Fox News mangles stats, denies error

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by bledsoe on December 27, 2009

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.


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.

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