Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking News Audience

A bunch of reports out this week point out circulation declines at major U.S. newspapers. This is where, quite frankly, the bulk of "news" is created, despite what people think TV and cable news and all the rest, which repackage and rerun the same stories over and over (shark attack, Obama and Wright, shark attack, rinse and repeat...).

A column points out, through deft use of links to other studies, how bad it really is. Online audience grows, but the numbers are small compared to the print decrease. The math is simple: a smaller audience.

What people know will boil down to the bits and pieces they catch from CNN, from Fox, from broadcast networks. Most of that is inadvertent exposure to hyped, repeated, partisan-flavored coverage. For the six people who watch PBS, you get some serious content. No one else, at least not on the boob tube. And research shows again and again that watching TV news does little to increase political knowledge. Some studies suggest it actually decreases knowledge.

We learn from print, whether off of dead trees or pixels. But the audience continues to shrink. Think of the Wicked Witch in Oz. "I'm melting, I'm melting." That's the news audience you hear, or maybe just the anguished sobs from people who run news organizations.

And as it shrinks, it becomes more partisan. Hence the emergence of Fox, the changes at CNN, the recent success of MSNBC. What will people know? Very damn little, except that they hate the other guys, as they watch their favorite hosts set up and knock down straw men that represent the other side of the partisan divide.

Do people even care about local news? Stuff in their own neighborhood, their own town? I'm in the middle of analysis of eight years of data to answer just that very question, because that's the only niche newspapers still own.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

White Americans and the Black Church

In studying what people know, here's one that's scratched its way to the top of the news pile: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and how an attack on him is an attack on the black church. Here's one example of the sound bites that stirred up so much controversy.

I'm going to set aside the politics and talk instead about what white Americans know about the black church.

The answer? Not a helluva lot, I suspect. But, from what I've read and watched, I think most churchgoing white Americans know more about the black church than perhaps Wright does.


A number of black leaders and thinkers have said Wright misrepresents what the black church is, what it means, and especially they argue pastors do not stand in the pulpit spewing crackpot conspiracy theories about HIV or damning America. Wright's damage from his original comments sprayed across YouTube and cable news channels is made worse by his recent roadshow. Not politically. That's the problem of Obama and his handlers. I believe Wright has done significant damage to white America's impression of the traditional black church.

I wish I had survey data to back this up. There are some exit poll numbers from Pennsylvania that bring out some interesting issues about race, but none directly address impressions of "the black church." I hate that phrase, by the way, but Wright used it, so it's out there.

Clinton does better in a matchup against McCain than does Obama, among whites. This signals some movement, no doubt due to Wright.

But let's get away from the politics and back to what people know about the black church. No one has directly asked this ... yet. I hope to find it soon, because there has always been an unfortunately wary relationship between some predominately white churches and black churches. Wright's comments, being played over and over, will certainly among certain political conservatives lead to a very different view of "the black church" than perhaps they had a month ago. That view may have never been particularly negative, more warily neutral, but now I suspect what people know about the black church has changed, and not for the better. And that's too bad.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Women, Knowledge, and Blogging

Women generally perform less well than men on tests of current events or political knowledge.

Methodology Alert

(Why? In part men are more likely to guess compared to women who say they "don't know." Both are coded the same way, with a "0" if wrong or don't know, a "1" if correct. If guys guess, there's a 50-50 shot they'll get lucky, thus increasing their scores. Some of it is the way girls and boys are raised, a socio-cultural explanation. Some of it has to do with a political culture skewed heavily toward men in gray suits, which improves male scores. Find a state with a woman senator and women tend to do better. Ask political questions that involve women in roles of authority, women do better. And so on.)

End Methodology Alert

So I was reading this excellent piece on female bloggers by Sheila Gibbons published in The Villager. It strikes me that as girls and women blog more, with shifting media diets toward online, we should see improvements in the political knowledge scores of females. Women will write about topics that matter to them, other women will read them, and hopefully the gender knowledge gap will disappear.

That of course presumes we ask the right sorts of questions that do not increase the gender gap, sometimes artifically. I'm not a PC guy. If the president and chief justice are men and knowledge tests include those legitimate questions about policy or office holding, women have no excuse in getting them wrong as compared to men. But I do believe the online world will flatten some of the traditional differences we've often found in the data. At least I hope so.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Colbert and Stewart, scholars

What if Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart sat down over a few adult beverages and wrote a current events/political knowledge quiz?

What would it look like?

I suspect it would not look a lot like the infamous Pew surveys on knowledge (which are quite good, btw). I know they would not look like the NES knowledge questions, which have some coding issues I discussed in an earlier post.

Then again, maybe the list would look a lot like the Pew questions, with a focus on the nearly forgotten war in Iraq. What people know about Iraq has gone down of late, no doubt thanks to other concerns and coverage that focuses on presidential primaries and a crappy economy.

So I'm gonna let this idea sit for a day and try to come up with the kind of questions Colbert and Stewart might craft to measure knowledge about public affairs. Too bad I'm not as funny as either of them, and even worse -- I don't have a team of writers to help me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Youth, Knowledge, and Turnout

Voter turnout among young people has increased dramatically this campaign season, no doubt in part to Obama's candidacy and his theme of change. He appeal skews younger, more upper class, than does Clinton. That'll be the stuff of future political science journal articles, but here I'm more interested in the relationship between turnout and knowledge.

Younger people tend to score less well on tests of public affairs knowledge. The Pew Center documents this fully. Scroll down and you'll see only 15% of those ages 18-29 are categorized as "high" in knowledge. Ages 50-64 do a helluva lot better, scoring at 47%.

A doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill says: so what?

In a column published April 18 in the News & Observer, Justin Martin argues that the kind of knowledge tapped in these questions. Rather, he says "Young Americans are actually quite informed about issues that matter to them."

The Pew questions focus on who is president of Russia and whether Chief Justice John Roberts is conservative and a host of other points. As Martin argues:

Knowing who is the president of Russia or which party controls the House isn't a prerequisite of political participation. Many young people aren't interested in Russia, or in the bipolar nature of our two-party system.


Do not despair. Waves of youthful ignorance aren't going to wash down the democratic lighthouse. Quite the opposite. As young people choose what issues are important to them in the information age, we're seeing democracy become more precise, for citizens can easily acquire knowledge of issues they care about and specify the reasons they want to be part of democracy.

I kinda agree and sympathize with is position. He quotes Doris Graber, who along with V.O. Key are political scientists who argue that the people are not the dolts some make them out to be. But you'd hope that young people could at least do better than older respondents on at least some of the questions that do not involve American Idol, like how many troops are in Iraq, how many have died, or what's the difference between Sunni and Shia. This is not textbook civics, this is real world stuff. And it matters.

Back to my opening, about youth turnout. Most of that is powered by 18-29 year olds with a college degree or in college. Indeed, 79% of Super Tuesday young people attended or are attending college. No doubt the Obama effect again, but also hopes that a younger electorate might also be a better informed electorate.

We can only hope.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Geography and Politics

Over one-third of young Americans (ages 18-24) can't find Iraq on a map, despite so many Americans -- and others -- dying there. Nine out of ten can't find Afghanistan. One in five put Sudan in the wrong continent. Okay, Sudan is kinda obscure, but half can't locate New York on a map. New York?

The study by National Geographic is disheartening, to be sure, and you can test your own knowledge with 20 questions (I got 18 right).

Why does this matter?

How can you understand the news if you do not have basic knowledge? Otherwise, stories zoom right over your head. Some scholars call this political expertise, or sophistication, or prior knowledge. Even watching Colbert or Stewart requires an understanding of politics, geography, civics, and current events ... otherwise you're gonna miss a lot of the jokes.

It makes sense that National Geographic would sponsor a survey like this, and then supporters will call for more attention to geography in schools, more money, more this and more that. Fill in the blank. Scientific knowledge among the same age group sucks. So does civics knowledge. Or writing ability. Each group has supporters who will then point at schools and government and shout: "Fix it!"

And why the hell not?

It's all the marketplace of ideas. Point out a problem, note how it can affect important consquences (like voting, like participation, like understanding what the heck is happening). I sympathize. Really. But at some point these competing surveys that demonstrate a lack of knowledge in a given field end up cancelling each other out. I'm not sure any of them get all that much attention beyond a story or two, maybe a grumble in a column or blog.

A lot of young poeple say one reason they don't follow the news is they don't understand it. Basic civics gets underplayed in the No Child Left Untested world. Without basic knowledge, it's hard to imagine young people improving what they know. That leaves them open to other, more emotional appeals -- how a candidate makes them feel.

Before I end this, a final word from PhDweeb methodological land: knowledge is often a dependent variable, something we try to explain, as in does exposure to the news media or The Daily Show increase knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is an indepdent variable, as in those with prior knowledge glean useful info from the news, while those with less info do not. Knowledge, then, is also a useful independent variable.

Indeed, sometimes it can be both.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Debates and What People Know

ABC is getting pounded for its handling of the latest Clinton-Obama debate. Tom Shales called it "another step downward for network news" The hosts "dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with."


Deserved, but ouch!

Okay, fine, but do people learn from debates?

The research on party nomination debates is thin, so I'm going to turn to the larger body of work done on presidential debates between the major candidates. In that work, the result is fairly straightforward. People do learn.

A meta-analysis sums up previous studies and tests them as a whole; that stats involved are a bit gruesome, so let's skip 'em. Benoit, Hansen, and Verser, freshly published this month in Communication Monographs, found that indeed debates do increase issue learning. Debates do not affect viewer's perceptions of the competency of a candidate, but they do influence how they view a candidate's personality and a host of other stuff, such as how important certain issues are (the ones discussed in a debate, obviously). It's a damn good study, worth reading if you're interested in debate effects.

I'm fascinated by the lack of an effect for competency. You'd think at least one of the candidates would come off competent. Journalists and talking heads in post-debate analyses go on and on about a candidate seeming "presidential." The research suggests this is more talk than reality. There's a surprise, that the chattering class have less influence than they might imagine, or that they get it wrong.

So what might people learn from ABC's debate? That Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos "turned in shoddy, despicable peformances," as Shales put it? I doubt that's going to surprise anyone who watches TV as it attempts journalism. But it sure as hell may increase the negative opinions about news in general, and that's never good. No, I think people learned that ABC wanted to get Obama and Clinton in a cat fight, and the candidates only barely obliged.

So maybe we learned something after all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are You Better Off?

We love asking people: "How ya doin?"

Of course in the survey world, we're a bit more formal.  NBC/Wall Street Journal asks: "Would you say that you and your family are better off or worse off than you were four years ago?"

When we talk about what people know, we're usually talking political knowledge.  Here we're asking something more down to earth, something they really ought to know.  As an aside, the poll mentioned above shows people are feeling just a wee bit pessimistic, with 34% feeling "better off."  That's down from a high of 63% in 2000.  In September 1992 it was 37%.  Economic times were tough then too, as the first President Bush can testify too.

Okay, but how well do people really answer this question?  I'm gonna nitpick.
  • Does the media influence how we answer this by focusing on certain stories, such as "it's the economy, stupid!"
  • Do presidential candidates, talking about this, increase the odds of us saying we're not doing better?
  • Is the simple asking of the question increasing the chance of us thinking, ya know, maybe I'm not doing so well?
  • Is a forced choice, two answer question the best way to do this?  Do we need to get at this in a more varied format, with breakdowns for economics and other aspects of people's lives.  After all, what if my kid is doing great in school but used to struggle?  How do I answer this question?
I think the question more or less gets at what we want to get at, meaning it's a pretty valid measure, but part of me (that PhDweeb part) wonders if indeed a multivariate approach to the question might turn up some interesting results.  And, perhaps, explain the lower numbers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


In states that had already had a primary or caucus, 44% of respondents to a survey said they had received a robo-call from a candidate.

Robo-Candidate. Sounds like a bad movie.

And people listen to these things, at least some of them do. In Iowa, of those who received such calls, over one-third said they listened to the message. Only 19% of New Hampshire respondents said they listened. Granite ears.

As people flee news for entertainment, as the circulation of newspapers and television news dwindles, there are only a couple of ways to reach those trying to tune out of the political process. One is political advertising. Robo-calls are another. It'd be interesting to know if people learn from such calls and, if so, what they learn?

Other than to change their number.

A lot of states are looking to ban robo-calls, including my own Georgia. I'm not sure that'll happen, or even if it's a good idea, but I'm like everyone else in finding the things an annoyance. My congressman won't leave me alone, even after being elected. I got robo-called the other day with earth-shattering useless info as he sucks up long before it's time to run again.

Maybe we need a robo-callback, complete with foghorn.

But on what people know, I suspect these calls provide very little in terms of knowledge. People are awfully distracted when they pick up the phone, and a robo-call probably puts them into a mode of even less attention. There may even be a backlash effect (worth studying!!). But as these increase, I hope someone takes them on from a research perspective.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Obama is Elitist ... and Other Stuff

What people know about political candidates is largely, if not completely, the product of the media they consume, filtered of course by their own biases and predispositions. After all, who among us gets to spend quality time with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John McCain? Only people who live in New Hampshire in an election year.

In the last couple of days, after Obama's "bitter-guns-religion" remark about people in small towns, he's being labeled elitist. That's the news frame of the day and if it sticks, it'll do some damage. Democrats are often open to this frame, this attack, so it's interesting to see Clinton latch onto it as some way, any way, to get traction. Given the huge socio-demographic gap between their candidacies (Clinton appeals more to working class, Obama to upper class), this label just might be one he finds again and again to be a problem. Whether it's true or not doesn't matter. It's whether it "feels" true.

What people know, and I use "know" here in a larger sense than mere knowledge, is a gut feeling. A strong Democrat just "knows" Bush is a disaster. A strong Republican just "knows" the Clintons are evil. Sometimes we can elaborate these feelings, sometimes we cannot. And when there is an echo effect, when it rings true in some way, that can be damaging. Remember Dukakis bobble-heading in that tank? Kerry in the goofy hunting outfit? Bush mangling the Queen's English? All help us to "know" the person, even if we've never met them.

So knowing is more than a mere ability to correctly identify a candidate's policy stance. It's also knowing them as a person, even if we've never met them.

Framing matters.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Recognition and Hyperlinks

Neat little study in the latest Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media shows that more headline/photo hyperlinks leads to greater processing and recognition of information in a news story.

There are some differences in this set of experiments.

First, they use heartbeat and other psychophysiological measures, which is cool. Nothing beats strapping a few undergraduates into a chair and measuring their response to media content. I prefer electric shocks, but that's just me. The "increased allocation of cognitive resources" from a larger display of hyperlinks, the authors say, leads to greater recognition.

Makes sense. I do wish the authors (Wise, Bolls, and Schaefer out of the j-school at Missouri) had reported exactly what questions they used to measure recall and what the Cronbach's alpha was for their 4-item index. I'm getting PhDweebish, and maybe it's in the study and I missed it, but the alpha tells us how well the four questions hung together, their internal consistency. And recognition is different than recall, both methodologically and theoretically. Not much on this.

There's some other cool stuff here, such as the literature on why we attend more to negative versus positive images, and some use of previously rated and coded images as part of the experiment. It is important to note the power of "unpleasant" images to increase attention and, we assume, recognition. That's key here, and something journalists need to pay attention to themselves.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Selective Attention

New study in the latest issue of Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media supports the idea of selective attention to online news.

In other words, we pay attention to stuff that agrees with our own viewpoints.

What people know often is a product of what we watch and read, but even more so it is the product of our own predisposions, our own filters, our own take on the info we consume. And then, even when exposed to info we don't like, we mess with it in our heads and twist it into something we should have heard or read. That way, it fits.

Back to the study. Graf and Aday run a series of experiments to show people spend more time reading stories consistent with their own points of view than those counter to them. Selective attention. We already know people selectively expose themselves to stuff they agree with, now we know that the echo chamber is even louder -- they attend to that with which they agree.

The result? Not in this study, but in general we know that leads to more extreme viewpoints.

This all fits the idea of a fragmenting news environment. It's easier now to spend more time with news sources that agree with our particular partisan or ideological viewpoints. While it is hard to argue with having more sources of information, the consequences are less positive.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Invisible Man

Poor John McCain. A guy I really like, who is the presumptive nominee for his party, and he gets no love. Or, rather, attention.

Asked who they had heard about in the news, respondents said:
  1. Barack Obama, up in March from 38% to 70%
  2. Hillary Clinton, down in March from 37% to 15%
  3. John McCain, down in March from 6% to 3%
  4. Other, down from 4% to 1%
  5. Don't know, also down from 15% to 11%

Of course this raises the question of whether any publicity is good publicity. Obama's all over the news during this period thanks to video of an inflammatory sermon by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Is there an effect? Says the Pew survey:

Most voters aware of the sermons say they were personally offended by Wright's comments, and a sizable minority (35%) says that their opinion of Obama has grown less favorable because of Wright's statements.

So we have an effect not only on what people know, but how a candidate is framed. That's important stuff. But for Obama fans, at least he's being talked about (and, apparently, has weathered this particular storm).

For our friend John McCain, almost no one is even talking about him. It'll be interesting to see analyses on the image people have of McCain now versus later in Fall, when the ads on both sides attempt to define the candidates.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

CNN vs Fox

As you may know, CNN has surprised Fox News in a key demographic and is doing quite well in ratings this political season. Is CNN making a comeback?


Here's my reasoning. Democrats tend to watch CNN, Republicans tend to watch Fox. The GOP race is done, the Dem race is a rat's nest of intrigue, superdelegate counts, and a death match until the bitter end. That makes for better TV.

Thus Dem viewers tune in to their fav network in higher numbers than GOP viewers. Thus CNN wins.

So, am I just making this stuff up? When time allows I'll extract the proper data and run some analyses to see if my hypothesis holds up. I hope so, because I hate it when data get in the way of a good theory. But I'm fairly certain this explains the reason why CNN is doing so well of late.

We'll see, but I'm disappointed no biz news stories about CNN versus Fox News have raised this possible explanatory factor. Damn journalists...