Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Inflated News Audience

Interesting article in the just-off-the-press Public Opinion Quarterly by Markus Prior in which he finds significant overreporting of news exposure by the public. Yes, there's a duh moment here since we know people overestimate how often they vote, how often they attend religious services, and how good their gas mileage is (correlates with gas prices, the higher the gas prices, the better they lie about their mileage). They always overestimate their viewing of "highbrow" content too, like PBS, as compared to actual viewing of stuff like reruns of Gilligan's Island or Sponge Bob.

So the notion that people overestimate their news exposure, no real surprise. The degree of that overestimation, that's a surprise -- at least to me. Prior reports a range of a factor of three to a factor of eight, depending on demographics, on overreporting of news exposure. He also fusses about some survey wording that mass comm types have been bitching about for decades, especially those of us with a history in the actual news business, but that's beside the point here.

Who overreports the most? Young people. By far -- if you buy into his comparison of Nielsen people meters and data from the National Annenberg Election Survey. There's a bit of apples and oranges here, but not enough to challenge his basic finding that people overestimate their consumption of news on television. Families with kids and households with higher incomes, they also overestimate as compared to all viewers.

If you buy into this analysis it raises an interesting methodological question: should we correct statistically for estimates of news exposure? Should be reduce to some degree the news exposure estimates of younger versus older respondents? Prior suggests scholars "would do well to assess media effects with research designs that do not rely on self-reported exposure at all." Damned unlikely, especially if you rely on secondary analysis of archival data, and I'm not sure exactly how to get at this unless we preface our media exposure items in much the same way we do political knowledge questions in which we tell respondents it's okay, really it's okay, if you don't know this (or watch or read the news). Someone needs to test that approach and see if it really does deflate the overinflated numbers.

Study Specs
Markus Prior, "The immensely inflated news audience: Assessing bias in self-reported news exposure," Public Opinion Quarterly 73 (Spring 2009), 130-143.

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