I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started squirming in my seat during the movie Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. It wasn’t just for the reasons I was expecting – not the over-acting of Will Ferrell or the ridiculous raunchy lines coming out of Paul Rudd’s mouth.
Unfortunately, it was the characters’ realization that their news show – which was on at 2 a.m. on a new cable network back in the 1970s – would get higher ratings if they just glossed over all the important, yet boring news stories, and told everyone what they wanted to hear. Each episode ended with Ferrell’s character Ron Burgundy saying “Don’t just have a great night, have an American night.”
Aye, yai, yai.
Then there was the scene when Burgundy decided to be the first show to broadcast a local car chase live, in an effort to take away attention from an important and much more relevant interview on a competing channel. That is broadcast journalism at its most sensational and lowest point.
You guessed it – their plan worked. The show became the most popular on the network, and changed the face of America’s broadcast news landscape. Yes, I know, it’s a movie. But, if it wasn’t a great personification of how actual cable “news” shows impact American opinion, I don’t know a better way to explain it.
Maybe a 2012 survey from Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey will help. “What you know depends on what you watch: Current events knowledge across popular news sources” was a follow-up survey from the university’s 2011 PublicMind™ poll and showed that National Public Radio (NPR), Sunday morning political talk shows and even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart were more informative news sources than partisan outlets, such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.
In fact, out of 1,185 people surveyed nationwide, those who identified as having watched only one of those political news sources was less likely to correctly answer a series of national and international current events questions than someone who identified as having watched no news at all.
The average person could answer 1.8 out of four questions correctly on international news, and 1.6 out of five questions on domestic matters.
The results showed that people who didn’t watch any news at all could, on average, correctly answer 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, either by guessing or from their existing knowledge.
Here’s the real kicker – someone who only watched Fox News (on average) could only answer 1.04 national questions correctly. NPR consumers got 1.51 questions correct and Daily Show viewers got 1.42 questions correct. The findings were similar for international questions.
Additionally, the survey noted the impact of the “ideologically-based” sources on the audience that consumed the information. Liberals, for example, did better on the questions when gleaning information from MSNBC; same with conservatives with Fox News. But, moderates and liberals who watch Fox News were worse at answering the questions.
Dan Cassino, political scientist and poll analyst, was quoted in the survey about the impact of the partisan sources on news knowledge.
“Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience. This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them,” he said in the survey.
Read the full survey results.