The research findings shock and awe.
We are awash in news like never before: Satellites relay to our homes live action from the other side of the globe. Embedded reporters give us close-up views of war. The Internet brings a stupendous array of news organs to our fingertips. Several cable channels report on current events around the clock.
But do we share a predicament similar to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner who was dehydrated while at sea? He lamented: "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Despite wafting in an ocean of information, many of us have key facts about the Iraq war just flat-out wrong.
That's not the worst of it. Another finding of new research is that the more we harbor erroneous information, the more we back the war!
And a third sobering finding is this: Our levels of misperception vary according to where we get our news. Those kept informed mainly by public radio and public television hold the fewest bogus notions about the war. Viewers of Fox News, on the other hand, hold the most misperceptions. Where does my medium print fall? Well, newspaper readers hold the second fewest false beliefs about the conflict.
Two reputable outfits : the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks a polling social science and market research firm based in Menlo Park, California : conducted the study.
From January through September, researchers surveyed scientific samples of the American populace seven times, and then analyzed several opinion polls others did.You can find the resulting report, titled Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, at http://www.pipa.org.
The study hones in on three serious fallacies, each of which sizable minorities buy. Almost half the respondents believe evidence has emerged showing that Iraq's deposed leader, Saddam Hussein, was working with al-Quaida, the terrorist group responsible for 9-11. In truth the Bush administration has hinted at such a link, but solid evidence of it has yet to turn up.
More than a fifth of the respondents belief that actual weapons of mass destruction have surfaced in Iraq; in fact, American experts are still coming the country for the elusive weapons. Finally, a fourth of the interviewees believe that world opinion backed the U.S. decision to attack Iraq; actually, the rest of the world overwhelmingly booed that decision.
All told, six of every ten Americans hold at least one of those three misperceptions. Among the minority of Americans who old none of them, only 23% support the war. In contrast, the conflict gets backing from 53% of those with one misperception, 78% of those with two, and 86% of those with all three. The implications are disturbing.
First, support for the war rests to a large extent on the sand of false information. No wonder President Bush and his people appear reluctant to set the record straight. No, they don't outright mouth the falsehoods; but they do give the wrong impression : for instance, by mentioning Hussein, 9-11 and al-Quaida in the same breath.
Hence a Washington Post poll found in August that seven of every ten Americans believe it is at least somewhat likely that Hussein was involved with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Second, the news media are failing to live up to the vital role they are supposed to play in a democracy. To run properly, that form of government must rely on an informed citizenry. Keeping the body politic up to speed on the issues is where the media come in. That job explains their honorary title: "The Fourth Estate."
Does the fault lie with news consumers rather than with the media? Are the consumers simply not paying enough attention to the news? Overall the researchers found the level of misperceptions remained the same no matter the degree of attentiveness. This rule features two exceptions however: The more attentive newspaper readers were, the fewer bogus beliefs they held. Those dynamics worked in reverse for Fox viewers: The more attentive they were, the more misperceptions they harbored.
Of the viewers who rely primarily on Fox for their news, 80% hold at least one of the three major misperceptions about the Iraq war. That finding may shock, but not surprise, occasional viewers like myself. After all, the Rupert Murdock network cheerleads for the Bush administration. But the rest of the media must search their souls too. Here's the scorecard listing the media and percentage of their viewers/listeners/readers holding one or more Iraq untruths: CBS, 71%; ABC, 61%; NBC, 55%; CNN, 55%; print media, 47%; and PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and NPR (National Public Radio), 23%.
Those numbers are way too high. The public media are the only ones that can hold their heads halfway up. The question of war and peace heightens the news media's duty to keep the body politic informed. Yet many Americans got basic facts wrong about the war : a finding that should prompt media all around to reexamine their presentation of the news. What Americans do with the facts is not the media's concern. That they get the facts right is!