Monday, November 30, 2009

Top Story

Yeah, Obama will give a vital speech on Afghanistan.  Yeah, the economy sucks and jobs are hard to come by.  But the top story is Tiger Woods, if you follow the cable TV spewmeisters (NYTimes today had it on D1, where it belongs). 

But what about the "Golf Media?"  Wouldn't they be all over this story with pathbreaking journalism?

Not really, says this columnist.

When it comes to what people know, often we get caught up in the truly trivial.  This is one of those occasions.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Good study out by those amazing people at Pew on the recession and young adults returning home -- and not just for the holidays, but to stay.  Times are tough, and mom & dad always have a place for ya to crash.  As they put it:
Census Bureau data confirm that proportionately fewer young singles are living solo now than before the recession. Overall, the proportion of adults ages 18 to 29 who live alone declined from 7.9% in 2007 to 7.3% in 2009. Similar drops in the proportion of young people who live by themselves occurred during or immediately after the recessions of 1982 and 2001.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

F$%&@ing Furlough

Yep, today (Wednesday) is a furlough day, one of six my university requires to help balance the budget.  Essentially, that's a pay cut, so I wrote this post on Tuesday (and set it to post today) because technically I'm to do no work or go anywhere near the office on a furlough day

With the Thanksgiving holiday stretch coming, I will not be posting much at all -- furlough or not -- for the next few days.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sarah Palin -- Superstar
(for now)

The book, the book tour, the cheering crowds, the praise of Sean Hannity and the derision of Jon Stewart.  It all adds up to Sarah Palin -- Superstar.

Is she peaking too soon?  Or is she solidifying her position early for 2012?  Dunno.  The tactics and strategy of political campaigning are not what this blog is about.  Rather, I'm interested in what people know about Palin and whether or not it matters. 

So let's do the numbers.

Among "independents" her favorable rating has climbed from 33 percent to 49 percent.  Her unfavorable rating has shrunk from 55 to 38 percent.  To be fair these numbers come from a poll generated by Palin-fawning Fox News, so take them with a grain of salt.  Overall, regardless of political affiliation (or lack thereof), Palin -- according to Fox -- has increased from 38 percent to 47 percent favorable.  A CBS poll over roughly the same period has her favorable rating at 23 percent.  Bias in polls?  Katie Couric playing with the numbers?  Well, ABC/Washington Post has her at 43 percent favorable, so you'd be right to wonder about those CBS numbers.

What's interesting is that Palin's numbers continue to climb as Obama's numbers continue to decline.  Soon they will meet, which demonstrates all the difference between governing and campaigning, at least as presented on television and as it plays in the public mind.

Monday, November 23, 2009

When Polls Mislead?

Some are suggesting that polls of everyday folks on really complicated or emotional issues are misleading at best, probably useless at worst.  Recent examples of this argument can be found by Mark Blumenthal and Joe Klein.  Some agreed with this position but focused more on how "the media" report the polls (or even the kinds of poll questions "the media" ask) rather than the polls themselves.  The topic is, of course, health care, and what the American public really thinks about a complicated piece of legislation that is longer than most Harry Potter novels, and a helluva lot less interesting to read.

Maybe most of us could just wait for something simpler, something a bit more cheesy.  A Twilight novel version?

We swerve awfully close to elitism when we ask how much the public really understands of the topics its polled on, but to be honest most research suggests the public offers answers to survey questions without really, truly, understanding what its being asked.  So elitism?  Yeah.  But also reality.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Science vs Advocacy: The Breast Cancer Debate

It's been an interesting week of debate and finger-pointing and political gamemanship, of science vs advocacy vs. political posturing.  Of course I'm talking about the breast cancer policy suggestion (read about it just about anywhere, so I'm skipping the details), the subsequent attacks on this policy recommendation, and the political maneuvering of some to point to this as part of a darker, deeper plot to hurt health care.

I'm not going to get into the debate and which side is right or wrong.  I don't know the science, but I do know enough to say that one person on a TV "news" show drawing from personal experience is very different than the data.  Never generalize from an N of 1, my research methods teacher always cautioned.  Besides that, I think the debate has been good in that it probably pushed the topic to the front of people's minds and, hopefully, increased knowledge about breast cancer.  That's always a good thing.  Might be interesting if someone had a knowledge survey before this debate and then did one afterward to see if the constant blabbering on TV made a difference in what people know.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Test Your Global IQ

The fine folks at Pew challenge you to test your global IQ.  Sadly, I managed only 5 of 12 correct.  My global IQ sucks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Efficacy and Voting

I blogged yesterday (or see below) about a study from American Behavioral Scientist that examines the role of efficacy and confidence of one's knowledge -- especially among young voters -- and voting.  In that post I broke down the methodology and touched on key concepts.  Today I sum up the results and ask about their meaningfulness in real-world politics.

Basically it goes like this: younger voters are less confident of their political knowledge, of their competence to vote.  This affects their likelihood to vote.  The results in this study are a bit slim, more tantalizing than conclusive.  And the role of media is unclear in this study.

But it makes sense that younger voters might be less confidence in their electoral competence.  They tend to consume less news and to not have built up a foundation of political knowledge from previous elections and campaigns.  That, along with other factors, suggests lower voting.

So what do we do?  Build up their confidence?


We have enough of this self-esteem crap in schools, especially among kids who don't have all that much to be "esteemed" about.  If young people fill up on empty-calorie content such as The Daily Show without also consuming serious news, then they're likely to feel like they have a base of knowledge from which to vote but instead have little actual knowledge.  You might increase voting, but you might also increase "bad" voting.  I'm not sure how much a democracy gains, though I suppose indifferent or inconsistent voting beats no voting at all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Political Information Efficacy?

Sometimes you discover a familiar friend with a new name.  It happens all the time in social science, especially if you read across disciplines.  A political scientist might call a concept by one label, a psychologist by another, and a mass comm scholar, oh we'll come up with one of our own.

So when I read this study about political information efficacy, it was like finding an old friend.

Kaid and her colleagues in an American Behavioral Science article attack the question of low political participation among young adults by looking also at not only their political knowledge, but their confidence in their knowledge.   Or, as they write:
Our own research suggests that there is yet another reason for concern about low levels of political information and accurate knowledge among young citizens. We have found a strong relationship between young voters’ perceptions or confidence in their political knowledge and the likelihood that they will exercise their right to vote.
Political efficacy is traditionally broken into either external efficacy (beliefs in the government's responsiveness) and internal efficacy (one's own competence to handle the complexities of political discourse). "Our theory of political information efficacy," the authors write, "is closely related to internal efficacy but differs in that it focuses solely on the voter’s confidence in his or her own political knowledge and its sufficiency to engage the political process (to vote)." 

In other words, perceived knowledge. 

Find Note 4 in the study and you discover the items used to measure political information efficacy.  Oh hell, I'll save you the trouble.  They are, on a 5-point agree-disagree continuum:
  •  I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics
  • I think that I am better informed about politics and government than most people
  • I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country
  • If a friend asked me about the presidential election, I feel I would have enough information to help my friend figure out who to vote for.
The internal consistency or reliability seems fine, with a reported Cronbach's Alpha of .87.  No surprise there.  They all measure the same thing -- Internal Efficacy.  But it sounds cooler if you come up with your own label and call it a theory; you get scholarly bonus points.  It's a helluva good study, but I'm just saying ...

So what did they find?  Ahhh, young grasshopper, that is a blog post for another day.  Stay tuned, because I'll talk not only about the findings but whether they mean anything today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

News Aggregators, Dilbert Style

There's a great Dilbert strip today about news aggregators. Thanks to Mark Johnson for pointing it out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Morning Shows

Many people get their first dose of news from the various network morning shows.  Looking only at the cable news offerings you have in alphabetical order:
  • CNN:  Show is called American Morning, a guy-gal tag team who play it mostly straight, most "fair and balanced" of the morning cable gabfests.  Bit dull, but lots of news, so if it's info ya want, this is the one to watch.  Lefties and Righties often appear.
  • Fox News:  Fox & Friends, smarmy group of two guys and a gal.  Opinionated, but good chemistry.  A bit factually-challenged (completely misunderstand polling, for example).  Same set of guests.  You'll never see a Democrat or liberal.  Least interesting of all the cable offerings.
  • Headline News: Morning Express with Robin Meade, just in case you don't know here name it's there in the title. A little like getting your news from your teenage daughter.  Still, personable, likeable.  Light on info, heavy on fun.  Get your news with sugar.
  • MSNBC:  I've grown to like Morning Joe.  Good cast of characters, interesting guest hosts.  Background music too loud sometimes, too many people talk at same time, but strangely I find this one the most compelling of all of the above.  Left and right presented, as well as Starbucks (the sponsor).
  • Broadcast Shows:  I'm ignoring the three networks and their morning shows because, frankly, I never watch 'em.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Clear Thinking?
Have Clean Teeth

Apparently good oral health equals better thinking, so says this news story
The study based on adults aged 60 and older found those with the highest levels of the gum disease-causing pathogen Porphyromonas gingivalis were three times more likely to have trouble recalling a three-word sequence after a period of time.
So, break out that toothbrush and floss.  Not only have people more willing to spend time in your presence, but improve your short-term memory as well.

All we need now is a political knowledge survey that also asks questions about oral hygiene to see if indeed there is a link.    

Friday, November 13, 2009

Knowledge Quote of the Day

Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge.
Others only gargle.

 - Woody Allen                                   

Thursday, November 12, 2009

King Replaces Dobbs
Can Straight News Win?

According to this story, John King will take over the CNN time slot left by Lou Dobbs' resignation.  All fine and good, but it does raise the question whether so much "straight news" can succeed against two networks -- Fox and MSNBC -- that play mostly kooks on the left and kooks on the right at the same time (Most of CNN's kooks, now that Dobbs is gone, can be found on Headline News).   I'm thinking not.  If this attempt at a broader penny press approach works, then people get a more, ahem, fair and balanced approach to news.  But all the market trends indicate that's not what the shrinking cable cult news addicts really want.  And when the ideologues completely control the evening cable news, political learning suffers.

Twitter and Conferences

The magic of Google Books reveals this chapter on how Twitter helps at conferences by "micro-connecting a diverse online audience."

It's easy to make fun of Twitter.  Really easy.  But this chapter makes a pretty lucid argument as to its usefulness and, I admit, I'd never thought of it as a pre-conference, during conference, and post-conference tool -- probably because I avoid conferences.  The learning part, the what people know, is obvious.  We instantly know what people think about what someone is saying during a conference rather than waiting for later in the bar over drinks to hash it out.  That's the good side, though tweeting constantly probably also means you miss a lot of what is said. 

Slant and Exposure from D.C. Newspapers

Here's an interesting field experiment in which authors randomly assigned real live people to receive either the Washington Post or the Washington Times or to a control group of neither newspaper to see what effects were found.  I love real-world studies like this.  Sure, they're messy, but they're also generalizable beyond the intensive study of the college sophomore.

They looked at something they call a Fact Accuracy Index, which is a fancy name for accurately answering three questions about number of dead in Iraq and correctly identifying a couple of political actors.  The Specific Issue Index is a 5-question current events quiz.  The Broad Policy Index is an odd index of four questions about the parties, President Bush, and self-placement -- I think all on a left-right continuum (though it's not exactly clear).  The theoretical reasons for these interrelated measure is unclear to say the least, and to me rather baffling.  Even the study's cited references are disturbingly innocent of the serious, seminal works in political knowledge research.  Very odd.

Okay, enough bashing.  It mattered not at all whether subjects received the Post or the Times on political knowledge, turnout, or attitudes.  Receiving a paper did result in more support for the Democratic candidate (interesting given the Times is considered conservative).  The authors try, not very satisfactorily in my opinion, to explain this effect.  I don't envy them on this.  It's hard to figure.

As an aside, it is kinda odd to find this published American Economic Journal.  But, in defense, I've seen a few bias/slant studies of media content in economic journals, so maybe this makes more sense that it seems on the surface.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fun with Google

How many ways can I translate Political Knowledge?  A jillion of 'em using Google's translate function.
  • Dutch: politieke kennis
  • Czech: politické znalosti
  • French: connaissances politiques
  • Spanish: conocimiento político
  • Swedish: politisk kunskap
  • Portuguese: O conhecimento político
  • Irish (I assume Gaelic): eolas polaitíochta
  • Korean: 정치 지식
  • German: politisches Wissen
  • Chinese: 政治知識
  • Bulgarian: политически знания
  • Russian:политические знания
Gotta love Google.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hated Phrase of the Day

My hated phrase of the day:  "excellent adventure."  As in Barry Hollander's Excellent Adventure.  Please, try some originality, folks.  And yes, we've done it recently in my college.  A Google News search found 40 uses of a tired phrase that is no longer excellent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Political Knowledge Across Countries

The magic of Google Books brings us this chapter that examines what people know across several countries, as measured in part by candidate recognition.  The consistent predictors? 
  • Education is a consistent factor across the 23 countries studied.  No surprise there.
  • Voters know more than non-voters.
  • Age has a weak but positive relationship with knowledge but the authors note that if you look carefully, those of middle age know more than young or old.
  • Gender matters a little, with the traditional finding that men score higher than women.  I blogged extensively about studies that attempt to explain why.
  • The electoral system matters -- but only a little.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Internet and Social Connectedness

That remarkable place, the Pew Center, has a new report out that challenges the conventional wisdom -- and previous research -- that the Internet leads to fewer real-world social connections.  Absolutely worth the read if you do work in Internet, social capital, or connectivity among people.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Owning a TV Station

It's kinda cool, and a bit retro, that my college bought a TV station.  Given our Internet age, it's as if we're living That 70's Show

But there are some interesting research possibilities in having your own station, concepts you can study by having control over content and programming.  A lot of these possibilities are beyond the scope of what people know and get into other research areas, such as management and audience studies, but I think if the folks who work with the station and video can figure out ways to manipulate programming we can better understand how people learn about certain issues -- our main topics usually being poverty and health.

How do you do that?

Not the old fashioned way, like in print, where you might randomly assign readers to different versions of stories or even editions of the newspaper.  That's hard to do with a television signal.  But the folks who do this stuff can devise a series of programs on an issue and explore how much this raises audience awareness or likelihood to seek out some health care.  Even better, from a research standpoint, they could craft webcasts where you do get real manipulation of content to explore what works and what doesn't work, hopefully something beyond the tired old studies of college sophomores sitting in a laboratory, watching TV and filling out a questionnaire.

Political learning is a bit more difficult, but I think it might be interesting to do one week of newscasts in one style, measure responses, and then do the next week in a somewhat different style, and measure responses (learning, interest, etc.).  Maybe one week could focus more on straight news, the next week on more narrative styles of storytelling, and see then which seems to work.  The stories themselves would not be equivalent -- so it's hardly a perfect experiment -- but you gain a lot in generalizability.

But the area most ripe for this kind of research is priming.  TV news, in particular, has a powerful priming effect, as was detailed at length in the excellent book, News That Matters.  I'd love to see a research program using WNEG that attacks some area -- health or public affairs or whatever -- along these conceptual lines, given the access and control one can have over content in a station owned by a mass comm program like Grady.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

CNN Knowledge Challenge

A noisy and clever knowledge test available now by CNN.  Has music like a Lord of the Rings movie to begin but once past that you get a bunch of hosts pitching why you should pick them.  Listen because a few of them are kinda funny.  Pick one, watch an advertisement, then take on five multiple guess questions with 30 seconds to answer.  Faster you are, higher your score.  And links are available to learn more, which is very nice.  And you can go to round two, then get more ads, then a lightning round.  Etc. etc. 

It's a Competitive Jungle
and a Dangerous World

Where do our ideological preferences come from?  Why do we think of ourselves as a conservative or liberal? 

This study attempts to get at the psychological foundations of our "ideological affinities" and one of the keys to understanding this, they argue, is expertise.  Or, as they say:
In this study, we examined the role of expertise with respect to two pre-political worldviews, i.e., competitive-jungle beliefs and dangerous-world beliefs; and three ideological attitude systems, i.e., social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, and the general left–right dimension.
Scary stuff, full of academic jargon and cruel-sounding labels. Let's break down the key terms:
  • Competitive Jungle -- do you see the world as a ruthless, competitive place.  A jungle.  Dog eat dog.  Insert your favorite cliche here, but I think you get the idea.  Measured on a 13-item scale that includes such statements for agreement as "It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times."  Told you, cliches even find their way into questionnaires.
  • Dangerous World -- is the world a dangerous and threatening place?  Measured by a 10-item scale with such statements as "There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack somebody out of pure meanness, for no reason at all."  I'm scared just typing this.
  • Social Dominance Orientation -- sixteen items with such statements as "Some groups of people are
    simply inferior to other groups" to tap how much you see dominance as a role in society.
  • Right-wing Authoritarianism -- a 12-item index, including such gems as "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children can learn" that attempts to measure, you got it, authoritarianism from the right (versus the left, but that's a big theoretical debate for another day).
  • General left-right dimension -- just what it says, the classic ideology measure, but they ask two questions, one about social and one about economic issues, which is good.  The two are highly correlated and combined for an overall measure.
  • Expertise -- Eleven factual questions of political knowledge, what people know, such as "What job or political office does Dick Cheney hold." 
Okay, I've spent more time than I should describing this, but at least I saved you the time of wading through the methods section and teasing it out yourself.  So what'd they find?  That expertise strengthens the relationship between the two pre-political worldviews of Competitive Jungle and Dangerous World beliefs.  So what?
Rather, the relationship between psychological variables and ideological affinity is notably stronger among those with an expert understanding of politics and abstract political ideas.  While experts have the information and understanding needed to choose ideological positions maximally consistent with their underlying needs and views of social life, those who lack political expertise appear to make ‘‘noisier’’ choices among the various ideological options on offer in any given political environment.

Simply put, if I'm getting this right, people with little expertise struggle to align their worldviews with their political ideology.  But more broadly, the point is that political ideology is formed by people's needs and  worldviews, and expertise -- what people know -- plays a part in making these more consistent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Out of Touch?

Are the media "out of touch with average Americans"?

No surprise.  Most people say yes.  A mid-October CNN poll shows that 70 percent answer that yes, "the media" are out of touch.  Twenty-nine percent say "the media" are in touch.  One percent (about 10 of the 1,308 people surveyed) said they are unsure.  Me too.

Note my use of "the media" above.

Why?  Because wtf does "the media" really mean?  CNN?  Highway billboards?  My local newspaper?  That stupid t-shirt a student wears in my class?  The bumpsticker on some car that brags that a kid is on some school's honor roll?  They're all "the media."  Thus the question is so vague, so meaningless, that it's hard to interpret.  At least they could have asked about "the news media."  Still vague since it might, or might not, include Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart, depending on how the survey respondent interprets what is news and journalism.

Media permeate our lives, from that swish on your sneakers to your favorite novel to bad television to, well, just about everything. 

In other words, we can safely say that 70 percent of average Americans agree that nearly everything is out of touch with average Americans. 


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Grumpy is Good

According to a BBC story:
An Australian psychology expert who has been studying emotions has found being grumpy makes us think more clearly. 
Cheerfulness leads to creativity, but grumpiness leads to attentiveness and careful thinking.

Hasn't worked for me yet, but I love the study results.

(thanks to colleague Leara Rhodes for pointing this one out to me)

Paperless Big City

What's it mean when a big city loses its metro paper? 

good column gives one point of view, but the subhead says it all:  job loss, unwatched local government, and rising cultural illiteracy.  What people won't know is obvious, what the bad guys are up to.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Issue Publics

There is a long-standing approach that argues most people can be grouped into issue publics, topics they care greatly about.  I'm skimming a fairly new book entitled Moved to Action (with a long post-colon subtitle) that examines what motivates people to participate in politics, especially when inequality plays a role. 

There's a nice graphic on page 62 (Figure 3.2) that illustrates the idea of issue publics quite nicely. A huge majority of people care deeply about one, maybe two topics. "The key point is that many people in these data are specialists, not generalists," writes Hahrie Han, the author.  "They appear to direct their personal concern toward specific issues, rather than focusing on politics more generally."

The book is broader than this, of course, but I'm using this as a kickoff on the topic of issue publics from a news media and what people know perspective.  The cult of cable news kinda feeds the sense of issue publics in its continuous coverage of a handful of topics.  The cable talking heads create, nurture, and maintain these issues.  Then again, that's basically journalism's job -- to identify what is news and push it higher on the agenda.

In terms of political knowledge, you might suspect that the more issues one cares about, the better one might do on tests of knowledge.  Not necessarily.  There is breadth of knowledge, and there is depth of knowledge.  These two combined often create a cognitive complexity measure, a topic for another day.  Depth of knowledge in a few issues is considered good, but so is breadth of knowledge -- the ability to discuss a number of topics intelligently or at least to care about and understand the basics.  Some worry we are narrowing our knowledge base thanks to cult cable news and talk radio, that people know a few topics that matter most to them (or they've been told matter to them, over and over).  I'm not so worried because people have always has tunnel vision in terms of issue relevance.  For politicians and political strategists, it's a matter of pushing the right buttons.  For journalists, it's covering how those buttons get pushed and whether they matter.