Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War

The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks have just released a report that sheds a lot of light on the much-reported polls that show Americans have serious misconceptions about the facts surrounding the Iraq War. (PIPA’s press release and questionnaire are also available).

At the heart of the PIPA study are three questions:

  • Is it your impression that the US has or has not found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization?
  • Since the war with Iraq ended, is it your impression that the US has or has not found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?
  • Thinking about how all the people in the world feel about the US having gone to war with Iraq, do you think the majority of people favor the US having gone to war?

The answers, by the way, are “no clear evidence has been found,” “no weapons of mass destruction have been found,” and “the majority of people in the world do not favor the US having gone to war.” If you got at least one wrong don’t feel too bad: only 30% of people surveyed in three polls (June, July, and August-September) got all three correct.

The report is well worth reading, but here’s a brief summary of their findings:

  • Misperceptions are widely-held. To quote a few numbers, 48% believe the US has found clear evidence that Saddam was working with al Qaeda, 22% believe Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks, 22% believe the US has found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, 20% think Iraq actually used chemical or biological weapons in the war that just ended, and 25% believe the majority of world opinion is in favor of the US having gone to war.
  • Misperceptions are strongly correlated with support for the war. Both pre- and post-war, support for the war is much higher among those who are wrong about the facts. For example, 86% of those who incorrectly answered all three questions listed above were in favor of the war, compared to 23% of those who had no misperceptions. Of course, we can’t know for certain whether people are basing their support for the war on incorrect information, or if they are instead making up their minds and then choosing to believe rumors and insinuations that support their already-formed opinions. However, this is still a good indication that these misperceptions had a real effect on public support for the war.
  • Misperceptions correlate strongly with media source. People who watch Fox News as their primary news source were much more likely to be incorrect on the questions of links to al Qaeda, WMD and world opinion than those who watched any other source. People who got their primary news from television were more likely to have misperceptions than people who got their news from print media, and NPR/PBS viewers were the best informed on these subjects.

    Number of misperceptions per respondent Fox CBS ABC CNN NBC Print media NPR/PBS
    None of the 3 20% 30% 38% 45% 45% 53% 77%
    1 or more misperceptions 80 71 61 55 55 47 23
    2 or more misperceptions 69 51 41 38 34 26 13
    3 or more misperceptions 45 15 16 13 12 9 4

    The data also show that these differences aren’t explained by different viewer demographics. For example, the average incorrect answer rate was 54% for Republican Fox viewers, but only 32% for Republicans who get their news from PBS-NPR. Viewer education levels also don’t account for the differences between the media sources. The amount of attention people pay to the news has little effect on the results, except in the case of print media and to some extent CNN, where more attention results in being better informed, and Fox News, where paying more attention to the news actually increases the likelihood of being misinformed.

I don’t have high hopes that this report will directly change public opinion or make people better informed: the people who think we’ve already found WMD aren’t going to be reading scientific reports. What I do hope is that this report, along with the poll data that led up to it, will be a wake-up call to the mainstream press to do their job. (Fox News, of course, is a lost cause and no doubt sees this report as evidence they are doing their job.) Paul Waldman recently wrote a column in the Washington Post that calls for exactly that:

Once misconceptions are known, journalists have an obligation to highlight the facts in a prominent way, writing stories specifically about where people have misunderstood or been misled, and correcting the misimpressions. The average citizen can’t be expected to wade through the euphemisms and competing claims, research the evidence, and come to a conclusion about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

That’s what reporters are for.

Let’s hope the press wakes up soon — we need our fourth estate more than ever.