Monday, March 29, 2010

Newspaper Measures
A Methodological Moment

I blogged a day or so ago about an interesting study that looks at local versus national political knowledge, the role media play, and the important socio-demographic differences that emerge depending on which kind of knowledge you examine.  Now I'd like to spend a few words discussing a key, yet odd, variable in that study -- newspaper delivery.

Permit me a methodological moment.

In studies such as this we typically see newspaper exposure, traditionally measured on that old, tired, yet sturdy 0-to-7 days a week a respondent says he or she reads the newspaper.  An improvement on this exposure measure is attention.  That is, for those who report at least some exposure, how much do you attend to it.  This is particularly helpful in studying television news, less so for print.  And yet the study I linked to above uses, instead, newspaper delivery.

What are the advantages or disadvantages?
  • Advantage I -- a respondent is less likely to exaggerate.  In other words, we often say we do some socially-acceptable task, like reading the paper or watching PBS, when perhaps we don't, or at least we don't do it as many days as we brag.  So this "delivery" measure helps.
  • Disadvantage I -- but, we end up with a dichotomous variable versus a continuous one.  A 0-to-7 scale is richer than a 0,1 scale in so many ways.
  • Disadvantage II -- and, many people read a newspaper at work, at the office.  The pass-along number boasted by the newspaper industry is about 2.3, as high as 2.5, meaning two or three people read a single issue of the paper.  The "delivery" item misses at least some of those folks.
  • Advantage II -- but, there's less error (statistically speaking) in that 0,1 measure.  Cleaner results, I suspect.  No weird distributions.
  • Disadvantage III -- and yet, and yet ... no one uses "delivery" so it's difficult to say how the results here fit with previous studies.  And use of key secondary data sets, such as Pew or ANES, will not give you a similar measure; those folks use some version of exposure and/or attention.  Hard to reproduce.
In all, I'm not enamored of the "deliver" item, and it loses above in a close game, 3-2. 

The "delivery" item has SES issues, I believe.  It also misses a lot of folks who may read the paper elsewhere.  But it does reduce some of the error from people overinflating their reading of the newspaper.  So you win something, you lose something.  But I believe, overall, you lose a bit too much to make it a viable replacement for exposure (even with all its flaws).

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