Apr 1 1991

TV: The More You Watch, the Less You Know

Media polls have proclaimed, in self-congratulatory fashion, that about 70 percent of the public thinks the media did a good job in reporting the Gulf War. But if one measures the media by how well they inform the public, a recent study indicates they failed dismally.

The study, conducted by the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Studies in Communication, found that the more people watched TV during the Gulf crisis, the less they knew about the underlying issues, and the more likely they were to support the war.

When the research team tested public knowledge of basic facts about the region, U.S. policy and events leading up to the war, they discovered that “the most striking gaps in people’s knowledge involved information that might reflect badly upon the Administration’s policy.”

Only 13 percent knew that the U.S. responded to Iraq’s threat to use force against Kuwait last July by saying it would take no action; 65 percent falsely believed the U.S. responded by saying it would support Kuwait militarily.

Less than a third were aware that either Israel or coalition partner Syria were occupying territory in the Mideast. Only 14 percent knew that the U.S. was part of a tiny minority in the U.N. that voted against a political settlement to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

While most respondents had difficulty answering questions about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, 81 percent of the sample could identify the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi Scuds as the Patriot. That media consumers know facts relating to successful U.S. weapons but not about inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy, the researchers argued, “suggests that the public are not generally ignorant—rather, they are selectively misinformed.”

The study concludes that “the Pentagon or the Bush administration cannot be blamed for only presenting those facts that lend support for their case—it isn’t their job, after all, to provide the public with a balanced view. Culpability for this rests clearly on the shoulders of the news media, particularly television, who have a duty to present the public with all the relevant facts.”

For a report on the study, conducted by Sut Jhally, Justin Lewis and Michael Morgan, contact the University of Massachusetts at Amherst at 413-545-0444.