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Study: People's views of Iraq conflict affected by their news source

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  Published: October 9, 2003 Christian Science Monitor by Tom Regan

A Knight Ridder report on a major new study released last week, shows that a majority of Americans have held at least one of three mistaken impressions about the US-led war in Iraq, and those misperceptions contributed to much of the popular support for the war. The study, entitled "Misperceptions, The Media and the Iraq War," conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, also showed that the more people watched certain commercial news media, the more likely they were to hold at least one of the misperceptions. The study found that those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.

"When evidence surfaces that a significant portion of the public has just got a hole in the picture ... this is a potential problem in the way democracy functions," says Clay Ramsay, research director for the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes, which studies foreign-policy issues.

The study looked at three propositions, which to date – according to government reports and accepted public surveys – are false:

  • US forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  • There's clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists.
  • People in foreign countries generally either backed the US-led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing it.


The Baltimore Sun reports that sixty percent of all respondents believed in at least one of the statements. But there were clear differences in perceptions among devotees of the various media outlets. Eighty percent of Fox News viewers were likely to hold one of the three incorrect beliefs. Only 23 percent of the NPR/PBS audience held one of the three incorrect beliefs.

Seventy-one percent of those who relied on CBS for news held a false impression, as did 61 percent of ABC's audience, and 55 percent of NBC viewers. Fifty-five percent of CNN viewers and 47 percent of Americans who rely on the print media as their primary source of information also held at least one misperception.

In total, 45 percent of Fox viewers believed all three misperceptions, while the other commercial networks scored between 12 percent and 16 percent. Only nine percent of print readers believed all three, while only four percent of the NPR/PBS audience did.

Interestingly, the study found that these misperceptions are not the result of a lack of attention to current events. The more people watched commercial TV, the more likely they were to hold a misperceptions (only CNN reversed this trend). Only those who read print more often were likely to have "fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention." The Sun reports that Fox News declined to be interviewed for their story. (It should also be noted that very few American media outlets mentioned in the study reported on its findings.) NPR spokeswoman Laura Gross told the Sun, "It proves that what we're doing is great journalism. We're telling the truth and we let our audience decide."

The study also revealed some political dimensions to people's beliefs. Republicans who followed the news closely were more likely to hold misperceptions, while Democrats who didn't follow the news were more likely to hold one of the three statements to be true. While 50 percent of Republicans who listen to NPR/PBS believed one of the statements, few, if any Democrats did.

The response to the report differed. The Inter Press Service News Agency quotes Marvin Kalb, a former television correspondent and a senior fellow of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who called the report a "dangerously revealing study."

While Kalb said he had some reservations about the specificity of the questions directed at the respondents, he noted that, "People who have had a strong belief that there is an unholy alliance between politics and the press now have more evidence." Fox, in particular, has been accused of pursuing a chauvinistic agenda in its news coverage despite its motto, "We Report, You Decide."

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh took a dim view of the study, especially for the positive marks it gave to NPR. Mr. Limbaugh gave his 'Caller of the Day' award to a man from Massachusetts who said "I think it's time for us to do our own study. Let's take a sample of NPR listeners, and see what percentage of them believes flagrantly false propositions about US history, or economics, or any other subject."

The American Journalism Review takes a lengthy look in its October/November issue at the question 'Does the media cause misperceptions among the public?' In the article, both liberal and conservative journalists and commentators argue that one reason that people held these false impression is that they feel Saddam Hussein is such an evil person, that anything bad about him must be true. Others felt that "the general public doesn't necessarily watch entire newscasts, read entire newspapers and consume the large quantities of reports that political types or those in Washington, D.C., might." And newspaper editors say that the coverage of the war in Iraq was quite comprehensive, and they don't fault the media for any lingering public misperceptions.

Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says that people are more likely to be guided by their values when answering these questions than by what's actually going on.

"I think journalists assume that American opinions are based on facts, because most people in journalism are dealing with facts on a regular basis," says Bowman, who studies public opinion. "I'm not sure that's how the American people, being mostly inattentive, make decisions and form opinions." They are "more likely to consult their values."

But along with numerous other reasons, the study's authors point to the role played by the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Cheney, in perpetuating some of the misperceptions. And PIPA's program director Stephen Kull cited instances in which TV and newspapers gave prominent coverage to reports that banned weapons might have been found in Iraq, but only modest coverage when those reports turned out to be wrong. Susan Moeller, a University of Maryland professor, said that much reporting had consisted of "stenographic coverage of government statements," with less attention to whether the government's statements were accurate.

PIPA is a joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA) and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland. The study was based on a series of seven nationwide polls conducted from January through September of 2003. For the entire study of seven polls the total sample was 9,611 respondents, and for the in-depth analysis, the sample was 3,334 respondents. Funding for this research was provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation.

The polls were conducted by Knowledge Network, using its nationwide panel, which is randomly selected from the entire adult population and subsequently provided internet access. The Monitor reported on the new polling techniques being developed by Knowledge Networks in 2000. Author Michael Lewis also profiled the company in his book and TV series, "The Future Just Happened."

The full report and the questions asked can be found at PIPA.

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