By the numbers, American journalism failed to inform voters

A recent study by World Public shows that the majority of the American population believed false things about basic national issues, right before the 2010 mid-term elections. I don’t know how to interpret this as anything other than a catastrophic failure of American journalism, in its most fundamental, clichéd, “inform the public” role.

The most damning section of the report (PDF) is titled “Evidence of Misinformation Among Voters.”

The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign, including the stimulus legislation, the healthcare reform law, TARP, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the US Chamber of Commerce and President Obama’s birthplace. In particular, voters had perceptions about the expert opinion of economists and other scientists that were quite different from actual expert opinion.

This study also found that Fox viewers were significantly more misinformed than average on many issues, which is mostly how this survey was covered in the blogosphere and mainstream news outlets. I think this Fox thing is a terrible diversion from the core problem: the American press did not succeed in informing the public. Not even right before an election, not even on the narrow set of issues that, by survey, voters cared to base their votes on.

The travesty here is that the relevant facts were instantly available from primary sources, such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I interpret this failure in the following way: for many kinds of issues, the web makes it easy to find true information. But it doesn’t solve the problem of making people go look. That, perhaps, is a key role for modern journalism. Unfortunately, modern American journalism seems to be very bad at it. I imagine the same problem exists in the journalism of many other countries.

What the study actually says
The study compares what voters think experts believe with what those experts actually believe. This is a bit tricky, and the study isn’t saying that the experts are necessarily right, but we’ll get to that. First, some example findings:

  • 68% of voters thought that “most economists” believe that the stimulus package “saved or created a few jobs” and 20% thought most economists believe that the stimulus caused job losses, whereas only 8% correctly said that most economists think it “saved or created several million jobs.” (The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the stimulus saved several millions jobs, as do 75% of economists interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.)
  • 53% of voters thought that economists believe that Obama’s health care reform plan will increase the deficit, while 29% said that economists were evenly divided on this issue. Only 13% said correctly that a majority of economists think that health care reform will not increase the deficit. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates a net reduction in deficits of $143 billion over 2010-2019, and Boards of Trustees of the Medicare Fund also believe that the Affordable Care act will “postpone the exhaustion of … trust fund assets.”)
  • 12% of voters thought that “most scientists believe” that climate change is not occurring, while 33% thought scientists were evenly divided on the issue. That’s 45% with an incorrect perception, as opposed to the 54% who said, correctly, that most scientists think climate change is occurring. (Aside from the IPCC reports and virtually every governmental study of the issue worldwide, an April 2010 survey of climate scientists showed that 97% believe that human-caused climate change is occurring.)

A fussy but necessary digression: all of this rests on the reliability of the survey results. The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, Inc. using an online response panel randomly selected from the US population. Those without internet access were apparently provided it for free. I have been unable to find any serious independent evaluation of Knowledge Networks’ methodology, but their many research papers on sample design certainly talk the talk. All of the basic sampling errors, such as self-selection and language bias (what about Hispanics?) are at least addressed on paper. The margin of error is reported as 3.9%.

So let’s take these survey results as accurate, for the moment. This means that the majority of the American public had an incorrect conception of expert opinion on the issues that they voted on. That’s a mouthful. It’s not the same as “believed false things,” and in fact asking “what do you think experts believe” deliberately dodges the tricky question of what is true. If there is some misperception of expert belief, then in the strictest terms the public is misinformed. The study addresses this point as follows:

In most cases we inquired about respondents’ views of expert opinion, as well as the respondents’ own views. While one may argue that a respondent who had a belief that is at odds with expert opinion is misinformed, in designing this study we took the position that some respondents may have had correct information about prevailing expert opinion but nonetheless came to a contrary conclusion, and thus should not be regarded as ‘misinformed.’

So this study does not say “the American public are wrong about the economy and climate change.” It says that they haven’t really looked into it. I’m all for questioning authority’s claim to truth — anyone who follows my work knows that I’m generally a fan of Wikipedia, for example — but I believe we must take lifelong study and rigorous methodology seriously. To put it another way: voting contrary to the opinions of economists may be a fine thing, but voting without any awareness of their work is just silly. Yet that seems to be exactly what happened in the last election.

The role of the press, then and now
Of course, voting is hard and stuff is complex, which is why we rely on the media to break it all down for us. The sad part is that economics and climate change are familiar ground for journalists. It’s not like the facts of these issues were not published in mainstream news outlets. For that matter, journalists were not even necessary here. Any citizen with a web browser could have found out exactly what the Affordable Care Act was predicted to do to the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office published their report and then blogged about it in plain language.

Maybe publishing the truth was never enough. Maybe journalism never actually “informed the public,” but merely created conditions where the curious could get themselves informed by diligently reading the news. But on big issues like whether a piece of national legislation will affect the deficit, we no longer need professionals to enable this kind of self-motivated discovery. The sources go direct in such cases, as the Congressional Budget Office did. And do we really expect that the social media sphere — that’s all of us — will remain silent about the next big global warming study? We’re all going to use Facebook etc. to share links to the next IPCC report when it comes out.

If the problem of having access to true information about these sorts of “votable issues” is solved by the web, what isn’t solved by the web is getting every voter to go look at least once. That might be a job for informed professionals at the helm of big media channels. This is a big responsibility for a news organization to try to take, but I don’t see how it’s anything but the corollary to the responsibility to only publish true information. Presumably some of that information is important enough to know, so consumers would probably appreciate the idea that your mission is to ensure they are informed.

I suspect that paper-based habits are holding journalism back here. There is a deeply ingrained newsroom emphasis on reporting only what’s “new.” A budget report only gets to be news once, even if what it says is relevant for years. But there are no “editions” online; the same headline can float on the hot topics list for as long as it’s relevant. There is even more reason to keep directing attention to an issue if people are actively discussing it, if it is greatly polarized, or if there’s a lot of spin around it (see: the rise of fact-check journalism). In any case, journalists have long been good at keeping an issue in the news, by advancing the story daily in one way or another. But first they have to know what the public doesn’t know.

So the burning question that the World Public Opinion study leaves me with is just this: why wasn’t it a news organization that commissioned this survey?

See also: Does journalism work?

22 thoughts on “By the numbers, American journalism failed to inform voters”

  1. Jonathan,

    I’ll going to take a bit of time to digest the broader issues here, but I will chime in with a quick thought on the “paper-based habits.” Absolutely agree.

    We have to get past what’s “news” to present information in a way that people want it when they want it, even if it’s not new that day. That said, we can’t also ignore “news” when it happens, so the whole trick is to find a way to both tell “news” as well as structure it in a way that it is meaningful – and up-to-date – when people want to get to it (or, re your post, are encouraged to get to it.)

    One of the goals of structured journalism.


  2. There has certainly been a dumbing down of the media. I attribute it, in part, to a judicial decision in 2003 down in Florida (New World Communs. of Tampa, Inc. v. Akre, 866 So. 2d 1231(2003)). It’d been a case that had dragged on since 1999, but basically, it can be summed up as ” the FCC policy against falsification was not a “law, rule, or regulation” ”

    The other part is the blurring between editorialisation, and actual news reporting. This is made worse by the deliberate co-mingling, such as news tickers during opinion shows, which lead to the impression that things are news, or worse (and I know Jon Stewart’s pointed this out on Fox) the news will go “some say” as a justification for reporting on a topic, yet fail to mention that those ‘some’ are opinion-show hosting colleagues on their network.

    I think perhaps the best thing we can do, is clear up what ‘news’ is, make the FCC policy a ‘law, rule or regulation’, and maybe take a leaf out of print advertising’s book, and opinion shows on a news-branded channel have to carry a visible disclaimer that “this is an opinion show, not a news broadcast” just like print adverts have to have ‘advertisement’ on the top if there’s a risk of it being perceived as not being an advert.

    This doesn’t infringe on free speech, it just makes clear what TYPE of speech it is, or labels the requirements for honesty and factual basis of the speech.

  3. Though I certainly agree that the media does not report properly, may it be sufficiently or accurately, I certainly do not base numbers on what the government is reporting either as there are many examples of incomplete and inaccurate information from them as well.

    Look at the unemployment numbers. Look at how they compute those and you’ll discover that there are probably more like ~20% unemployed rather than the ~10% as reported by the government. (They have changed the duration of how long someone has been unemployed and thus counted as unemployed, to get the smaller number.)

    Man is readily lazy and apparently prefer that others do his work. Thus it is a cinch to become misinformed by those who make things up. May that be to be “important” or “trusted” by those with a vested interest.

    The world more or less laugh at our news media.

    Never mind that our reporters have long since stopped reporting and become actors who dramatize their stories. Instead of pure facts as they appear we have drama, drama, drama.

    A bad balance of good/bad news is resulting in an overwhelming amount of bad news. Where something that affects few people are headlined before the bigger important stories that affects the whole country, which is buried on page 19.

    The editor, who appear to be bought and paid for, singles out stories and present them in a way that creates mistrust and fear amongst people. Most other countries don’t have the same fear level between its people, a prime example is Canada.

    Clearly using money motivation for driving news is not good for journalism.


  4. Your statistics are meaningless as they all seem to point at voters understanding of what ‘scientists believe’ or what the CBO says.

    The voters got some thing right here….the CBO estimates are often *WAY* off and as for the scientists, its hard not to notice that they’ve changed positions and softened their stance over the past few years…we’ve gone from Man-made global warming to global warming, to climate change.

    People don’t trust the CBO and ‘scientists’ and have every right to judge the veracity of their current claims against their foibles of the past.

  5. You let Fox off waaaaay too easy.

    Why do you think there is general public confusion on the issues that Fox consistently misinforms the public about?

    That rhetorical question, as like many that Fox poses, answers itself.

    When there is a bad actor in the room, it casts doubt on *everyone* because everyone knows there is a bad actor in the room (it’s the one thing everyone agrees on), but no one agrees on who that bad actor is (particularly the bad actor themself, who spends most of their time accusing others).

    “I suspect that paper-based habits are holding journalism back here. There is a deeply ingrained newsroom emphasis in reporting only what’s “new.””

    There is a habit holding us back, but that’s not it. It’s the habit of providing professional courtesy to those that haven’t earned it, and have repeatedly demonstrated they don’t deserve it.

  6. “we’ve gone from Man-made global warming to global warming, to climate change.”

    Quit listening the Frank Luntz and you’ll find *the actual science* has only gotten stronger.

    The fact that, again, there’s this right-wing manufactured semantic debate on this topic, *white the science gets ignored as it strengthens* should illustrate where the real problem lay.

  7. Actual science based upon 150 years (at best) of climate date on a planet that’s been here for 4.5 billion years?

    Use your scientific method to compute your sample size for your *actual science* and you see that we have a sample of 1 30 millionth

  8. ” on a planet that’s been here for 4.5 billion years?”

    So….you are…I’m assuming…4.5 billion years old? (just inferring this from your skepticism about accepting anything one isn’t there to personally observe).

    Or how was it you got to that figure? Perhaps it was using a methodology of observing phenomena, buidling a theory to explain it, conducting experiments to test that theory, prediciting behavior based on theory, then making new observations to see if they agree with your predictions?

    Guess where the scientific consensus on global warming comes from?

  9. Nothing new here. Years ago, a college group did a study gauging the relative awareness of current events against the primary source of news. They asked the study group how well “educated” they were on current events, where they got their news, and then were quizzed on current events. Two groups: the folks who listened to talk radio, and the folks who got their news from Fox felt that they were very well informed, but actually scored the lowest. They think they’re the best and the brightest, but just enjoy having what the believe echoed back to them.

  10. Wow, lots of reactions here. This is fascinating.

    Regarding Fox: if I let them off easy, it’s because everyone else discussing this study didn’t. Plenty of other people have zeroed in on the Fox element of this story. It’s a serious issue, but it’s also a distraction. Even non-Fox viewers were misinformed. This is not a Fox-only problem.

    Regarding whether the CBO, government, etc. can be trusted. Please read the middle section of my post carefully. I made absolutely no claims about whether the experts are right. I only said that they study these issues full time so they might have some insight, therefore being unaware of what they think is a serious problem. That is the sense in which the survey showed that people are misinformed.

    Regarding global warming, climate change, 4.5 billion years, etc: 97% of people studying it full time and pretty much every government in the world agrees that it is real and man-made. If you’d like to dispute that, you’re going to need to know everything that they know, and more. Simply ignoring the scientific consensus is not an option.

    And finally, to commenters who have made sweeping statements about too much opinion and not enough facts in the news, money-driven editors, etc: These may all be real and serious problems. Or they may not be. Only one of the comments left here (by PJ Duhaime) discussed actual research trying to understand these problems.

    – Jonathan

  11. Again, you can apply the scientific method (which you copy/paste into your post) all you want, but when your sample size is 1 30 millionth, how can you make assured pronouncements on your data?

    I guess we’ll see if 1/2 of Florida is underwater in 40 years like Algore predicted.

    We won’t have to wait for global warming to kill us, I’m sure the impending ice age and ozone hole doomsday predictions from the 70’s will get us first.

    #Wah, the rule I live by is this: “Everybody is full of sh1t”

    You, me, and the CBO, scientists…..everybody. Human beings cannot help being compromised, agenda pursuing individuals and we have to constantly take in what we hear and apply our own BS filters. Global Warming makes my BS-o-meter go nuts.

  12. And the CBO….what was their original estimate of the cost of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’?

    How about their predictions for how much Medicaid costs? Or Medicare prescription coverage?

    THe rule of thumb, I hear, is to apply a multiplier of 6 to their estimates and you’re getting close to the actuals.

  13. I think the problem here is that experts have been replaced by pundits. On the one hand we have the experts who research and put out papers every now and then, which isn’t an exciting story. And on the other hand, we have pundits which are ready at the drop of a hat to shout about their opinion to whomever asks.

  14. Unfortunately, this observation about the failure of American journalism isn’t breaking news, although that doesn’t make it any less distressing. Research over the decades confirms that voters regularly vote against their own interests, misunderstand major policy initiatives and are unable to define basic political concepts. A lot of research in political science indicates that the news media is not nearly as important in forming political opinions as many journalists believe. The conceit that people are open minded, interested participants in political life, carefully reading information to shape consistent political opinions about important issues, doesn’t hold up. For background on the formation of public opinion, try John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and for thinking through how Americans use information read Bruce Bimber, Information and American Democracy. See a lot of the current work in political psychology.

    What does this mean for journalists? What happens as their most treasured self-conception — that of informing voters — turns out to not work at all as they have been led to believe? I think that’s part of what we’re going through now. The crisis of American journalism is far more than a business model problem.

    I hope that it means we can become more intellectually honest about what journalism can accomplish and how to do it better; how to broaden our conceptions of what kinds of journalism succeed under what circumstances. The fact we have trouble even defining criteria for evaluating ‘good’ journalism or knowing whether ‘journalism works’ should be a red flag that journalism isn’t nearly as well understood or practiced as it could be.

    Your idea of focusing journalism on correcting errors in public understanding is an intriguing one. It assumes that the basic problem in public decisionmaking is a lack of correct information, which is most likely only a fraction of the problem for a fraction of the people. But at least it’s one way, out of many, to focus and assess journalistic activity. It would be a worthwhile experiment in a large body of experiments to help us learn what journalism is really good for.

    Thanks for your thought provoking posts!

  15. ” It’s a serious issue, but it’s also a distraction. Even non-Fox viewers were misinformed. This is not a Fox-only problem.”

    I’m going to hammer at this, because I think this is innaccurate. When you have 4 people saying something weighs 80lbs and another person saying it is -20lbs, it’s not surprising you end up with a skewed public perception of the average.

    This is *exactly* what happened with the stimulus “debate”. The CBO, economists, everyone notes how it saved/created jobs. Fox announces that it lost jobs, confusion reigns.

    Each of these questions touches on a right-wing talkinig point (“stimulus”,HCR,global warming). At least two of these have been covered by internal Fox memos *directing on-air talent to muddy the waters*. These are memos directing on-air talent to use biased phrasing.

    It’s hard to blame everyone else when there is a very obvious and deliberate mis-information campaign coming from a specific player. If everyone else is bashing Fox, that’s not really a good reason in and of itself to dismiss or belittle that criticism, as you have done here.

    Yes, I know the “media” caters to bias, but there used to be an ethical component to it. Fox has illustrated that if you remove that ethical countermeasures, biased reporting is very profitable, and you can even get self-styled ‘objective’ journalists to defend you, as they incorrectly assume you are in the same profession.


    “like Algore predicted.”

    I wish you would have started with this, so I knew where you were coming from, and saved some time. I could point out that for 90% of that 4.5billion years the Earth’s environment was completely inhospitable to human life, and could be again, but I’m pretty sure that will just open up more silliness. Bless your heart.

    “THe rule of thumb, I hear, is to apply a multiplier of 6 to [the CBO’s] estimates and you’re getting close to the actuals.”

    Yes, and I’m fairly confident I can guess where you “hear” such things. You want to elaborate on your source?

    Because the CBO actually does study this stuff. You can read the report here [ ] or stick with your preconcieved notions.

    “Your idea of focusing journalism on correcting errors in public understanding is an intriguing one.”

    And will fail when there is a deliberate non-attempt to address the sources of those errors. It’s playing whack-a-mole while the mole factory just keeps turning ’em out.

    “It assumes that the basic problem in public decisionmaking is a lack of correct information, which is most likely only a fraction of the problem for a fraction of the people.”

    Indeed, this following quote has never been me ore true…”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” -MT

    There was a study done a while back (I’ve searched a few times and didn’t find it again, might have just been a poll) that put various media sources into “trust truanches” and it found that, sadly, the most trusted form of information was personal emails from friends. Yes, those insane, unsourced, sparkly Eagle “Save America” email forwards from your nutjob aunt/uncle/cousin do more to influence real people than a painstakingly researched, impeccably produced, and fully sourced news segment.

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