Thursday, December 27, 2007

No Virtuous Circle?

The idea of a virtuous circle is that people who regularly watch, read, or seek out news typically have higher levels of trust and participation, even when you control for all those annoying demographic factors. It's a great idea.

In Finland, at least, it doesn't work that way. Or so says one study.

People who use traditional information channels and the Internet form an information-rich group of citizens. Fairly young, more often voting, and in some ways living the so-called virtuous circle. The authors find the Net limited in its capacity to enhance knowledge, but they do raise what I've always thought an interesting point, the idea of Internet Participation.

This is not the purpose of their study, but there is growing thought that young people see "participation" in a different way than their elders. In the traditional sense, participation is voting, it's attending a meeting or rally, it's wearing a campaign button or sticking one of those stupid bumperstickers on your car. Participation by doing. For younger people, chatting online or uploading stuff count as participation, even if virtual. They are not physically doing something (other than clicking and typing), but in their minds, they have participated.

Thus a disconnect between some of the questions we ask in research and the way young people understand participation. This is not unlike the tension between how we measure political knowledge and the way people think about political knowledge.

The authors finish with an interesting line:

According to the results in this article, virtula citizenry per se
is by no means less sophisticated politically than offline citizenry.

Interesting stuff, but I suppose no longer surprising given the diffusion of Internet accessibility.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Media and Nonresponse

I know that's a vague title above. Humor me.

There is a piece in the latest Public Opinion Quarterly that does a nifty job of demonstrating the effect of media coverage on nonresponse -- basically the tendency to say "don't know" or "unsure" in a survey. The more coverage by the news media, the less likely people are in a survey to say they don't know or cannot provide an answer.

The authors, Stroud and Kenski, place this in an agenda-setting framework. For those who missed mass comm grad school, agenda setting is the notion that the media do a lousy job of telling people what to think but a helluva job of telling people what to think about. Agenda setting is not a theory, more of a serious borrowing from priming and accessibility theories out of social psychology. So yeah, agenda setting suffers from a "so what" problem. This paper provides one of those "so whats" and it's a nice job of doing so.

What's the link to what people know?

Think of the present presidential campaign. Yes, I know, it hurts to do so, what with Clinton's campaign using kindergarten papers written by Obama to push polling against McCain, possibily by Huckabee's folks. It's a sad, tired, bunch of people running for office. Power attracts the corruptible, as someone once said.

What the media covers influences the likelihood to answer a policy question. That influences in a subtle way the findings on that policy question. This influences the candidates. This also colors coverage by journalists, who for the most part are baffled about polls in the first place. If hearing or reading about something in the news makes you more likely to provide an answer, this also affects political knowledge, the ability to correctly spit back to a pollster some response to a survey question.

Nonresponse can matter in polls. The influences are not huge, but they are enough to matter. And apparently the media can influence the likelihood to give an answer, or to pass.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Media Choice

I just finished a book called Post-Broadcast Democracy: How media choice .... etc etc by Markus Prior (with the required long academic title after a colon, but let's skip that for now). Good stuff, lots to think about. I'm going to sum up a little of his argument and I'll probably mine it for more material in another post.

Here's a quote from page 19.

I argue that news consumption, learning about politics,
and electoral volatility have changed not so much
because people are different today, but rather because
the media environment is different.

Okay, anyone who has followed media research for the past ten years is not going to see much new in this statement, though Prior does some nifty analysis. He continues:

People have not necessarily changed; they have
merely changed the channel. And they would have
done it sooner, had they been given the chance.

Again, people studying audience fragmentation would not be surprised, but Prior does an excellent job of setting up his argument -- that we are now in a high-choice environment, in part due to cable TV, in part the Internet. The result? People with strong ideological viewpoints are about the only ones consuming news, while those without these partisan ties have shifted to entertainment fare. Again, nothing new here. Hell, I've been saying this for years. Prior, though, does a much better job of showing this through careful (book length, at times tedious) analysis.

He plays a bit with audience numbers (CNN, Fox) compared to network news (ABC, et al). My friends in telecom would gasp at his use of some Nielsen numbers, but his point is well taken -- even for a political scientist stumbling upon this thing called media and grappling with it.

Let's boil it down. With so much media to choose from (cable TV), we can go elsewhere, meaning those who never really liked news all that much can now migrate to other content. The partisan fanatics stick to news. News promotes turnout, entertainment does not. The news media see shrinking markets, and appeal to a more partisan audience, thus the red state, blue state nonsense. There is a feeling of a divided nation when, instead, it is a divided, small, set of voters.
There's a hell of a lot of good stuff here, more than I can cover, but I can't pass up this line from page 25:

But one of the key elements of my analysis is
completely new. Media content preferences --
what types of media content people prefer --
have not been used in the study of politics.

I added the color for emphasis.

Uses and Grats, Media Effects work, a ton of sociology, political communication stuff, and a body of related work, all point to the same thing Prior is trying to say. And he significantly downplays the role of media credibility and cynicism, with seems to almost fit the data better than his cable television diffusion model.

And yet, the point is well taken, and the book is well worth the read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Unsure and Don't Know

In my neverending fascination with the presidential nomination process, the "Don't Know/Unsure" numbers always get my attention.

For the Dems, the "unsure" is down to 5 percent. For the GOP candidates, it is 11 percent.

Why the difference?

Both are consistent. The Republican voters have stuck to about 10 percent (plus or minus a couple of percentage points). The Democratic voters are steady as well, sticking in the single digits and never getting any higher than 8 percent.

Okay, fine. But why? Explain the numbers, oh journalism/quantoid guru...

Er, in another post I will do just that. As soon as I come up with a reasonable, working hypothesis ... or at least something that sounds good enough to get away with. I will note that in various runoff possibilities in the general election, the "unsure" gets down to a couple of percentage points. A working hypothesis? We've become so polarized, so partisan. There is volatility among candidate choices, but we are damn sure to at least say we have a favorite.

Tie it to what people know? Basically, thanks to tons of coverage, we think we know a lot about these people (even though only one-third of Americans in one poll could identify Barack Obama).