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Salon grossly misinterprets research on media consumption, asks if Fox News viewers can be ‘deprogrammed’

Salon manages to either entirely misunderstand or grossly misrepresent some research on media consumption. Which you think is more likely is up to your own opinions of Salon, of course [1]: “Can Fox News viewers be deprogrammed? Paying them to watch CNN makes them less gullible.”

But that’s not what was found.

“Participants were paid $15 an hour to watch CNN instead of Fox News: Is it a cheap solution for fake news?” the piece said.

Nor is that a reasonable conclusion.

“A groundbreaking new study paid viewers of Fox News Channel to watch CNN for 30 days. Those viewers ultimately became more skeptical and less likely to buy into fake news.”

Nor is that what happened.

As background, there’s long been a debate over whether we choose to watch (or read) certain media because we already agree with it, or our views are managed by the media we consume. The general conclusion is that we generally – only generally, for like near everything about humans there’s a bit of this and a bit of that in it – gravitate to those media which support our own worldview.

This paper [2] was designed as a test of that and it found that if we watch different media outlets then we are more informed on what those new media outlets talk about. More than the media outlets we usually consume that is.

Specifically, they asked regular Fox News watchers to see some CNN. And when they did those viewers were more – or perhaps differently, which we’ll come to – informed on things that CNN talked about and Fox didn’t. Also, vice versa, they were less informed on those things that Fox did talk about as compared to the control group who had continued to watch it.

That’s all the paper did find too. That the folk who watched the different news shows were differently informed about different subjects. This probably not coming as a surprise to adults like us – we tend to think that people will be more informed about things they’ve just watched news shows on.

Salon leaps on this and insists that this shows people are less gullible, more skeptical and less likely to buy into fake news. Which, again, isn’t what the research found at all. The crucial point is in this one small sentence:

“Yet, we still found that these highly engaged partisans could be persuaded by viewing opposition partisan media instead of their own,” according to Salon.

The paper was not arguing that Fox is biased and CNN is not. Quite the opposite: The choice of CNN was specifically made because it was – in the opinion of those doing the research of course – equally biased but the other side of the median than Fox.

So the finding is that people are differently informed dependent upon which media outlet they get their news shows from. Not, at all, proof that CNN is some repository of truth and veracity which, if only folk were exposed to it, would benefit all.

Salon is more influential in progressive circles than its raw numbers would suggest. It gains some 7 million visits a month and is ranked around 70 in the law and government sector. But precisely because it is particularly progressive it is more influential in those circles than that.

At which point being able to understand media research might be useful. Or, if it is possible to understand, report it correctly. The academic paper says that people who watch different media are differently informed, largely because of the story choices of those different TV stations. It doesn’t say anything at all about fake news, gullibility or skepticism. Quite the opposite in fact, it deliberately chose CNN as being at the other end of the spectrum from Fox News. Which, in itself, is an interesting observation, isn’t it?