Thursday, June 25, 2009

Brief Hiatus

I am traveling for the next few days and probably will not feed the blog during that time, though I am taking my laptop so it's possible I might slip something in, if time allows. I know this deeply disappoints my ones of readers, but such is life in summertime.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran vs America -- Political Knowledge

Funny The Daily Show bit that compares what Iranians know about American politics versus what Americans know about Iranian politics. Thanks to Nick Browning for pointing it out to me.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil - Ayatollah You So
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Junk Drawer and Knowledge

I'm convinced every home has a junk drawer, and I always figured someone out there somewhere must study the contents of these drawers. In my mind I see an Indiana Jones bravely working layer by layer, sifting through paper clips and old receipts and broken pencils, recording the presence of stamps and scissors and that cheap broken camera no one will get around to actually throwing away.

Seriously, people do study this stuff.

And I also found today people who study clutter in the home as an analogy for home computing. Here's one example, the abstract at least.

Our brains work pretty much the same way. Oh the clutter -- the stuff you can never quite find when you need it (co-worker names, wedding anniversaries, etc.) and the stuff you can always find but never need (the names of all the members of Grand Funk Railroad, the phone number of an old girlfriend). We toss information in the drawer, be it social or political, and hope we can root it out when it's needed.

Is it any wonder, then, we tend to do a lousy job answering telephone surveys that ask such vital political knowledge questions such as, "who is Nancy Pelosi?"

For many folks, the answer is: "Who cares?"

So we cram these bits and pieces of info gleaned from the news or from casual conversations into our junk drawer of a brain. Some if it is organized, but we often don't understand how it's organized. Everyone knows how a smell will set off memories. Luckily we don't have scratch-and-sniff politicians, but that might help on these survey questions.

Now don't get me wrong. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I believe political knowledge is important, that is helps people organize their political world and that it makes them more likely to efficiently participate in the political process. And I've published a lot of research on political knowledge, and what I haven't published I've read by others much smarter than me. But the junk drawer analogy, at least today, works for me. Tomorrow I'll probably have another.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Campaign Finance Reform -- and Knowledge?

For your reading, this blog post that connects, or tries to, campaign finance reform, journalism, and political knowledge. And here for the idea of fact funding by a Duke prof.

Offered without comment on a blistering hot Georgia day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Mess of Methodology

Doing social science is fun and frustrating, but nothing is as difficult as nailing your methodology. I work in media effects and political knowledge. It's messy stuff trying to tease out relationships, so when I saw this New York Times piece today about drinking and health, it struck me as eerily familiar. As you may know, drinking in moderation is often associated with health benefits. But ... moderate drinkers also tend to not smoke, to exercise, and either avoid or do all the stuff you're supposed to avoid or do to stay healthy.

So does booze really help? I like to think so. Helps me rationalize my evenings with wine, beer, bourbon, or of course the daddy of all drinks -- single-malt Scotch.

But I'm talking research methodology. Or as a sociologist quoted in the article says:

“The moderate drinkers tend to do everything right — they exercise, they don’t smoke, they eat right and they drink moderately,” said Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a retired sociologist from the University of California, San Francisco, who has criticized the research. “It’s very hard to disentangle all of that, and that’s a real problem.”

Yup. The same can be said for studying what people know. Knowledgeable folks in the first place tend to learn more from the same material than those with little knowledge. Motivation is a huge factor, as is cognitive ability (often measured as formal education, but that's problematic as well).

Disentangling all that equals heartache or a lifetime job. I'm going with the latter, though I often feel the former -- which usually means I need a drink.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Meaning Making

We all engage in meaning making. Scholars from widely different fields have widely different approaches to the question of how people make sense of their social and political world. Most of us use some form of heuristics, rules-of-thumb, shortcuts, schemata, chronically accessible constructs, and a host of other theoretical fictions to help us tame the information tide (to borrow a book title). I'm sure there are others I've missed, but they all share in common the idea that we can't possibly cope with the world in all its complexity, so we find shortcuts to help us make sense of what we see and hear (and taste, and smell, and feel, if I want to be fair to all the senses).

These are more than mere shortcuts -- they come rich with meaning. We impress meaning on what we see and hear and then fit it to our own expectations and predispositions. Doesn't fit? Oh, we'll make it fit, we'll get that round peg into a square hole even if we have to change what we actually heard or saw. Selective attention, meet selective memory.

Why am I going on about this? In part because I've been reading student papers from my Public Opinion graduate seminar, in part because I've been reading the "who hates the most, liberals or conservatives?" nonsense on the web and papers, and in part because I needed blog material for today.

But it comes down to this: What people know, unfortunately, is often a function of what they want to know, or what they want it to mean.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Who Hates More?

Radio/TV intellectual heavyweight Glenn Beck says liberals hate more and are to blame for recent shootings. NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman, who only has a paltry Nobel in economics, says conservatives hate more and are to blame.

All together: You hate more than I do!

I was going to spend some time looking at the psychology of hate, but today has been spent dealing with domesticity (lawn mowing, picking up a kid who has been away for a week, etc.), so I have no semi-thoughtful nuggets to share other than it's obvious who wins this debate -- no one. Even if some rightwingnutjobs may be creating an Obamahate environment that indirectly might possibly be associated with the abortion clinic and Holocaust museum shootings (and that's a pretty compelling hypothesis no matter your ideological/partisan position), it doesn't really solve anything.

Remember the 90s? Oklahoma City? Clinton blaming talk radio? Do we see a parallel here, a Democratic prez who disgusts the wingnuts, and a pair of even bigger wingnuts take a few hundred lives in the process? Yeah, kinda. Enough to make you wonder.

What most people know is that the loonies on the left and the wackos on the right are best left alone, like a snarling dog with a frothy mouth and angry eyes. But some of the wingnuts are on TV and radio, on "respected" networks, so the rest of us will be left to clean up the mess. I don't really know much about the psychology of hate, it's not my research area, so I can't say much about that, but I do know something about media effects and anyone who suggests the Becks of the world are not somehow, indirectly, encouraging this ... they don't know much about media effects.

But this yelling about who hates more? Accomplishes nothing.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Daily Show and The New York Times

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Very funny segment by The Daily Show and its visit to The New York Times, and now a long of discussion of whether it was (1) a good idea, or (2) a great idea, or (3) the worst idea ever, to let the show into the hallowed building.

Obviously, good idea. And I side with those who argue that the big with Jason Jones picking up a landline phone -- "I'm a reporter from the '80s, makin' sure everything's factual; oh, you guys are like a walking Colonial Williamsburg" -- says something positive about journalists who actually check stuff before they go with it, who try to get (borrowed phrase) the "best obtainable version of the truth."

Anyway, it's a funny episode. Watch, and enjoy. And then go read the Times.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Consumer Confidence

I always like to look at the various measures of consumer confidence and optimism. You'll find a nice batch of them here at that marvelous site, The TIPP indicators are above 50, which is mildly optimistic (on a 100-point scale). But the ABC News consumer comfort index is stuck in the negatives, -47 at last measure, a tick up from -49 a month ago. That scale goes from -100 to +100, so -47 kinda sucks. A little more complicated is the Consumer Board's confidence index, but it shows nice improvement and optimism of late.

Who cares? We can see the stock market is struggling to rally (Dow up 73 points as I write this) but a lot of people are carefully watching consumer spending. Until it shows up, other problems won't be solved easily, such as unemployment or tax revenues for local and state governments. What people know about the economy is in part based on their own lives, part based on what they see down the street or downtown, and in part what they consume in the media. The green shoots argument that we've hit bottom and see sprigs of life, seems to be true. Or at least as a perception.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rational Inattention

Here's a brief blog post with a nifty title: Rational Inattention to Politics. This is not a new idea -- it's been outlined and discussed and formulated by scholars for decades (see Downs, for example, back in 1957). But it deserves a shout-out, especially on a day when I'm pressed to keep up with the readings in the Public Opinion seminar I teach in three hours. In other words, this pretty much sums up my blog for the day. Sorry.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Process Journalism?

There's been a minor squabble of sorts after a New York Times column probed the question of how to handle rumors. This was a perfectly reasonable approach to the question, but some in the blogosphere do not take kindly to even a hint of criticism (and really, it was just a hint).

There's this response, which is kinda reasonable though a bit misguided. And journalism prof/uber blogger Jeff Jarvis fired this somewhat less reasonable and a tad more misguided response. But Jarvis did point out something I found interesting, the dichotomy of product versus process journalism.

Now my gut reaction to process journalism is to ask: isn't that journalism that isn't ready to be published yet? Oh,and there's a good response to all this here that's worth reading.

Never mind the journalism side of this. While I'm a journalism prof this blog is not really so much about how we go about the business of finding stuff out than it is about the effects of the stuff we tell people about. What people know. In discussing this I am somewhat steeped in the deep literature of how people learn about politics and public affairs and the consequences of that knowledge (or lack of knowledge).

And so setting aside most of the blogorreah, let's go with the idea of process journalism, something that ebbs and flows, in which lots of people participate, in which thinly sourced material finds its way into publication because, dammit, someone may have possibly said it or at least thought about saying it, or maybe it is potentially true even if no one admits it. Let's assume this is a good thing (and I'm being a bit unfair here and I'm actually a little sympathetic to the notion).

What are the consequences?

My reading of serious scholarly work from social psychology, mass communication, political science, sociology, and a host of other fields that touch on how people learn and what they do with that knowledge suggests this kind of "reporting" is about as bad an idea as you can possibly come up with -- that is if you're worried about the consequences of your actions. If you're not, if you want to go with rumors that later turn out wrong because the system is self-correcting, then you fail to really understand how people process communication, how they make sense of the world. First we have all these filters that affect what we learn of the political and social world, and then we have the primacy/recency effect, and then we have selective exposure and attention and retention and memory that influence not just what we see or read, but how we use it inside our black box brains. Go with rumors? Sure, if you don't care about misinforming people who tend to remember that kind of information and not later information that fixes the problem you created in the first place. This also gets into concrete versus abstract information and memory.

The bottom line -- while there is fascinating potential in this kind of news, the consequences on real actual living breathing people are not good. We're not wired that way, and What Would Google Do is not going to change the way we process, retain, and use information.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Forces Beyond Our Control?

Are our successes and failures driven by forces beyond our control?

There's great research into how we attribute our successes and failures. Basically when things go bad, we blame others. When things go bad for other people, we often attribute it to some personal failing on their part.

A new Pew Report I've been shamelessly mining for material includes this statement: Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control. Respondents could agree or disagree. Pew asked this question five times since 1987 and the results paint an interesting portrait of what people think about the root causes of their own successes and failures. I've included the graph to the right for your enjoyment. The trend line suggests people are less likely to blame these mysterious "forces" as agreement with the statement has dropped from 38 percent in 1987 to 32 percent in 2009 (disagreement has, obviously, increased at the same time).

(This kinda taps a favorite construct of mine, locus of control, but also includes aspects of self efficacy or internal efficacy -- the label you use depends, in part, on the scholarly plot of land you call home, but there are nuanced differences beyond the scope of my blog. I'm not a nuance guy.)

The trend is actually quite hopeful. It suggests people are more willing to take credit for their successes and their failures, and perhaps some have moved beyond the X-File Mysterious Force explanation in their life. This isn't to suggest that forces beyond control do affect lives. Katrina is one. The economic meltdown is another. But it does suggest some increase in personal responsibility, and that's a hopeful sign.

Of course when things go wrong for me, it's always someone else's fault. Never mine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Unchanging Interest

Some things never change.

Take, for example, the interest people say they have in politics. A new Pew Center report finds that interest in politics remains largely unchanged from 1987 to 2009 (scroll down to see the graph).

If anything, interest has inched up a bit. That's good news, though I suspect a lot of newspaper publishers wonder why all this interest fails to translate into an audience. Interest in local news has increased -- 70 percent said in 1987 they were interested in local news, 78 percent said so in 2009.

Here's a fascinating yet ironic data point -- newspapers are the chief source of local news, and interest in local news remains steady and even increases slightly, yet newspaper readership is dropping.

One way to understand this paradox is to combine readership of the print newspaper with its online site. The numbers look better, though of course for newspapers this shift from print to online comes with a significant drop in advertising revenue -- which pays the bills for the expensive job of covering the news (opinion is cheap to produce, but facts are expensive to collect).

Even local TV news is suffering, both in audience and in advertising dollars, and local blogs can't really cover local news, not with people on the street, in the courthouse, sitting through five-hour council meetings, going to crime scenes, leafing through police incident reports, and all the rest. So we have all this interest in local news but not enough interest to pay the bill to collect the news. That's the rub, and it's not one easily resolved.

It may be time to reconsider what we (the royal journalistic "we") call news.

Maybe a 3-hour sewer board meeting isn't news any more. Was it ever?

Maybe the political infighting between members of the city council really isn't that important to people. Was it ever?

Maybe burglaries in your neighborhood really don't matter. Oops, that one is still news. In fact, I'd argue we need to spend more time on crime coverage if we want to keep audience. People care about this stuff.

How do people define local news? High school sports? Crime? School activities? Zoning? Puff pieces and thumbsucking features on local folk? No one really knows. The Pew Center is terrific as a resource in asking the basic question, but someone else needs to burrow deeper into how real people define "local news" and probe the irony that people are so interested but so so interested as to pay for it.

We do know a few things. Wackos on the right say people are sick of the "liberal bias" of newspapers and that's why they quit. Sorry, but studies show again and again there's no real relationship between partisanship, ideology, and circulation. Loonies on the left make the same argument as the kooks on the right, but both are wrong. We simply don't know what people mean by local news, not really. We all have ideas, hunches, but those don't mean a hell of a lot. We need to understand more on this, because what people know about their communities is a cornerstone of democracy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Partisan Divide

Are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, dogs and cats, really growing further apart? Some new Pew Center numbers certainly suggest this is the case -- well, not for dogs and cats, but yes for political beliefs. Look at the graph to the right, hot linked from the Pew site. And especially look at the methodological info below. Over 22 years, 48 values, trended for your ease and enjoyment.

Pretty damn telling.

The full report is broader, more comprehensive, and worth the read. It'll be depressing at times for Republicans, but take to heart the fact the data here do not go as far back as the 1970s and post-Watergate. Other data sources, such as ANES, do so, and you'll see this is all cyclical. If you look at this graph, for example, you'll see the 1970s drop and another when Clinton was elected.

The Pew report is something special because it goes beyond attitudes about political parties and gets into the stuff of what people know and think about the important issues of the day. Section 4 on religious beliefs is a personal favorite because I do research in that area. Section 11 discusses the partisan gaps, if that's more your thing. Finally, section 8 examines political participation

I will explore this report in more detail as the week progresses because it is full of good stuff.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bing vs Google

I'm not going to do a comprehensive test of Microsoft's new Bing search engine versus everyone's favorite, Google. But I will run a few quick searches that focus on political knowledge and what people know to see if any significant differences emerge.

Below are some key terms and a summary of any differences between the two search engines.
  • "Political knowledge" The favorite, in quotes so it'll be examined as a phrase. Both engines arrive at a Pew knowledge test as their first choice. The Google search also pops up some blogs -- including this one. So I gotta go with Google.
  • "Civic knowledge" arrives at the same first hit, the Civic Knowledge Project. The Bing search seems to always pop an Amazon book in the top five or so hits. Interesting. I wonder if they have a deal with Amazon to do that? Google says it found 42,100 on this search, while Bing boasts 38.2 million. Not sure what's up with that, but I'm sure as hell not going to leaf through that many hits.
  • Media and knowledge. Tried a little Boolean search and got different results. Google came back with some businesses, an Amazon link, some consultants, and near the bottom of the first page Knowledge Media. That was the first hit for Bing. In fact the Bing search in all cases seems to favor businesses.
  • "Barry hollander" is a vital search -- if you're me. Google rocks, mainly because its first hit is my web site. Which makes sense not because it's me, but because it's a web site with that name. Bing? Another Barry Hollander, his MySpace page. MySpace? People still use MySpace? And as a first hit? Nope, sorry. In fact, for Bing doesn't even show up on the first page of hits. That's just weird.
  • Affect vs cognition. Yeah, a bit PhDweebish, but I was curious how each handled a research angle. Both came back with research but I have to say the Google search results makes more sense. Bing seemed obsessed with Migraines and cognition. No idea why.
In all, at least for this quick search and especially for the all-important vanity search of "barryhollander," Google comes out far ahead. But really, for political knowledge and media searches it simply does a better job than Bing. I was hoping for more because, like many people, I'm a bit tired of "googling" stuff. I see no reason to change . . . yet.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A 16-Year-Old Reads the NYTimes

A copy of the dead-tree version of the New York Times now appears every morning on our driveway and with the doldrums of summer my 16-year-old has been seen picking it up and reading ink on paper.

He rarely reads news online.

For example, after he read the story about North Korea missile tests and how the youngest son may be named successor to Kim Jong-il, we chatted about the problems an unstable North Korea raises not only for the U.S. but especially for China. Cool.

What's this to do with what people know? If I generalize from an N of 1, it suggests putting news in front of someone, rather than waiting for them to go to it, is more likely to generate readership and, subsequently, political knowledge. Yeah, it's one kid -- one bright kid -- and it's summer -- and he's sitting at the table eating a bagel -- and what else is he gonna do but pick up the paper sitting right in front of him? And yet, and yet. I think there is something to be said for serendipity, of push instead of pull for news, and the sheer convenience of paper. But it is an N of 1 and generalizing from one person, that never works, at least in real research.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

PR and What People Know

Remember those old models of the molecule? Protons were positive, electrons were negative, and neutrons were undecided, usually all in balance to create a stable molecule.

Now think of an attitude in the same way, except rarely is it in balance. For most of us, any attitude object -- a person, a place, a company, nearly anything at all -- comes with positive, negative, and neutral bits of information, the result rarely if ever coming out equal. If I dislike Dancing with the Stars (and I do), then I'll list more negatives than positives.

This is where attitudes meet knowledge. And this is also the realm of PR.

As PR guru Karen Russell would happily note, I'm not a PR guy, I'll never be a PR guy, and PR is all the better for it, so I'll keep my PR discussion to a minimum and instead focus on attitudes and knowledge and how difficult it can be to change an attitude through the use of information. It comes down to this -- misperception is awfully hard to change.

Let me give you a recent example.

During the recent presidential campaign there was a rumor out there that Barrack Obama was Muslim, despite all information and facts to the contrary. Who stuck to that belief? People who already had reason to believe the worst about Obama, mostly conservative Christians and hardcore Republicans. The attitude overwhelmed knowledge. Indeed, putting out "true" information will sway some people but not those who are already attitudinally predisposed to be against you -- which is why I'd make a lousy PR person. It'd drive me nuts.

There are ways to attack this, I suppose. One is parody and humor, to make fun of the misperception. That's a tricky tactic and it seems to work better for younger people than for older people. I'm sure there are differences in the kind of client you represent, both in their openness to such a dangerous strategy and whether it'd really work or not. Some companies would never accept such an approach, simply because it flies against their tradition. Pitch this campaign and you'd be out the door and looking for clients elsewhere.

Simply putting out "true" information, that doesn't work either, not for the hardcore believers, but you might add a few "protons" to their molecular attitude, soften their perception a little, but you have to be careful here too. Attacking the misperception as something held by idiots, that's gonna backfire, or so predicts most theories of persuasion. People love to counterargue, both internally and with others, and by forcing them into this counterargument you often push their attitudes to an even greater extreme. The research on attitude extremity is neat and gets right at this, but it's not something we spend a lot of time looking at in mass comm.

As an aside, we do know from the social psych literature that making someone generate arguments against their position tends to soften their attitudes -- the "walking in someone else's shoes" approach.

So it all comes down to protons, neutrons, and electrons, except in this case we're talking attitudes and not molecules. Each bit and piece of information goes into our head, gets mixed up, and we apply some personal algebraic formula to arrive at an overall attitude. Knowledge can influence attitudes, but more often it goes the other way around, and that makes it damned difficult if you're trying to generate positive attitudes about someone or some thing.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Kinds of Knowledge

There are many ways to measure what people know. Sometimes scholars and others use them interchangeably, missing the nuances. Below are a few:

Civics Knowledge -- usually measured by questions such as "what branch of government interprets the constitution." These are aimed at understanding a person's base level of how government is structured and works. Rarely used as a dependent variable except by people who study socializing of immigrants into the U.S. or in youth learning the basics of government, it most often shows up as an independent or control variable for other kinds of political knowledge. But you'll often see this kind of question as a generic "political knowledge" measure, especially in news stories bemoaning the fact that so few people can identity some core aspect of democracy. Not a good measure of general political knowledge and lousy in combination with media effects.

Campaign Knowledge -- usually a measure of an active political campaign, most often how various candidates stand on particular issues or, sometimes, questions like "what candidate recently said xyz." A very good measure if you're looking to explain specific campaign events or factors that lead to this kind of knowledge, such as what media best predict knowledge of some recent campaign event. Good measure with media variables.

Current Events Knowledge -- Seen perhaps most often as a measure of "political knowledge," here I'm separating it from "campaign knowledge" because, what the hell, I need more categories. Current events is a wide ranging category. It could something simple like "what party controls the U.S. Senate" or "what happened last week in Iraq?" This is a really good measure if you're studying media effects.

Political Actor Knowledge -- by actors I don't mean on the silver screen but rather measures that ask such questions as, "Who is Nancy Pelosi?" We typically prompt with a name and ask for the office, though sometimes we'll prompt with the office and ask for a name: "Who is the Speaker of the House?" Methodological note: a recent study explained the gender differences (men scoring higher than women on political knowledge tests) in part because women are rarely used in name-prompt questions. So in other words, men do better because we mostly ask about men who are political actors or public figures. So-so for media studies.

Misinformation -- better known as anti-knowledge, or knowledge of incorrect facts such as the belief that Barrack Obama is Muslim. This is the type of knowledge that most readily gets mixed up with attitudes (I'll discuss this later in the week in a post about public relations challenges). We don't study this one an awful lot but it's a great one for media scholars since certain kinds of media content (talk radio, for example) tends to be associated with incorrect knowledge.

There are no doubt others I'm missing. As they come to me, I'll add 'em. Suggestions welcome.