This year's FDU poll of how much people know about current events depending on their news source is out again. Haven't read this one. I'm not linking. A few years ago, when Rush Limbaugh listeners scored comparatively well on it, it didn't get much play. (Except I heard Rush mentioned it a lot, which one would expect.) I don't think they broke it down that far this year, but in my circle, I only see/hear it mentioned by people who want everyone to know how badly Fox News listeners did, and how well NPR listeners did.
How about if I just type "social/cultural/style signalling" this time, without elaboration?
Important background to keep in mind: the lead researcher, as opposed to the news interpreters, has some valuable things to say which usually get ignored. I think he misses a trick or two, but he seems a decent and fair chap. Next, I think there is something generally accurate about the results. I don't think it's just a few tweaks and a little bias from showing that Fox and MSNBC viewers are really better informed on such matters than NPR listeners. I think the difference is real.
Yet just for openers - might NPR be a sloppy and inaccurate news source which attracts brighter people for unimportant cultural reasons, who would have done better on the test anyway? Or the reverse - did Fox viewers start out behind the others, or did that network bring them down? This will be point #3 below.
#1: Why are current events considered an important measure? (Note how prominently this week's news always figures in NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.") Wouldn't longer trends matter more? Isn't there a significant cultural bias toward inside-the-beltway obsessives from the get-go? Knowing what legislation got traded for what is an historical footnote at best. I'm not sold on the basic premise.
1A: FDU ran into even more trouble when they tried to measure whether liberals or conservatives were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and eventually buried that dog. They equated belief that Obama has obscured parts of his history - which is undeniably true - with belief that he wasn't born in the US - which never had much evidence or support. They also called climate skepticism a conspiracy theory, which even then was a reach and is now unsupportable.
#2: Any time you have 9 questions on your test, and the average number people get right is between 1.0 and 1.5, those are bad questions. No matter how much it looks to you that people should know this, you've done something wrong. Yes, many of us are stupid, and most of us only know approximately enough information to make a good decision, but the species would not have survived if we were that stupid. A similar Pew poll a few years ago asked things like "Who is your governor?" I call that better than knowing whether Hosni Mubarak was winning or losing at present.
#3. What is causing the difference? What is cart and what is horse? We see a similar problem in rating school districts. One town rates itself best because its seniors had the highest SAT's. Yet what if they had the highest test scores starting right from Kindergarten, and even lost a few points along the way? Wouldn't a school that started with below-average 5-year-olds but graduated average 18-year-olds have a better claim? What if MSNBC viewers are less bright by a long shot than all the others, but only finish 3rd-to-last because they do a good job with the news?
#4. The lead researcher's conclusion is that ideologically driven news reporting is less helpful, and he puts both Fox and MSNBC into that category. The weakness with this is that NPR and The Daily Show are also ideological. There seems to be this idea that because a source sometimes criticises both sides, it is therefore fair. Well, it's certainly fairer than Pravda, I suppose. But The Nation sometimes criticises liberals quite sternly, and the National Review does the same to conservatives, yet both remain ideological sources.
#5. Even within a current-events context, how do we judge which stories are most important? Which countries? Are military and economic always top-shelf, religious news hardly ever? I haven't liked the questions all that much in past years. Not terrible, just not very impressive.