Can Watching TV News Make You Stupid?

The purpose of watching news on TV is to be better informed. But depending on what you watch, you may end up knowing less than when you started. Here are two tips to help you separate journalism and propaganda.

Can Watching TV News Make You Stupid? Photo (cc) by Sue Peacock

If you’re going to make informed decisions, financial or otherwise, it’s important to get your facts straight – something you might not be achieving, depending on who you turn to for news.

The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a story called Are you smarter than a Fox News viewer? How about a CNN viewer? and it’s based on this survey conducted in 2010 by and Knowledge Networks.

What it reveals is that many news viewers aren’t getting the straight scoop on issues ranging from our economy to global warming. And the viewers most likely to be misinformed? By far and away, those of Fox News.

The Monitor story is worth checking out. It’s presented as an 11-question quiz that asks multiple-choice questions about important U.S. policy and events. Once you’ve answered, you find out whether you were right, and how viewers of network news, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, Fox News, and other sources answered the same question. For example…

Is it your impression that most economists who have studied it estimate that the stimulus legislation:
A. Saved or created several million jobs
B. Saved or created a few jobs
C. Caused job losses

According to both the Congressional Budget Office and a panel of more than 50 economists assembled by The Wall Street Journal, the correct answer to this question is “A.” There’s no evidence whatsoever that the stimulus caused job losses. Yet 20 percent of news viewers overall thought it did. And an astounding 91 percent of people who watch Fox News daily thought the stimulus caused job losses. This left me scratching my head. Sure, you can argue that federal spending isn’t a good use of taxpayer money, or doesn’t work. But how can it cause job losses?

Why should you care?

I care on two fronts.

First, I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, and I have a problem with people throwing truth under the bus to advance a political agenda or line their pockets. This is true whether the “journalist” is from left-leaning MSNBC or right-leaning Fox News. The reason is simple: Political pandering for profit disguised as news is destroying the credibility of my chosen profession.

More relevant to this website, if you can’t get reliable information, you’ll end up making mistakes with your money that can damage your financial future. For example, here’s another question from the Christian Science Monitor story…

As you know, the American economy had a major downturn starting in the fall of 2008. Do you think that now the American economy is:
A. Starting to recover
B. Still getting worse

Keep in mind this question was posed late in 2010. How would you have answered? 55 percent of news viewers overall and 72 percent of Fox viewers thought it was still getting worse. The truth? The economic recovery has certainly been anemic, but it began in the third quarter of 2009 and is still ongoing today.

This is important because the stock market typically leads the economy by six months to a year. As you’ll note by my online portfolio, most of the stocks I currently own were purchased in the spring and summer of 2009. As I write this, my overall portfolio is up 72 percent. Presumably those who thought the economy was getting worse were on the sidelines in their 401(k)s or other investments.

What’s a news viewer to do?

There used to be two kinds of public affairs programs on TV: opinion shows and news shows. These days there are shows that don’t fit neatly into either category because they’re presented as news but are actually opinion. They’re not designed to give you the truth, but to advance an agenda.

How can you distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t? Simple: Journalism doesn’t offer opinion – it presents both sides of an issue, then allows you to make up your own mind.

So if you’re watching a show that interviews “experts” from only one side of an issue, you’re not watching news. They may say it’s news, or call it “fair and balanced,” but if it doesn’t have experts from both sides, it’s neither.

Here’s an even simpler test: Can you guess the anchor’s or host’s opinion on the topic being discussed? If you can, you’re definitely not watching a journalist.

It’s a free country. If you like watching cable shows that reinforce your personal political views, help yourself. But if what you’re getting is opinion, don’t rely on it to make financial decisions. To do so would be the same as basing your spending decisions on commercials.

The same erosion of truth is happening in other forms of TV programming. For example, the term “reality TV” describes a production style, not whether a show is actually real. As with news, entertainment programming used to have only two categories: shows that were obviously fiction, like dramas and sitcoms, and shows that were obviously true, like documentaries. Reality TV blurs those lines by staging things, then presenting them as real. Does it matter? Where your money’s concerned it does. See my recent articles Why House Hunters Shouldn’t Watch HGTV’s ‘House Hunters’ and Despite TV’s Obsession With Pawnshops, They’re Still Last Resort.

So what do you think? Is Fox News “fair and balanced” or thinly veiled propaganda? What about MSNBC? And does it even matter to you? Sound off on our Facebook page!

Stacy Johnson
Stacy Johnson @moneytalksnews
I'm the founder of Money Talks News and have spent the last 40+ years in the personal finance trenches. I'm a CPA, author of a few books and multiple Emmy recipient. I'm ... More

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