Sep 1 1992

Not Much To Learn From Television News

Publisher's Note

There’s an old grade-school joke that about homework that went something like this: The more you study, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So why study?

Substitute “watch TV news” for study, and it still sounds like a joke, but it’s not: The more you watch, the less you know. That about sums up the findings of a survey of pre-election knowledge in the U.S. of various domestic and foreign policy issues. Conducted by Justin Lewis and a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the survey found that heavy TV news watchers tended to be less-informed about current events than lighter viewers.

Like many other new items presented by mainstream media, polls can be deceptive. The slightest variation in how a question is asked can yield markedly different results. But while most polls simply try to register what people think, Lewis’ survey attempts to assess whether their opinions are informed or not.

The work of Lewis and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Communication first came to FAIR’s attention during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when we received a copy of their polling data correlating opinion about the war to people’s knowledge of basic facts about the Gulf region. As it turned out, those who were glued to the tube were likely to be both less informed and more supportive of Bush administration policy.

That’s not only a sad commentary on the current state of TV journalism in the U.S.–it makes a mockery of democracy.