Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Old Two-Step Flow

Sounds like a dance, the old two-step flow. You put your left foot in, you take your left foot out ... and so on and so on. But I was thinking the other day about the shrinking news audience, especially a more partisan news audience, and I came to wonder whether the old two-step flow and opinion leaders, concepts from the early days of mass comm research, haven't become even more important.

Briefly, the concepts have to do with interpersonal communication, of opinion leaders passing information down to others. The media inform some, who in turn inform others. Water cooler chatter. Back fence talk. Elevator conversation material. All that stuff. With a mass audience this seems less important, but now with a highly fragmented audience with relatively few opting for news versus entertainment, it seems to me we'll see more reliance on what people about the news since many don't (or won't) consume it.

You know the routine, those people who say "I heard it on TV" or "I read it online somewhere" and then repeate a badly remembered factoid, which may or may not be true, but it becomes true to them because not only do they vaguely remember it, but they have repeated it to someone else. And then those people, who don't consume news themselves, are unlikely to have that factoid challenged because they don't attend to the news. They accept it, maybe pass it on to others.

Scary world.

Any solution? Not much of one, I'm afraid. A lot of people have fled the news for entertainment, for quality programming like Dancing with the Stars. What they "hear" from others will inform their opinions, their votes.

Yup. Scary world.


John Arkwright said...

I have a couple of comments.

1. How far back in time would one have to go to find the same percentage of the public that was as informed as we now are? I doubt we are back to 1900. Are we?

If so, were those election outcomes disastrous, compared to the other possibilities? Would William Jennings Bryan have been better than William McKinley?

2. When I read slanted coverage, even from outlets like the AP or watch the networks, I am not sure that most who consume news today are well informed.

As an example, a friend who teaches management had students report on some business stories that got major headlines from the past decade.

After consuming 5 articles, students could not discern what Martha Stewart really did wrong or what the Enron scandal was about.

They knew that Martha was doggoned guilty of something or other and that those Enron guys sure cheated people out of a lot of money. But the articles were not clearly worded and sacrificed factual content for emotional rhetoric, so that students could discern the writer's attitudes about the issues, but could not get to the core facts.

I could imagine half-informed students like these being easier to manipulate with half-truths than uninformed students would be.

If Senator Demogogue proposes that wind and solar power are our best tickets out of the expensive oil mess, those who are vaguely informed are likely to jump on the bandwagon. The stories I see about wind and solar are not very skeptical about their current viability.

It takes someone who is highly informed to know that it takes a subsidy about 100 times as high as that of natural gas to get companies to generate power with wind turbines or solar cells--so that wind and solar will not be viable for decades without some amazing and unpredictable breakthroughs.

That is why I am not sure whether I'd prefer to have students who are steeped in the typical low quality reporting that I see in the popular press or whether I'd prefer to have students who are generally uninformed.

I would prefer they have Wall Street Journal quality information (about business, which I teach) but that is a lot harder and more expensive for them to obtain than the network tripe.

Hollander said...

It's a funny question, is the public as informed as it was earlier. A couple of books looked at this and found no real change in knowledge. My own hunch is we've seen a decrease in the last ten years, probably because the news audience is shrinking.

Of course, go far enough back and the "electorate" was white, land-owning men. Probably fairly well informed if you compare it to the electorate today.

Heck, even I can't understand most of the WSJ. Love their writing, though. Even moderately informed people have only a passing knowledge of a lot of subjects. I know a lot more about science than I do business, for example, but my science knowledge is meager when compared to many others.

News stories are not written to educate, they're written to inform people who already have a clue. My 15-year-old says he reads a newspaper story and doesn't understand it, in part because he can't put the stories in context. He's damned bright, an honor's student, but he simply doesn't have the experience on which to build from an inverted pyramid news story. And that's a shame.