Another study came out testing Americans' knowledge of some basic questions about foreign and domestic policy. The thrust of the study seemed to be comparing how well people did based on which news source they relied on most heavily. Predictably, people who relied on Fox "News" for news did the worst on the test. But people who relied primarily on NPR didn't do that much better. Actually, they did about twice as well, but that only meant NPR listeners averaged about 2 out of 4 questions right, instead of 1 out of 4 questions on each section.
Here are the foreign policy questions:
1. To the best of your knowledge, have the opposition groups protesting in Egypt been successful in removing
2. How about the opposition groups in Syria? Have they been successful in removing Bashar al-Assad?
3. Some countries in Europe are deeply in debt, and have had to be bailed out by other countries. To the best of your knowledge, which country has had to spend the most money to bail out European countries?
4. There have been increasing talks about economic sanctions against Iran. What are these sanctions supposed to do?
Most people in this study (63%) got 2 or fewer of these questions right. (About 23% got zero correct, and only 18% nailed them all.) I'm thinking the real story should have been about Americans' minimal state of knowledge of the world in general, regardless of where they get their information from. How is it that people can watch dozens of stories about Egypt, or about the European debt crisis, and they don't know who is winning and who is losing? Maybe it's because the news somehow glosses over that kind of basic information. Even the story about this study might be a good example of news that fails to truly inform us, as the only information most people are likely to get out of the story is a dig at Fox News. If they like Fox News, they'll probably think the study was biased, and if they don't like Fox News, they'll probably just feel superior. But those who watch MSNBC shouldn't be feeling too smug, because those people did almost as badly on the test.
The question we should be asking is why the news media in general are failing to impart basic information to people. Maybe that's not they're job, and it's the public's fault that we are so complacent in our ignorance. After all, information is available if you take the trouble to search for it. Or maybe the news assumes too much. Maybe they're afraid to remind the public of how little we know, and how much we need to learn, because reminding us of our ignorance would make us uncomfortable. The media instead play on peoples' desires to have their previous biases confirmed. Instead of doing that, perhaps the news media, say when they are presenting a story about Egypt, should show us where Egypt is on the map, and tell us who is running the place, before describing what happened today in Egypt. Otherwise, all viewers are seeing are pictures of protest and turmoil, and they don't even know who is up or down. We should recognize we need more help, as Sarah Palin did when the McCain campaign called in two foreign policy experts to brief her, as shown in the movie Game Change. They found out they had to start with the basics, like explaining which countries were on which side in World War II.