Sharp as a Fox: Are Visitors Less Politically Knowledgeable?

AuthorPeter R. Licari
Date01 November 2020
Published date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 792 –806
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20915222
In 2012, researchers at Farleigh Dickinson University shocked
the political world with a startling claim about watching the
Fox News Network and political knowledge. Not only did
viewers of America’s most mainstream conservative cable
news network know less about politics than those watching
other news channels, they purportedly knew less than people
who did not watch the news at all (Cassino et al., 2012). It
reinforced a smaller study fielded by the same researchers in
2011 finding that Fox News viewers in New Jersey were less
likely to know about the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt
than those New Jerseyans who avoided cable news (Cassino
& Woolley, 2011). These findings went viral and were later
reinforced in a paper by economic historian and former offi-
cial in the Bush and Reagan administrations, Bruce Bartlett.
Bartlett (2015) analyzed prior public opinion polling to claim
“a number of surveys have found Fox views [sic] to be less
well informed and more likely to have factually untrue beliefs
than those who receive their news from mainstream sources”
(p. 12) further arguing that this contributes to conservatives’
“self-brainwashing” (p. 21). Consequently, among many
(especially liberal) discussants, the notion that Fox viewers
are politically ignorant has been increasingly seen as unim-
peachably true. It is commonly invoked during on and offline
political conversations, often in conjunction with claims that
the network is acting as a propagandistic arm of the Republican
But closer inspection shows that this ostensibly solid fact
is riddled with cracks. None of the aforementioned sources,
nor those reviewed by Bartlett (2015), controlled for factors
that could influence both political knowledge and cable news
consumption such as age, education, or income. In addition,
the questions that constituted “knowledge” largely tended to
focus around current statistics (unemployment), current
events (the Keystone XL pipeline), and beliefs in conspiracy
theories (President Obama being born in Kenya). Although
important, these do not represent all kinds of political knowl-
edge out there (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Hollander,
2014; Jennings, 1996; Jerit & Barabas, 2012; Lupia, 2016).
Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether these results are
limited to Fox’s cable programming or if it extends to their
online news as well. Considering that roughly a third of
Americans prefer to get their news from online sources—a
915222APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20915222American Politics ResearchLicari
1University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Peter R. Licari, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
Sharp as a Fox: Are
Visitors Less Politically Knowledgeable?
Peter R. Licari1
In 2012, a survey research was publicized suggesting that Fox News viewers were not only less informed than consumers
of other news media but also less informed than people abstaining from news media entirely. Many have taken this to
be unequivocally true and the study remains popular among political discussants to this day. However, virtually all of the
investigations used to advance the argument focus on current events type knowledge and neglect important controls that
could influence both political knowledge and Fox News consumption. Furthermore, no research to date has investigated
any effects stemming from consuming the network’s online content (i.e., from This article aims to contribute
these gaps. Using the 2016 American National Election Survey (ANES), I investigate whether consuming content from is associated with decreased political knowledge. I find no differences in knowledge concerning how the U.S.
political system works (what I call process-related knowledge) but do find a significant, negative relationship between visiting and facts about society writ large (what I call society-oriented knowledge). These effects persist even when
controlling for party, ideology, and conservative-group affinity and in the preponderance of matching procedures employed
to reduce concerns of self-selection. Implications and avenues of future research are also discussed.
political knowledge, political communication, Fox News, media effects

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