Where You Get Your News Matters
Illinois first-year teacher Rhett Felix was suspended with pay in November for showing clips from a couple of episodes of the Daily Show to his government and law class. He showed a third episode, “How a Bill Doesn’t Become a Law” in its entirety. Some parents were predictably outraged, feeling perhaps that we shouldn’t make fun of the democratic process typified by our Congress. Others felt that equating Congress with inaction was redundant. Still others objected to the language and sexual context of the snippets, one dealing with sexual misconduct charges against Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and another depicting an unusually jocular Rick Perry at the podium. Still, some students and their parents defended Felix, noting that he made kids think and that a few of them (students and parents) watch Jon Stewart on their own time anyway.
But in an ironic educational coincidence, shortly after Felix was suspended, Farleigh Dickenson University released the latest results from its PulbicMind Poll. According to the data, where people get their news determines how much accurate information people have in their heads about current events. For example, according to the poll results, people who watch Fox News are less likely to know about current events than those who watch no news at all. And the best informed, according to the survey were those who watched or listened to Sunday morning talk shows, NPR, and … Jon Stewart!
The Farleigh Dickinson University poll surveyed 612 New Jerseyans by telephone (both cell and landline) and in general the results have to be somewhat dispiriting to all news sources given the time and money spent on providing coverage. For example, one of the questions revealed that only 53% of respondents knew that Egyptians were successful in overthrowing their government while 21% said they were unsuccessful. About a quarter of respondents had no idea what happened in Egypt. Still, the results show, according to Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at FD, that after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors, “viewers pick up more information from a calm discussion than from other formats.”
Regarding the Daily show, Cassino says, “Jon Stewart has not spent a lot of time [on some issues.] But the results show that when he does talk about something, his viewers pick up a lot more information than they would from other news sources.”
So it turns out that the rookie enthusiasm and inexperience that led Felix to believe that students would relate to the Daily Show and learn something were not misplaced. He just misjudged his local political environment. Given the results of the FD survey, however, Felix should be glad he didn’t pick Fox News snippets for his students to watch, especially if there’s a test at the end that might determine whether he keeps his job at all.