Thursday, March 12, 2009

Summing Up IV

This the fourth in (maybe) five installments this week to sum up what we know about the relationship between media use and political knowledge. Monday it was TV news, Tuesday entertainment faux news programs, Wednesday I discussed radio.

Today -- newspapers.

You know, those smushed-tree and ink things they quaintly toss on driveways in your neighborhood. That old guy down the street, he gets one. Hobbles out every morning in his robe, stoops down and groans while farting, hobbles back to his kitchen table to suck down coffee and figure out what the hell happened in the world yesterday.

That's a newspaper -- yesterday's news tomorrow.

I love papers. I worked at three daily newspapers in my unstellar journalism career. Covered cops and courts and politics and government and schools and a bunch of other stuff. Took pix. Wrote features. Even did some obits. Had a helluva time, but that's all beside the point here, which is how do newspapers fit in with political knowledge.

If you read previous studies you find this nice, modest, statistically significant relationship between reading the newspaper and what people know. In part this can be explained by the demographics of newspaper readers: older, more interested, more educated. In part this can be explained by the way we approach print as an active process versus how we approach the screen, a more passive process. In part it's the depth of information on a newspaper's front page and inside pages, far more than you get from TV. The old saying was that you'd find as much info on the front page of a newspaper than in 20 minutes of TV, and that's kinda true and kinda false, but it's also beyond our discussion here.

BUT ... and this is a major but, the way newspaper journalists tend to write stories, via the inverted pyramid, makes it difficult for young or uninterested readers to figure out what the hell is going on. A summary lede is fine and I love it dearly, but it sucks for some readers who do not have the context or background knowledge to understand what it's talking about.

Now here I'm talking the paper version, not the online version, but there's a cool study that compared the same exact NYT story in print and on a screen. They measured knowledge from reading the same exact story. And found ... (drum roll please) ... that people learned more from the print version. Holy dominance of print, Batman! Why? I believe again that it has everything to do with the way we approach a printed product versus one on the screen (or boob tube). There is some work to support this.

Anyway, put newspaper exposure into a multivariate model, control for all the other usual suspects in predicting political knowledge, and you'll often find newspaper reading still holds some significance. Small, modest, but often statistically significant at that magical p<.05.

But as newspaper reading drops, and online grazing replaces it, we'll see these relationships disappear in future studies.

Why? Because people will say they read newspapers online, but that exposure will reflect grazing that we all tend to do online versus a deeper, longer soak we tend to do on paper, and also will reflect the seriousness we read a paper product versus a screen product. In the long run, the relationship between "reading news" and political knowledge will -- in my humble estimation -- disappear.

Watch for it.

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