Monday, March 9, 2009

Summing Up

After years of marinating in the topic, this week I sum up what we know about the relationships between media use and political knowledge. Sometimes I'll even talk about one without the other, but mostly how the two fit.

Topic Today: TV News.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first. TV news kinda sucks. You see it all the time -- propping up two partisan hacks against one another and think this somehow magically informs viewers. And local tv news is laughable. That's all easy and out of the way so now we can move on to how watching TV news is related to what people know.

For years the answer was simple: TV news does little or nothing how people learn about politics and public affairs.

Hell, we'd even find negative relationships. In other words, the more you watch TV, the less you knew. For those of us who study cognition, we called it cog-sucking. TV sucks out your brains.

And now we know better.

For the least educated, the least interested, TV news actually aids in learning. TV news makes public affairs accessible. It tells stories in ways people understand, often with narrative hooks or focus on a single person to get us into the story. For those who don't know much, or don't care much, TV news can make a big difference in what they know about the world.

What else do we know so far? TV news is fragmenting. Spin around the dial to the cable guys and watch for a while. MSNBC to the kooky left, Fox to the kooky right, and CNN just kooky. Forget about local tv news. Delusions of adequacy is going too far and no serious person takes local tv news, well, seriously (there are exceptions, but not gonna get into them here).

How people learn from TV is an interesting question, given the flashing video and lights and pretty people and smarmy chatter and talking heads and music and all the rest. People glean bits and pieces from the news through, often, inadvertent exposure. The highly informed, they can get a lot out of breaking news, the less informed get a bit here and there. Given the ceiling effect for the highly informed they can't improve much, but for the least interested, it makes a big difference. For that reason alone, TV news plays a vital role in a democracy. Think of TV as necessary but far from sufficient for a democracy to succeed.

Tomorrow, either more on TV or perhaps a different medium.

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