Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Odds and Ends

Online Vs. Print

I blogged earlier about Slate's little experiment in which a couple of journalists got their news for a few days from print and a couple who got their news only online. There is an audio here of their discussion after the experiment. Listen for a long time (only moderately painful) and you'll struggle to hear a conclusion or answer other than the sense of frustration by both sides as to the limitations of using only one source. I think that sums it up nicely. Today's informed individual relies on a gumbo of print, online, television, and radio, but these are not real people talking, they're journalists, so I doubt the frustrations they felt would be shared by a typical person.

Today's Idiot Box

This columnist, with ties to my college. Read it and weep for cogent thought and the English language.

Good Blog

A doctoral student blogs about research here. Good stuff. The latest piece discusses research on interpersonal networks. I'd like to see more PhD students doing this sort of thing, in part as a mental exercise, in part sharing significant research with the rest of the world.

Tax Cuts and Trust

And speaking of significant research, a Public Opinion Quarterly piece examines the role of political trust in support for tax cuts. Trust plays a significant role among liberals in support of tax cuts, but not so much among conservatives and moderates (who, let's face it, tend to like them anyway). As an aside, if I'm reading the tables correctly, the more knowledgeable you are, the less supportive you are of tax cuts. That's kinda interesting. Unfortunately the authors did not include media variables.

Perceptions of the U.S.

The Pew Center, in its typical brilliant fashion, has a new report out on global attitudes about the U.S. There's even a cool slide show here with audio by director Andrew Kohut in which he describes "a revival of America's global image in many parts of the world." I strongly recommend giving it a watch and listen. Also, there's a cool map where you can roll over countries, then click for specific numbers. Much fun.

The cause for this improvement in attitudes toward the U.S.? Barack Obama.

Western Europe and Canada is where we see the biggest image gains, but positive shifts are also seen in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. "The needle moved very little" in Muslim countries, however. I suppose it's good that at least the U.S. ratings didn't drop further. Then again, we probably hit a basement.

You see huge differences when comparing confidence in Obama versus George W. Bush from earlier surveys, supporting an Obama effect.

Should we care? Some people obviously don't. If people are pissed at us, so goes the reasoning, we must be doing something right. And we're the U.S., dammit, so screw 'em.

But what people know about the U.S. is important and negative feelings toward the country makes it even more difficult to pursue certain policies. It's like presidential politics. Strong support equals political capital that you can spend as needed, so in foreign affairs it helps for international public opinion to be somewhat positive toward the U.S., which frees leaders of those countries to work with us. Think of it as political cover to get what the U.S. wants done in other countries.

Who hates the U.S.? Lowest favorability ratings in 2009 are Turkey (14%), Palestinian Territory (15%), and Pakistan (16%). Highest come from Kenya (90%), Nigeria (79%), and South Korea (78%).

My favorite statistical blip? In Jordan the U.S. had a 1% favorability rating in 2003, otherwise over ten years the numbers were in the double digits. That's either weird data or some event soured attitudes about the U.S. that year.

There's also an interesting table in which people were asked if the U.S. would do the right thing in world affairs. The Pew folks show us the change from 2008 (Bush) to 2009 (Obama). Mostly huge improvements except, tellingly, Israel (-1%). No doubt this reflects nervousness on the part of Israel about Obama and his administration's approach to issues there, especially negotiations about a two-state solution. Something to watch this year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


You have to be kinda dweeby to care, but IBM has apparently bought SPSS for $1.2 billion. SPSS is a major statistical package used to analyze data and is especially dominant in survey/public opinion work.

As long as the IBM guys don't mess it up, should be okay. IBM press release here.

Bayes' Rule

How do people integrate or ignore new information based on their existing beliefs? Bayes' Rule. Or at least that's according to a study I'm reading that offers a mathematical formula to sum it all up:

P(A/B) = P(B/A) P(A) P(B)

That settles everything. Right? Wait, don't click that mouse!

Let's break it down, at least according to the article (abstract here). A = your existing belief, B = new information. The new belief, the stuff to the left of the equals sign above, is equal to the product of our prior belief and "the likelihood that B would occur if A was true."

Confused? Me too. Forget the math. Thankfully a graph or two later the authors tell us Bayes' Rule "does not provide a complete normative standard." Translation: it doesn't work all that well in the real world.

The study as a whole has to do with discomfirmation biases, how we selectively deal with information, which is obviously of interest to anyone studying political communication and how people make sense of their political world. Basically they find people cannot ignore their prior beliefs when dealing with new information. People see congruent arguments (ones that fit their own beliefs, called congruence bias) to be stronger -- even if they're not.

Some other interesting results: sophistication (often a function of political knowledge) can moderate disconfirmation bias (but not congruence bias). In other words, politically knowledgeable folks are a little less likely to disbelieve a message that is against their beliefs as compared to those who are less knowledgeable, but it plays no role in how people judged messages that agreed with their point of view as being stronger than it actually is.

I hope that made sense.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Race has returned as a topic of discussion. We had Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, we had her role in a decision concerning promotion of firefighters, and of course the recent brief arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. What people know or think about race is, of course, heavily influenced by their own race or personal experiences.

There is no survey data out yet on the Gates arrest, but there are some good questions over time that attempt to tap what we think about affirmative action and other racial/ethnic issues. Pollingreport has this group of results that are interesting to skim. Scroll down to the NBC/Wall Street Journal results. The percentage of people who say affirmative action should be ended dropped in the latest survey, which I find kinda interesting. In 1995, 40 percent said it should be ended. It hit a high of 43 percent in 2003 but earlier this year it was down to 28 percent. That's a helluva drop, no doubt tied to the Sotomayor nomination.

Perhaps the Obama election led to a dramatic shift, but I thought the firefighter case might offset some of that. Apparently not. About one-third of Americans, according to a CNN poll, thought there should have been a new test, roughly the number seen among those who want an end to affirmative action. A shift has happened, and I suppose Obama's election may have played a major part. It'll be interesting to see the numbers in a year or so to see whether this is a statistical blip in what people think about race, or it's something more permanent.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

News Quiz

There's a Facebook app designed specifically for the New York Times to quiz your knowledge of current events. It's typically five questions. I only got a 60, three out of five. Sad. Only works if you have a Facebook account (and who doesn't?). I'm not sure why it's important to know how many full-blown press conferences President Obama has had, but that's one of those I missed. Seems trivial in the extreme. I put answered it was his fourth and the correct answer was the fifth. Sheesh.

Also ... away from a consistent Internet connection for a few days.

Graphics and the NYT

So I'm looking at a slideshow of graphics at The New York Times, which is kinda neat in a dweeby sort of way (I'm a journalism prof and a PhDweeb), and it occurs to me that this tells us something and what people know, or at least how people learn from the news.

You can see a list of slides about visualizing data here. The NYTimes is halfway down the list.

What's kinda interesting is the source material for Times graphic charts from 2000-2009. If not for the feds, I'm not sure what they'd put in charts. Census Bureau data was used for 852 charts, the Bureau of Labor Statistics used for 844. The World Bank is a distant third with 118. I admit that kinda surprised me.

The graphic to the upper right is also from the slideshow and is designed to, in a glance or three, show us where we spend our money (according to, obviously, fed data). You really need to check out the slideshow to see it well. The point is -- in many ways -- we learn better visually than raw tables and text. Yeah yeah, pictures and thousand words, but it's true, especially when dealing with complex data.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Slate's News Experiment

Michael Kinsley of Slate poses this experiment: two journalists will spend one hour a day reading print newspapers, two will spend one hour a day getting their news online, but not shovelware or aggregators, so that leaves out Google News or Huffingtonpost but does include sites like Politico.

This goes for three days, then he gathers them back to discuss their experience. They're really doing this.

The headline for this piece reads Who's Better Informed, Newspaper Readers or Web Surfers? so I assume political learning is one of the examined outcomes, along with the overall experience, the frustrations, the good and bad, and of course the ugly, of getting news in more or less one fashion.

Let's set the record straight. This "highly unscientific experiment," as Kinsley calls it, is highly unscientific to the point of being silly. It's more of a vaguely interesting gimmick than anything else.

There's one published study that looked at the differences between people who read the New York Times online versus those who read the paper version. This controlled experiment randomly assigned people to one of two groups (print vs. online of the Times) and examined differences in learning and other factors. Print came out ahead (I can't lay my hands on the link, but I'm fairly certain it ran in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly).

Any differences have to do with the way we read, the way we approach online versus ink on paper. It's more than mere differences of medium, it's differences of motivation. We simply approach a screen differently, almost at an unconscious level, and subtle differences emerge.

This is a bit more PhDweeby than Kinsley wants, of course. The gimmick study will be fun for the discussion that emerges, but beyond that the results are meaningless. After all, they're looking at very different sources AND very different media. That, budding methodologists, is a confound of confounding proportions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Economic Outlook

So Wall Street seems to be doing okay, but what about Main Street?

My own anecdotal evidence suggests Main Street is seriously suffering, especially on jobs (which, to be fair, always lag as an economic indicator). But what people know about the economy, at least according to the polls, says it's not as bad as I think.

Asked earlier this month how worried they are over the direction of the nation's economy, 78 percent said they are "somewhat" or "very" worried about the direction. That's pretty awful. But earlier this year the number was 81 percent, and in the Fall of '08 it was 88 percent. So you can argue there's improvement, at least in perception. And the "very worried" category has dropped from 48 to 36 percent. One of those good news-bad news things: people's perception is improving, but over a third still see the economy as crap. Asked about their own economic condition we see similar numbers. In the latest poll, 64 percent are "very" or "somewhat" worried about their situation (who isn't?), but that's a bit better than the 70 percent earlier in the year.

While the above ABC/Washington Post poll contains glimmers of hope, at least in perception, according to an Ipsos/McClatchy poll, the proportion of people who believe the economy has "stabilized" has inched down to 49 percent. I find that one fascinating.

In part we see a trickle down effect. Experts say we've avoided the worst, we see green shoots, and every day the Dow seems to be doing okay, and even while people individually are struggling there is a message (outside of Hannity, Limbaugh, et al.,), that things are looking better. Or at least catastrophe has been averted. So the trickle down message reaching some, at least in perception, is one of cautious hope. And if there's one thing Americans know, it's cautious hope for the future.

Data drawn from here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Science and the Public

An excellent report out last week by the fine people at Pew that examines the relationships among the public, the press, and the media.

Eighty-five percent of scientists surveyed say a lack of scientific knowledge on part of the public is a "major problem." Now, to be fair, if we surveyed any group -- military, clergy, small business owners, left-handed golfers -- you'd get the same response; everyone thinks the public's lack of knowledge about their specific area is a "major problem." But for science the stakes are a bit higher than most, or at least any scientist will tell you the stakes are higher. There's an interesting table deep in the study about the vast differences between scientists and the public on attitudes about evolution and climate change (expected) and stem cell research, nuke plants, and vaccination (less expected).

And finally, it wouldn't be a what people know post unless we get into knowledge.

Scroll to the bottom and you'll find a table that examines the public's science knowledge. Prepare to be underwhelmed? Only a little. On some stuff the public does quite well, such as aspirin helping with heart attacks or the cause of tsunamis. No doubt these are the product of extensive advertising and news coverage. Get a little more obscure, especially into "textbook" questions, and things kinda fall apart. I've hotlinked to the table for ease of reading and presented it below for your viewing enjoyment, but I strongly encourage people to read the whole report if they're a little bit interested in the public and science. The final question is kinda funny since in an earlier post I blew the electron/atom thing.

Source: Pew Center for the People and the Press and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Full report here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


As everyone knows by now, Walter Cronkite died. There's a neat entry here at that examines the numbers on "the most trusted man in America." Numbers never lie (um, except when they do). In this case the results put together by Charles Franklin leave no doubt: Cronkite ruled when it came to believability. Really, check out the post. I won't reproduce the graphs here, but they're telling. Goodbye Uncle Walter.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Far Out Answers

Sometimes when you ask straightforward questions to a survey respondent you get far out answers. As I was messing around with an advance release of the ANES 2008 election data, I came across these two questions
  • As far as you know, what is the current unemployment rate in the United States, that is, of the adults in the United States who want to work, what percent of them would you guess are not unemployed and looking for a job?
  • What is your best guess of the average price of regular unleaded gasoline across all of today?
As to the first, depending on which set of numbers you use, the unemployment rate at about the time of the survey at election time was probably between 5 and 7 percent (interviews happen over a couple of months). One fed number says the average for 2008 was 5.8 percent, so let's assume it's in the ballpark.

How did people answer? Wildly. First the good news. The mode, the most popular response, was 6 percent. Sweet, but that's by a mere 264 of over 2,000 respondents. Other estimates of the U.S. unemployment rate ranged from 0 (goofy optimistic) to 100 (sickly pessimistic, but shared by 25 people grasping for an answer). Thus the challenges of asking knowledge-based questions. The gas price is a bit tougher since it's state-specific and the costs differ. The average U.S. price at about the time of the survey (serious fudging here, sorry) was between $3.50 and $3.95 (prices peaked about July 2008). Most of the survey responses were significantly lower, though one person apparently paid $50 a gallon. Maybe in Europe.

The lesson? People not only guess and guess badly, they're just plain goofy and give the silliest answer they can give to some survey questions that requires them to seriously recall number-based facts. As an analyst I'd collapse all responses over a certain point -- say all $5 or more for gas put together at $5 -- or I might even toss out the outrageous ones. It depends on the purpose of my analysis, I suppose, but the point here is that you can never guess how people will answer a seemingly simple, straightforward question.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Turning Data Into Knowledge

Great column about a conference devoted to ways to turn statistics and data into knowledge. The conference, Seminar on Innovative Approaches to Turn Statistics into Knowledge, has a site here and even better, has some online versions of presentations here. I skimmed a couple and hope to dig deeper in a day or so, steal some ideas for my own journalism classes.

According to the site:
The seminar should contribute to the development of tools to help people transform statistics into knowledge and decisions. A first condition for statistics to be used this way is that relevant statistics become known, available, and understood by wider audiences. The seminar is held in the context of the Global Project on “Measuring the Progress of Societies”. It should contribute to one of the goals quoted in the Istanbul Declaration: "produce a broader, shared, public understanding of changing conditions, while highlighting areas of significant change or inadequate knowledge".
We use lots of tricks to help people understand what's happening, such as maps that summarize statistics, or drag-down menus to help people find, for example, how their local school matches up with other schools. The end result is helping people make sense of their world.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The News and the Kindle DX

I've been playing a few days with the Kindle DX, the new larger Kindle from Amazon especially designed for students and newspaper readers. No, I didn't buy one. I'm one of three faculty with a grant that purchased some to study whether the gizmos have a chance to help newspapers.

I like the thing.

I've been reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is nice since the AJC quit distributing it's dead-tree version to the Athens market a few months ago.

We'll be handing the tablets to people with a subscription to the AJC to study how appealing real people find this way of reading the news. In fact I emailed three major players at the AJC to see if they'd like to participate -- given we're studying their newspaper and they might find the results kinda important -- and I didn't get a single response. Not even a "no thanks." And they wonder why they're struggling. Sheesh.

Now that I've nailed the navigation, I really kinda like it for reading the newspaper. Not as much as I like printed paper, but it's okay. Bad side: only one update a day. Good side: I really don't want to look at my Kindle all day long. And I've yet to read a book on one, so I can't say much about that experience.

Will the Kindle save newspapers? I'm guessing not, but for a small, select audience -- one that loves reading and perhaps travels and needs to take one slim piece of hardware rather than lug a bunch of paperbacks -- this has promise of at least helping, of creating a small revenue stream. The bad news for papers is Amazon often asks for 70 percent or more of the small subscription fee.

How does this fit with what people know? Obviously, any increase in news consumption is good, and for me the Kindle has made available a lot of state news I missed, mainly because I'm not so much a fan of reading a web site for news beyond a check for updates. No, the Kindle is for people who immerse themselves in the reading experience, which leads to far more knowledge about public affairs than mere exposure to television. But for the Kindle to succeed people will need to see that it is good not just for news (which won't be enough of a draw) but also for other stuff, like books and magazines and whatever else they can squeeze into the thing.

But yeah, I kinda like it. Then again, I didn't have to spent over $400 to play with it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Trusted News Sources

A June Gallup poll includes numbers in trust in newspapers and television news from 2006 through 2009. The findings?
  • Trust in Television News has dropped slowly from 71 percent giving some positive comment to 64 percent in the latest survey.
  • Trust in Newspapers has inched down but well within the margin of error, from 70 percent to 68 percent.
Meaning what?

A Pew Center report (scroll down a bit to "falling favorability" for the table) looks from 1985 to 2007. It's more specific (cable news, broadcast tv news, etc.). Most media outlets drop here, from newspapers to local tv news. The biggest drops are by national newspapers and cable news.

How do we reconcile the two? In part they ask somewhat different questions, in part the Pew breaks TV news down to its various parts such as cable (CNN, Fox, etc.), in part it may even be time (Pew goes from 1985 to 2007, Gallup from 2006 to 2009). Maybe something has changed recently, a frustration with cable TV news now become somewhat more partisan due to a fragmenting audience -- that's a pretty good bet, but it hard to say, and I didn't have time to scour Pew for newer media favorability numbers.

And then there's the question as to whether "believability" or "credibility" or "favorability" matter for news organizations. As a former journalist I used to believe that if I wasn't pissing someone off, I wasn't doing my job right. And I tell my own reporting students that if they want to be loved, be a kindergarten teacher, not a journalist. Those who dislike the news the most are often those who consume it the greatest, a love-hate relationship that at times makes absolutely no sense, at least on the surface.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Voting and Knowledge Down Under

Australia has compulsory voting, but fewer than 60% of 18 year olds are actually enrolled to vote. In a move that turns political participation and knowledge slightly on its head, the idea here is that by getting young people to vote, they'll learn more about politics. It's "Enroll to Vote" week. A story discusses the problem and the week and raises some interesting chick-and-egg questions about what people know versus participation in the political process.
The report recommended taking school elections more seriously, encouraging parents to engage young people in the political process, and focusing more attention on creating interesting politics and government subjects in schools.
This is an age-old discussion in the U.S. as well, especially with No Child Left Untested. Math and reading are vital, but falling out of curricula throughout the U.S. are those old civics classes, the ones designed to teach students not only the basics of government but -- more important -- why it matters. I'm Just a Bill on Capital Hill, sadly gone -- yet it still lives on YouTube. Too bad it doesn't live in classrooms any more.

But on a more serious note, the idea that forced participation will lead to greater knowledge -- there is some theoretical support for this. Tentative, more theoretical than perhaps practical, but I suspect in reality some aspect of forced voting will lead to an increase in knowledge. Modest, perhaps, but let's face it, compulsory voting kinda misses the point of participating in a democratic process. Maybe for some, not voting is a form of protest (though that's lazy thinking and often someone trying to sound smarter than they really are).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Public Trust in the News

Interesting report out, sponsored by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, that looks at the public trust in journalism. Summary here, full report here.

Those studied do not think journalists are dishonest so much as they find the product of journalism dishonest in that it's either confusing or fails to ring true when it describes the world in which they live. People could find more "useful, reliable, or amusing information elsewhere" (to quote the executive summary).

In place of individual medium loyalties (newspaper, TV news, etc.), people instead describe a "crowded media environment" that ranges from the silly to the serious. The three concepts of useful, reliable, and amusing show up in comments by real people, in one form or another. People, confronted with all this information, aren't sure who to believe. Adding my own here, I suspect that's one of the reasons we find people who claim to help it all make sense, from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh, are quite successful today. They'll make sense of it all for you, even if one might quibble with the way, the fairness, of the sense they make.

There's a bit of political knowledge aspects here if you read carefully. Many people were confused in the U.S. presidential election. They simply don't know the backstory and often news accounts are written (or produced) with that assumption in mind. I've seen this myself as my teenage son struggles with a printed news story. The inverted pyramid simply confuses him because he's not starting with the prior knowledge necessary to make sense of a summary lede, which focuses on the latest information on top. Political knowledge suffers. People get frustrated. They look elsewhere for "sense making," often places where sense and sensible are not necessarily the same thing (i.e., Sean Hannity). And yet, and yet.

There's a lot here to digest and what I see reminds me of some other recent work. More on this report later, I hope.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cognitive Flexibility and the News

I've been reading a chapter from a new book entitled Internet Newspapers: The Making of a Mainstream Media that has some lessons about how people learn from news stories. The chapter, "The Web News Story and Cognitive Flexibility" by Lowrey and Choi, is a bit complicated but essentially it tests a linear format of news telling against a general non-linear story and one that is informed by cognitive flexibility theory.

Lemme steal from the method section to describe this version.

"The CFT news report contained five brief news stories, each approximately 200 to 250 words in length, and included brief "perspective" paragraphs (each between 30 to 100 words) that could be linked from the main story." In other words, flexible learning. This idea and theory comes apparently from education and the idea is that it will improve learning by giving people multiple ways of getting into a piece of writing and by allowing them to shift among bits and pieces.

Did it work? Sorta kinda, but it all really depends on prior knowledge. No surprise there. Prior knowledge (or schematic structure, or awareness, or a host of other labels we put on the concept of what people know prior to exposure to some stimuli) always makes a big difference. And it does here too.

People "liked" the CFT version better, but no difference was seen in credibility. Most of all, a series of interaction effects are seen with prior knowledge. The authors argue those with higher prior knowledge "take control of the reading experience." The CFT has no magical power. It was no better and no worse in recognition of information. So people may like it a bit more, but they apparently don't learn any more from it.

Full disclosure: author Wilson Lowrey received his PhD from UGA, where I teach.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What Canadian Youth Know

Stumbled across this editorial about Canada's youth and what they know. The graph that caught my eye follows:
Teenagers have received a bad rap for their political knowledge when actually they probably know more than their parents. Bonin and other youth have access to the Internet and in addition with expansion of airlines, are able to travel to other cultures. Nowadays, youth are able to go beyond only dreaming of far away places and can actually access information immediately online (italics added).
Mostly, young people don't so much know stuff as they are now better equipped to find stuff out. In other words, ask them a political question and the response might be: "I don't know, but I know how to find out."

Whether that's a form of knowledge is a matter of some debate and academic inquiry. Is knowing how to find out a piece of information the same as actually knowing it? I don't think so, not at least in that piece of information's utility. In other words, merely knowing how to find a piece of information does me little good in processing the news, of gleaning some useful information from what I read or hear on TV. Whether Google is changing the way we think, that's a topic covered quite nicely in an Atlantic piece some months ago (that it's making us stupid) and again recently (it's making us smarter). But all in all, knowing how to looking something up (online or otherwise) helps us little in making sense of the world as a story flits across the screen.

It's a topic I'd love to examine further, if my hunch is right that young people indeed take this approach. I'm just not quite sure how to attack the research question.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Freakonomic Look at Safety

Interesting blog today at the NYTimes site by the Freakonomics guy who turns his attention to perceived risk and accidents. What people know is often so screwed up by perception, in this case a single rail accident that gets so much attention compared to the huge number of small car accidents that do not, thus making people think rail might be more dangerous than it really is.

Nothing new here, if you've read the risk perception research, and yet interesting nonetheless.