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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics


I struggled with whether to jump into this fray but I feel I must. I don't generally note my politics, however, you can probably guess based on what I write about and the sources I reference. I am a regular reader of The New York Times. I also read two local papers - The Buffalo News and The Olean Times Herald - and follow another online-only local - TapInto Greater Olean. I also get news from NPR. I do not watch broadcast news organizations. I am always on the lookout for deceptive statistics and research. You can imagine how much fun I am at a party! I've written in this newsletter about trust and context as well as other topics. If you haven't read those issues of the newsletter, I encourage you to do so before continuing here.

I hope everyone is following the case of Dominion Voting Systems vs. Fox News. If you are not, get on it! It's important!

Yesterday, I was relaxing in my living room, sipping my morning coffee, reading my papers, thinking about which word I would use in Wordle, when I came upon the full page ad you can see in the intro to this issue. (I know....I am not a graphic designer so you get my photo of the ad with this stock photo. Hey, I'm a writer.)

Let's unpack this.

I'm not going to get into why Fox News chose to do this (public relations) or whether it is, as some have suggested, jury tampering (legal), I want to look at the "data." One of the things I try to do is teach people how to recognize misinformation. Then I try to teach people how to communicate about it. Let me walk you through my thought process as I saw this ad.

  1. An ad for Fox News in The New York Times. Interesting choice. Readers of the Times would be those who would need to be 'convinced' that Fox News is trustworthy. Numerous data sources including those referenced below bear that out. (I said I wouldn't discuss the PR around that choice here. Later, perhaps. So, onward....)

  2. TV Networks Most Trusted for News. My first thought here takes me back to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Media aren't necessarily trusted to begin with and that trust is eroding. We can argue as to why that is but that's a separate newsletter issue. Hell, that's probably a tome.

  3. Source: (I didn't even look at the numbers in the ad necessarily because I wanted to know the source of the info. Source and authority are key.) YouGov Profiles. I have to admit, I had never heard of YouGov so that gave me pause. Its mission statement from its website: Our mission is to supply a continuous stream of accurate data and insight into what the world thinks, so that companies, governments and institutions can make informed decisions. I did some digging on the website and across the web and it seemed legit to me given some of the clients, surveys, and articles written in reputable outlets based on its data.

  4. The brand perception questions noted in the ad: 1. Which of the following do you watch to keep up with the news? (check all) 2. Now that you've listed which TV news networks you watch, which do you most trust for news? (check all). I tried to find this particular survey on the YouGov site and I couldn't get to those two specific questions. Here is the problem I have with reporting the results this way......I could check that I watch Fox News or CBS or CNN. When asked which I trust, I could fairly safely assume that I trust the outlet I selected. I was unable to find the number of people surveyed or other information related to these specific questions.

What did I find on the website? Well, I did find an Economist/YouGov Trust in Media poll from 2022 in which 1,500 adults were surveyed online. I have written about the date of publication and its importance. We might argue that 2022 is not that long ago, but perhaps it is in the news cycle. What were the findings?

  • About 30% of those who responded said Fox News was trustworthy.

  • About 37% of those who responded said ABC News, CNN, CBS, and NBC were trustworthy.

  • About 27% of those who responded said MSNBC was trustworthy.

  • The most trusted broadcast outlets were PBS, BBC and The Weather Channel.

Please note how I phrased the responses. The question was How trustworthy do you rate the news reported by the following broadcast media organizations. The responses were on a five-point Likert scale with a 'Don't Know' option. The results as I present them above add both 'Very Trustworthy' and 'Trustworthy' together to get the percentages I reference. It is unclear if that is what the Fox News ad is doing. The first three bullets represent those broadcast media organizations listed in the Fox News ad. PBS, BBC and The Weather Channel weren't compared because they fared better. That wouldn't make for a compelling ad.

I also found an article referencing the same Economist/YouGov poll but with more detailed information. When I was looking at the first poll I referenced I was unable to drill down to get to how varying demographic audiences feel about each broadcast media organization. For example, it is common knowledge and is backed by facts, that CNN skews liberal and Fox News skews conservative (this poll as well as others note that). It would be expected that those who identify as Republicans would consider Fox News trustworthy and those who identify as Democrats would consider CNN trustworthy (and presumably the other outlet less trustworthy). This article digs into those data. Some key findings:

  • The Weather Channel, BBC and PBS are the most trusted broadcast media organizations overall.

  • Democrats most trust PBS, CNN, CBS, NBC the most. They distrust Fox News and Newsmax.

  • Republicans most trust Fox News, The Weather Channel and Newsmax. They distrust nearly all the other organizations.

Again, please note that I was not able to find the 2023 survey information. The above is based on 2022 information. Is it likely to be much different? Could be, but I did find some survey information that noted that not much had changed in trust in broadcast media organizations between 2020 and 2022.

Why do I feel confident with my statements above? I checked the source. I tried to find the survey and absent the specific survey referenced, I found what I believe to be a comparable survey. I checked the methodology. I compared what should be compared to make a statement as noted in the ad "Trusted Now More Than Ever."

My conclusions. If you cherry pick your findings, you can make anything go your way. Is Fox News trusted? Yes. Is it more trusted than the outlets referenced? Yes.

If........you drill into the data. Among Republicans, FoxNews is more trusted than ABC, CNN, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC. That isn't a surprise. I am bothered that the entire story isn't told. What about PBS, BBC and The Weather Channel? They come out on top of all broadcast media organizations.

When you see something that you think might be suspect, investigate. There are many resources out there that are excellent and reputable. One of my favorites - Pew Research - has data from 2021 (again, the date) that notes that, generally speaking Democrats trust broadcast media more than Republicans. This is backed up by the Economist/YouGov data. What Pew Research also notes is that both parties trust local news organizations while many get news from social media. What is not clear is where/what on social media they use. Anecdotally, I hear people say they get news from social media but it's the news outlets on social media. Okay, that works for me. I would be bothered if it was Drunk Uncle Charlie living on Spam in his basement who gave you the news (unless he cited a reputable news outlet).

Takeaways:

  • Ask questions.

  • Evaluate the source (get as much info as you can).

  • Check the date of publication.

  • Think strategically - what other info is missing? What other questions do I have?

  • Check more than one source.

  • Care before you share.

I want to be clear about something. I am not suggesting that Fox News is the only outlet or organization that skews data in its favor. Far from it. As I said, I'm a hit at a party because I love to find these examples. As I do, I will unpack them here.

I would also like to add that I didn't even get into the discussion that could come next week.....just because I or someone trusts something doesn't mean we always should. Due diligence in vetting resources is necessary as I noted above.

On a personal note, I am working on a book about Infodemics that will very much mirror the style of this newsletter. I plan to unpack misinformation much as I am doing here. I also plan to offer tips and tricks to combat the misinformation and help to resolve conflict around it. I value feedback! What do you want to make sure I cover in the book?


I enjoy finding organizations and others using data inappropriately. Here I unpack what went wrong with this ad and how you can do the same. Caveat: I am not suggesting that this organization is the only company/organization doing this - far from it - but it is a timely example. Expect to see others in the future.

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