Teacher and coach

Fox News mangles stats, denies error

A recent series of events at Fox News involved not only a mistake in reporting survey data, but a subsequent refusal to acknowledge the mistake, even after it was pointed out.  The timeline of events is as follows:

  1. On November 23, 2009, after a “series of [on-screen] mistakes,” Fox News implemented a zero-tolerance policy for on-screen errors.
  2. On December 1-2, 2009, Rasmussen Reports, a well-known public opinion polling firm, conducted a national survey to determine the views of Americans on the issue of global climate change.  Survey question #3 asked, “In order to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming, how likely is it that some scientists have falsified research data?” Rasmussen reported the responses to this question as follows:

    35% Very likely
    24% Somewhat likely
    21% Not very likely
    5% Not at all likely
    15% Not sure

  3. On December 3, 2009, Rasmussen Reports published a summary of the results of the survey in which they noted, among other things, that:

    “Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming. Thirty-five percent (35%) say it’s Very Likely. Just 26% say it’s not very or not at all likely that some scientists falsified data.”

    (This was in fact an accurate summary of the survey data from survey question #3.)

  4. On December 4, 2009, Fox News broadcast a 1-minute segment in which a graphic (created by Fox News) was displayed which incorrectly summarized the data from survey question #3, and three commentators briefly discussed and interpreted these (incorrect) data.
  5. On December 8, Media Matters for America, a non-profit media watchdog group, sent an open letter to Fox News pointing out the error in the Fox News graphic, and suggested that this might be a case that merited a reprimand under Fox’s new zero-tolerance policy.  Fox News responded that there was no error in the graphic, and thus no need for any reprimand.

fox.rasmussen

If you look at the graphic, it seems pretty clear what happened: whoever created the graphic only read the Rasmussen summary of the survey data, and not the breakdown of the actual percentages for this question.  This person no doubt assumed the three percentages quoted in the summary paragraph represented all of the answer choices for the survey question, when in fact the 59% number combined the responses for Very Likely and Somewhat Likely into a larger category of “at least somewhat likely.”  (This combining of response categories is done all the time when reporting on survey data.)  The Fox News graphic implies that the Very Likely group is separate from the 59% “combined” category, when in fact it’s a subset of it.  As pointed out by a number of observers, reporting the percentages as Fox did clearly distorts the survey data, even making it appear that the total number of survey responses exceeded 100%.

While many people may disagree about the degree to which Fox News or Rasmussen Reports display a conservative bias, or the degree to which Media matters displays a liberal bias, or the appropriateness of some sort of reprimand under the Fox News zero tolerance policy, the one thing that is undeniable is that Fox News made a mistake when creating the graphic.  Yet, when the error was pointed out, Fox News simply claimed that while “the presentation wasn’t perfect,” there was no error in the graphic.

While this wasn’t perhaps the worst mistake ever made, it was a mistake, and while there’s no shame in making a mistake, there is shame in attempting to cover it up.  For a major news organization to refuse to acknowledge such a clear error in reporting simple facts is unconscionable.

3 Responses to “Fox News mangles stats, denies error”

  1. Father says:

    Yea, so a link to the actual poll would have been nice for you to provide:

    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/environment_energy/americans_skeptical_of_science_behind_global_warming

    and something that you and the liberal group Media Matters don’t mention:
    Fox reported it exactly as Rasmussen polled it.

    “Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming. Thirty-five percent (35%) say it’s Very Likely. Just 26% say it’s not very or not at all likely that some scientists falsified data.”

    the questions Rasmussen asked are listed here:
    http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/business/econ_survey_toplines/december_2009/toplines_climate_change_december_1_2_2009

    Specifically Question #3:
    3* In order to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming, how likely is it that some scientists have falsified research data?
    35% Very likely
    24% Somewhat likely
    21% Not very likely
    5% Not at all likely
    15% Not sure

    So, as Rasmussen stated in their summary:

    “Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming.” (Notice the end of the sentence, as signaled by that little dot)

    This is accurate. as 35% said “Very likely” and 24% said “Somewhat likely”

    Then Rasmussen said:
    “Thirty-five percent (35%) say it’s Very likely. Just 26% say it’s not very or not at all likely that some scientists falsified data.”

    This too is accurate, as per their poll.

    Fox reported what Rasmussen said. It is unfortunate for those who are not smart enough to look up the information, and jump to whatever conclusions they want, but the Church of Global Warming here is simply seeing what they want. But the bottom line of it is: Fox News was indeed correct in their reporting, though many were incorrect in their interpretation of Fox’s reporting.

  2. bledsoe says:

    First of all, I did provide in my post both of the links you reference. Your first link (Rasmussen’s summary of their poll results) I provided in my third numbered point hyperlinked to the phrase “summary of the results.” Your second link (the survey questions and results) I provided in my second numbered point hyperlinked to the phrase “national survey.”

    Second, we both agree that Rasmussen reported their poll results accurately. In their summary of the results, Rasmussen combined the 35% Very Likely category and the 24% Somewhat Likely category and summarized them as a single “at least somewhat likely” category of 59%. This is completely accurate, and is not misleading in any way. As I noted in my post, this combining of survey response categories is done all the time when summarizing survey data.

    However, to claim that Fox “[accurately] reported what Rasmussen said” is simply not true, and it’s the Fox-created graphic which inaccurately reports the Rasmussen data. Specifically, the 59% category in the graphic should have been labeled “At least somewhat likely” (or something similar), since that’s what the 59% category represents; it does not represent Somewhat Likely, as stated on the graphic. The 35% Very Likely category should have then been left off the graphic completely, since those Very Likely responses had already been reported on the graphic under the 59% category; to display them again in a separate category implies that the Very Likely responses are a different set of responses from the “At least somewhat likely” responses, which is false and misleading. (An indication of just how misleading the graphic was, is the fact that the Fox commentators themselves misunderstood the information which the graphic was attempting to provide.)

    Even better would have been for Fox to display a graphic showing all five of the response categories for that question, along with the associated percentages, and not combined the percentages at all in the graphic. Then, if they wanted to make the point that 59% of survey respondents “said it was at least somewhat likely that some scientists had falsified research…” they could make that point in their verbal commentary. This is essentially what Rasmussen did with their separate “survey results” and “survey summary” reports, and is again standard procedure when reporting survey results.

    The bottom line is that one of the basic responsibilities of a news organization is to report information in a manner that helps the viewer to accurately understand and make sense of the issue, and one can’t do that if the graphics one uses are confusing and misleading.

    Again, I’m not claiming that Fox’s mistake was a hanging offense. Sometimes people make mistakes and this was an easy one to make. But when the mistake was pointed out (by several people), Fox should have acknowledged it rather than denying it.

  3. Hello there! Hope all is well. I think what you’ve written here is excellent. Media bias is a severely significant issue that most people are either unable to understand or really don’t consider it significantly worthy of their knowledge. The information you provide is so crucial. Damn I hate Fox!

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