A PublicMind study by Farleigh Dickinson University found that it was better to watch no news at all than it was to watch FOX News. Researchers asked respondents questions about domestic policy. People who watched FOX News got 1.04 out of 5 questions right, while people who watched no news at all got 1.22 questions right. The most informed people were NPR listeners, who got 1.51 questions right. They were followed by Sunday Morning talk viewers and Jon Stewart watchers.
Viewers were also asked four questions about international affairs. There were similar numbers -- FOX viewers were the least informed, doing worse than those who had watched no news at all. At the top, the difference was even more striking; NPR was at the top with a score of 1.97. The next highest competitor was 1.6.
One news source popular at Daily Kos, MSNBC, did not do so well. They were third from worst in domestic questions and next to worst in international questions, placing lower than people who did not watch the news at all. This study suggests that watching partisan sources does not help one get well informed about the issues of the day.
Two news outlets that were not considered in the study were Russia Today and Al-Jazeera America, the two new kids on the block. If you got your news from NPR, you might not have learned that a Kentucky judge ruled that state must recognize same-sex marriages in other states. You might have missed the story about the music group Skinny Puppy billing the government for using their music at Guantanamo Bay. You might have also missed the story about the United Auto Workers working to organize at the VW plant in Tennessee or Texas using junk science to justify homophobia. But you would know these things if you had watched or went to Al-Jazeera America.
If you had not watched or gone to Russia Today, you might have missed that America plunged in its press freedom index thanks to NSA and its treatment of whistleblowers. You might not have known that tens of thousands of Connecticut residents are refusing to register their guns under a new law there. You might not have known that DARPA, the research arm of the Pentagon, is developing a search engine that would dwarf Google and police the far reaches of the Internet.
But, it works the other way as well. If you had not listened to or visited NPR today, you might have missed a story showing that the highest rated Hollywood films are also the most diverse. You might have missed that we have finally figured out how to produce nuclear fusion, albeit weakly. You might have missed a story about students who face hardships thanks to snow days at school due to no school lunch.
The lesson here is that you can't rely on one source for your information. In one of his recent books, long-time CBS anchor Dan Rather recounted that there were many different stories all over the world that were newsworthy -- but even a massive news operation like CBS could not be everywhere at once. Watching diverse news sources fills in the gap.
The other thing to watch for is bias. We all have biases. Some are more obvious than others. Al-Jazeera is heavily subsidized by the government of Qatar; therefore, there is always the temptation to slant one's coverage to suit the interests of the government of Qatar. And the Guardian and Wikileaks cables show that Qatar, in fact, has attempted to use Al-Jazeera's coverage as a bargaining chip:
Qatar is using the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations by adapting its coverage to suit other foreign leaders and offering to cease critical transmissions in exchange for major concessions, US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks claim.
Doha-based al-Jazeera was launched in 1996 and has become the most watched satellite television station in the Middle East. It has been seen by many as relatively free and open in its coverage of the region, but government control over its reporting appears to US diplomats to be so direct that they said the channel's output had become "part of our bilateral discussions – as it has been to favourable effect between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and other countries".And the American Journalism Review reports on charges of anti-semitism by the network:
For years, critics have assailed what they see as anti-Semitic, anti-American bias in the channel's news content. In the wake of 9/11, Al Jazeera broadcast statements by Osama bin Laden and reported from within the ranks of the Taliban, earning a reputation as a mouthpiece for terrorists. In October 2001, a New York Times editorial took Al Jazeera to task for reporting Jews had been informed in advance not to go to work at the World Trade Center the day of the attacks. The Bush administration was openly hostile to the news organization.
An often-repeated example involves an on-air birthday party organized by Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief for a Lebanese militant convicted of killing four Israelis, including a four-year-old girl. Al Jazeera greeted Samir Kuntar, released in a July 2008 prisoner swap, as a hero. Fox News Channel's Britt Hume reported at the time, "As Kuntar cut into his cake, the network set off fireworks." Al Jazeera later apologized to Israel for the "unethical" coverage, but the damage had been done.Since RT is owned by the Russian Government, there is also the danger that their coverage will be slanted in favor of Putin. And in fact, that is what is happening. Check their website on Sochi 2014 and you find nothing about the homophobia of the Russian government in the days leading up to the games and nothing about the authorities doing a massive slaughter of dogs right before the games. And back when RT was founded, their director general freely admitted:
The newly-named Director General of Russia Today, 25-year-old Margarita Simonyan, hails from the Kremlin press corps. She says the station aims to counter, what she calls, the Anglo-Saxon domination of global television news.There are reasons why NPR viewers are better informed than the competition's. NPR, unlike their competitors, is not totally beholden to one single source of funding. The following link documents NPR's funding for both local stations and the parent organization. For local stations, individual contributions make up 39% of their revenues, followed by 17% for corporate contributions. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a distant third with 11%. NPR is owned by its member stations, each of which pay annual dues. This accounts for 37% of their funding. 26% of their funding comes from corporate donations. While this funding setup is not perfect, it allows NPR to be freer of bias. By contrast, NBC is directly owned by Comcast while ABC is directly owned by Walt Disney. And all three major networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS get the majority of their revenues from corporate advertisers. So if a corporation were to pull their advertising from, say, CBS, it would take a bigger chunk of their revenue than if they were to pull it from NPR. And CNN is owned by Time-Warner while FOX is owned by right-wing activist Rupert Murdoch.
Ms. Simonyan says organizers also hope it will change the negative view many foreigners have of Russia as a nation lacking law and order. But her more immediate job has been to try to deflect the negative coverage generated inside Russia, following recent word of the channel's launch.
The lesson learned is that the best informed viewers who listen to one news source listen to NPR. But it is even better to rely on multiple sources; even NPR doesn't cover everything. And it is best to be aware of the potential biases of the sources you are relying on.