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It's no secret that news viewership is split on whether or not Fox News is a credible source of information. The network has its staunch loyalists, while other viewers prefer to stick to CNN or MSNBC.

A report Politifact recently released on how truthful the statements of various networks tend to be is being widely misinterpreted. Let's do a quick breakdown.

Fox News led the way with an astonishing 61% of its claims being rated Mostly False or worse.

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MSNBC scores as more truthful than Fox News, at a much lower rate of 44% Mostly False claims or worse:

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Leading the pack is CNN at 80% of its claims rated as Half True or better:

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In order to gain some perspective on CNN's stellar rating by Politifact, it behooves us to take a look at the channel's most notorious incidents of questionable coverage:

  • Ran nearly non-stop coverage of Flight 370 for weeks, even speculating that a “black hole” might have swallowed it;
  • Forced recently to apologize for blasting Fox News on “no-go zones” in France, a claim that it had aired itself;
  • Actually broke the news to its audience that the Affordable Care Act was overturned by the Supreme Court;
  • Received criticism for putting a well-known activist on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, during rioting to say that it was wrong to claim the conflagration was “violent” overall;
  • Issued a false report of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing being arrested, and had aired an analyst claiming a “right-wing” terrorist must have been involved (an opinion article claiming as much is still on its website);
  • Recently garnered attention for sending a reporter around in a “Blizzardmobile” to capture the non-blizzard in New York City.

CNN, a news network that has been lampooned by Jon Stewart for hilarious misreportage, somehow makes off with a comparatively glittering 11% false rating, despite doing a style of 24/7 news coverage that has been described as “perilous”? What gives?

“What gives” is selection bias. As was pointed out in an exhaustive study at the University of Minnesota, via Oregon Catalyst:

“The University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics study especially calls out 'how statements are selected' by PolitiFact: 'there remains a fundamental question of which statements (by which politicians) are targeted for analysis in the first place. A Smart Politics content analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts.'”

The University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs documented through content analysis that Politifact assigned “Pants on Fire” or “False” statements to three times as many Republicans as Democrats from 2010 to 2011; In fact, 39% of Republican claims were rated “false,” while only 12% of Democrat claims were given such scores.

As Eric Ostermeier of Smart Politics had noted about Politifact's selection process, via Ed Morrissey of Hot Air:

When PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair was on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal in August of 2009, he explained how statements are picked:

We choose to check things we are curious about. If we look at something and we think that an elected official or talk show host is wrong, then we will fact-check it.”

If that is the methodology, then why is it that PolitiFact takes Republicans to the woodshed much more frequently than Democrats?

To be fair, Politifact cautions people not to use its findings to make broad generalizations (like “Fox lies”), because, like it says, it does not “fact-check everything.”

However, this has not stopped numerous outlets from using the Politifact review of its own True or False ratings as a springboard to launch broadsides against a network that is not to their tastes:

  • Fox News more wrong than ever: New Politifact review finds pundits spewing mostly lies (Raw Story)
  • Politifact: Fox News is Lying More than Ever! (Crooks and Liars)
  • 'Pants On Fire': Top Fact-Checking Group Finds 60 Percent Of Fox 'News' Is False (New Civil Rights Movement)
  • Fact checkers at Politifact update their data and find Fox lies more than ever (Daily Kos)

Of course, this is not the first time a narrative was pushed that Fox News is consistently misinforming its viewership. While appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace in 2013, Jon Stewart claimed that Fox viewers were “consistently misinformed” in “every poll.”

The Atlantic's Wire disagreed with Stewart's assessment, ironically citing Politifact as a rejoinder:

So we have three Pew studies that superficially rank Fox viewers low on the well-informed list, but in several of the surveys, Fox isn’t the lowest, and other general-interest media outlets — such as network news shows, network morning shows and even the other cable news networks — often score similarly low. Meanwhile, particular Fox shows — such as The O’Reilly Factor and Sean Hannity’s show — actually score consistently well, occasionally even outpacing Stewart’s own audience. [...]

The way Stewart phrased the comment, it’s not enough to show a sliver of evidence that Fox News’ audience is ill-informed. The evidence needs to support the view that the data shows they are “consistently” misinformed — a term he used not once but three times. It’s simply not true that “every poll” shows that result.

One of the consistent issues with modern social science and media analysis is the circular reasoning demonstrated by questionnaires in order to come to a pre-determined conclusion. An interesting article in The Week, “How academia's liberal bias is killing social science,” based itself on an academic study, puts the problem well:

For example, a study that sought to show that conservatives reach their beliefs only through denying reality achieved that result by describing ideological liberal beliefs as “reality,” surveying people on whether they agreed with them, and then concluding that those who disagree with them are in denial of reality — and lo, people in that group are much more likely to be conservative! This has nothing to do with science, and yet in a field with such groupthink, it can get published in peer-reviewed journals and passed off as “science”...

The early 20th century public relations expert Edward Bernays, regardless of what one may think about his field of work, was prescient on this point:

Intolerance is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view... We find here with significant uniformity what one psychologist has called 'logic-proof compartments.'"

Thus, as the author points out, people of all political persuasions tend to believe themselves perfectly logical in their arguments, and those opposing them to be completely irrational or even deceptive.

The tendency to seek out confirmation bias of one's own 'superior' reasoning is the cause of grave misunderstandings. It causes people to overlook that others may be proceeding from vastly different sets of assumptions and values. It's important  to evaluate carefully if a news source or commentator is “lying,” or if the message is merely disagreeable.

Regardless of how one feels about it, Fox News is rated annually as the “most trusted” news source for accurate information.

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