Balkinization  

Friday, October 03, 2003

JB

Fair and Balanced Pays Off

James Grimmelman writes about a new report concerning how mass media affect the American public’s attitudes toward the Iraq war. The study, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, finds that a significant proportions of the American public had false beliefs about (1) whether Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda before the war; (2) whether weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq; and (3) whether world public opinion favored the U.S. invasion. (For those who are wondering, no evidence has been found linking Saddam to 9/11 or demonstrating that that he was working closely with al Qaeda before the war, no WMD’s have been found in Iraq, and world opinion did not favor what the U.S. did.).

Sixty percent of the American public held one or more of these misperceptions, although only 20% held two and 8% held all three. The study further suggests that support for the war is highly correlated to holding one or more of these misperceptions. Among those who held none of these misperceptions, only 23% supported the war.

The extent of these misperceptions, the study reports, varies considerably based on Americans’ sources of news about the war. Those receiving most of their information about the war from NPR or PBS were least likely to have these three misperceptions about the war (Only 23% did followed by people who read the print media generally at 47%). On the other hand, those who received most of their information from Fox News are more likely than average to hold one or more of these misperceptions. (80 percent did, followed by 71 percent for CBS). The study corrected for demographic differences between the different sets of audiences, and found that the pattern held even when comparing the views of particular demographic subgroups. People who support the President are much more likely to hold one or more of these misperceptions, regardless of their party affiliation.

The study suggests that disinformation conveyed by the news media can shape public attitudes about important questions before the public. It also suggests what politicians have long known: propaganda works.



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