledgeable their viewers are, the news itself is just above senselessness.

Joshua said...

Yes, nothing here constitutes an argument that Fox News is ever worth watching.