The Twitter-sphere went berserk yesterday over results to a phone survey released by Quinnipiac University, which found that Fox News was the most trusted national TV news network. As expected, fans of Fox News puffed out their chests with pride, while the more left-leaning crew characterized the results as essentially “terrifying.”

This is a prime case where data, taken out of context, can be hollow if not misleading – especially in a world of 140 character headlines. Let’s consider what these numbers really mean.

It’s no secret that Fox News is primarily viewed as a right-leaning news outlet – the only prominent one on television in fact. Right-leaning viewers coalesce around Fox News while left-leaning viewers have several options to choose from, with MSNBC commonly considered the most-“leftest”-leaning of the bunch. Given the distribution of non-right-leaning outlets, it should come as no surprise that Fox News received the highest vote total for “most trustworthy,” while the other outlets divvied up the remaining votes.

Imagine that someone ran a poll among the US population that asked “Who among this list of celebrities are you most physically attracted to?” Of six possible choices, one option was a man and the remaining five options were women. Guess who would win almost every time. All of the people who are attracted to men would have one choice. Everyone who is attracted to women would be split among the five. Is it accurate, then, to say that the male celebrity is more physically attractive than all of the women? No.

This phenomenon is clear in the Quinnipiac data. Notice for example, that if you added the 22% of people who pick CNN as the most trustworthy news source and the 10% who picked NBC, they would surpass the 29% who picked Fox. In fact, CNN plus any other network would tie or surpass Fox News.

Or look at it another way. When all of the hyperventilating started on Twitter yesterday, we loaded the question below into our engine, targeting a representative sample of US adults. Look what happened:


How is that for a different lens on the issue? Again though, these results should be taken with a grain of salt as well. We can presume that all of the left-leaning, Fox-haters coalesced around one answer, while the right-leaning Fox-lovers were spread out, throwing most of their angst at the “leftest”-leaning MSNBC. Perhaps we are over-generalizing without a deeper dive into the political affiliations of each respondent – but you get the idea.

There are far more rigorous ways to measure relative trustworthiness, perhaps by pitting each network against the others one-on-one and calculating a mean score. Maybe we will tackle that one of these days. But for now, we hope everyone will stop freaking out about yesterday’s poll.