Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Women Know

Men know more about politics than women.

At least that's what you'd think based on a zillion years of political knowledge research.  The sex variable is a consistent, significant predictor of political knowledge in its various traditional formats -- and almost always in such a way that men score higher than women.

But, as you may know, I love digging up the exceptions.  I've found a number of studies that attempt to explain this effect, and I've blogged about them.  Here's another (abstract here).  Quite simply, the gender gap disappeared or even reversed when the measure of political knowledge turned to the more "practical" aspects of the concept, such as benefits and services, rather than the mere recall of names.

Previous studies I've pointed to have shown women do better when they're asked about politicians or public figures who happen to be female rather than all male.  Also men tend to guess more than women, so they often get it right while women are more likely to say "don't know."  Depending on how you code your political knowledge index, this can make a difference.

But this latest study is interesting in that it looks at the kinds of knowledge.  And the authors also explore the consequences in terms of voting to the political left or right.  Neat stuff both from a methodological perspective and, I suppose, if you're a feminist scholar.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Of Blogs, Twitter, YouTube...

Here's an interesting content analysis that finds not only do blogs, Twitter, and YouTube differ from the mainstream media, they differ from one another.  Only once in 29 weeks studied did the three "social media" outlets agree on the top story.
Bloggers gravitate toward stories (often political) that elicit emotion. Twitter is squarely focused on technology. YouTube, while its top story was often seemingly random, has social media's most international mix of stories.
 The full report is here. And even more detailed one about blogs is here.

Blogs were most like the mainstream media, followed by Twitter and then YouTube.  Keep in mind these are broad categories, such as "health and medicine" or "politics/government," not specific stuff like Dancing with American Idol or similar crud, so there's plenty of room for agreement -- and, apparently, disagreement.  Blogs focus more than the mainstream media on such topics as science and technology, while the evil MSM spends more time on health, medicine, and the economy.

Twitter, or rather those who use the site, is crazy about tech.  Forty-three percent of tweets were about technology, suggested a lot of geeks talking to a lot of geeks.  Apparently no one on Twitter worries about the economy (1 percent).

Friday, June 25, 2010

The American public is mad as hell -- at both political parties, at least that's the news from a new CNN poll.
But the survey also indicates the public continues to blame the GOP more than the Democrats for the country's current economic woes even though the Democrats have controlled both the White House and Congress for a year and a half.
Which I find interesting given Obama's having to wrestle with a major environmental disaster, a sputtering economy, an indeterminate pair of wars, and the frothing at the mouth by TV and radio talkmeisters of the Beck-Hannity-Limbaugh persuasion who continue to pound the administration.

You can read a full pdf of the report here, but it's rather slim.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Local television news has struggled during these tough economic times, more than most people probably realize.  Given that for many people, local TV is the only news they consume -- and given the relative lack of quality found in such "news" -- it bears examining.  Today I came across two interesting pieces:

1.  Fox affiliates, those local stations tied to Fox, are supposedly downplaying their affiliation to the conservative cable network.  That makes sense given the socio-economic breakdown of the local TV audience, which doesn't exactly match that of Fox News.  Smart move. 

2.  TV station profits seem to be increasing, according to this report.  That's good news given that, as mentioned above, many people rely on TV to get an admittedly thin version of what's happening locally.  No idea if this means my college's own station, WNEG, is also actually making money.  One can only hope.  But local TV stations need to remain profitable and providing at least some news to folks who don't read, don't use the Internet, and generally don't pay all that much attention to news in the first place.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong in Science Literacy

Here's an interesting post about who is getting it right and who is getting it wrong when discussing science literacy.  Well worth your time if you're into what people know about science.  I'd comment more but, c'mon, it's summer.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sober Media II

I blogged a couple of days ago about this new, interesting study in Public Opinion Quarterly that created a dichotomy between sensationalist media and sober media.  That earlier posting focused on the methodological validity of that dichotomy, particularly as measured in the POQ study.  Today, the results.

The dependent variables centered on attitudes about state and federal courts and a major aspect of this is not only the sensationalist/sober dichotomy but how it interacted with political sophistication to predict attitudes about the courts.  Sophistication here was measured by a set of interest and knowledge questions pertaining to the courts.  To review, sober media were considered newspapers and network television news, while sensationalist media were considered talk radio and cable news. The authors subtracted one from the other to create a scale.

Figure 2 in the study is fascinating.  Imagine the x-axis as a measure of sophistication, the further right you go, the higher it is.  The y-axis, the dependent variable, is diffuse support of the courts.  For those who prefer high sensational media, greater sophistication leads to a decrease in support.  For those who prefer high sober media, greater sophistication leads to greater support.  It's a classic X interaction.

Essentially, the use of sensational media moderates the impact of political sophistication, which by itself leads to greater support of the courts.

In other words, media bad.  Only certain media ... cable news and talk radio, at least when used more than other more sober media, like newspapers and network TV news.  And this holds even when statistically controlling for party identification, age, sex, race, education, and trust in government.

We're starting to see a picture now of television news -- when it's good for folks, such as those low in interest or education, and when it's not so good.  Also becoming clearer is our understanding of how a fragmenting media marketplace with non-mainstream news sources are impacting what people think or know about their political world.  Unfortunately, the picture -- as it becomes clearer -- also becomes less attractive.

See the first link above, to the previous blog post, for details about the study.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sensationalist and Sober Media

Sober media?

The latest issue of Public Opinion Quarterly includes a fascinating study of how the media influences attitudes about the American court system.  All well and good, but the fascinating part comes not from the relationship between news and attitudes about the courts, but the methodological approach taken by the authors in discriminating between sensationalist and sober media.

Stay with me.  It's worth the ride.

The authors write: "Our theoretical claim is where an individual receives information about the courts will shape the way they think about the courts."

Yup, can't argue with that.  The fragmenting of the news media has led to a number of potential differences between folks who, for example, get their news from Glenn Beck versus those who get their news from The Economist.  According to the authors, sensationalist media deconstruct court rulings in such a fashion as to result in less "diffuse" and "specific" support (these are terms described elswhere in the paper). 

Sober media, according to the authors, "focus on the legalistic nature of court processes" and will reinforce views "above the political fray."

This is important and I couldn't agree more, other than to be bitter about not thinking of it first.  Where it all begins to unravel comes from -- as is often the case -- in the methodological details.

In measuring "differential media exposure," as they call it, they distinguish between sensationalist media (political talk radio and cable news) and sober media (newspapers and network news).  They measure exposure to each and use a simple formula, shown below:

Differential Media Exposure =
(talk radio + cable news) - (newspaper + network news)

While I buy that the majority of talk radio tends to fit here, I'm not certain cable news is so easily collapsed into a sensationalist category.  And there's little evidence provided by the authors, or in any content analyses I'm aware of, to immediately support such a conclusion.  It feels right in my atheoretical gut, but so does a good dark beer.

But what they've done here is broken some interesting new ground, a fancy way of saying the rest of us can now use this formula to justify our own analyses.  And one study will build upon another, but what we don't really know -- other than in our own respective atheoretical guts -- is whether this sober to sensational media dichotomy is sound and sober, or a wee bit tipsy.

Tomorrow, a bit more about the results.

Article Details
Christopher D. Johnston and Brandon L. Bartels (2010), "Sensationalism and Sobriety: Differential Media Exposure and Attitudes Toward American Courts, Public Opinion Quarterly, 74, 260-285. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jon Stewart and Diminishing Returns

Watching Jon Stewart has diminishing returns.  Yeah, you can insert a joke here if you like.  Seems too easy, so I'm gonna move on.

There's a new study out, though, that finds watching Jon Stewart's The Daily Show leads to greater attentiveness to the news, but the more you watch, the less of an effect it has.  The International Journal of Public Opinion Research article also notes that one-out-of-five viewers have little interest in politics -- fascinating given the content of the program.

A major point gets to the crux of the argument between those who believe enertainment news programs either fail to inform, or actually do inform, some people.  This article falls on the "inform" side, suggesting that many with no interest are exposed to some news and information, thus leading to greater attentiveness and, I suppose by default, greater knowledge.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Two Kinds of Knowledge

Here's an interesting article about two kinds of knowledge, that of science and that of indigenous peoples.  "Traditional knowledge" should partner with science, it's argued -- and let's face it, it is difficult to argue with that as long as we don't go too far afield into the wacky.  But here's a really good point:
“Indigenous peoples know what kind of information they need to make the right decisions, but it is difficult for them to access the information. Scientists, on the other hand, have a lot of information, but do not know what the indigenous peoples need. So we need you to tell us.”

I am writing less this summer.  Why?  Because it's summer, dammit.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Our Brains on the Internet

There's been an argument of sorts going on about whether the Internet in general (and Google in particular) is changing our brains and the way we think.  Today's column in the New York Times continues this debate, taking the side -- and one I sympathetic with -- that nah, not really, our brain is always changing in small ways as we learn but not in big, huge ways some suggest.  If anything, the Net may be teaching us to pay less attention or less deep attention since multitasking is a myth, but beyond that it's not really molding the way we think.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Economics Knowledge ... kinda

Here's a terrific column that criticizes a terrible poll designed to -- it says -- measure knowledge about economics.  Apparently this poll has been used elsewhere as support for various arguments, despite its flaws.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Loving the Millennials?

Millennials are those born after 1980 (like my two kids).  They're fun to, well, make fun of, but as this column points out, millennials also pose an opportunity for news organizations.  People in this generation may love tattoos and sleep with their cell phones, but they're also better educated and more interested in the world around them.  There is potential there for news organizations, and some hints in the data that that this group is better informed than previous generations.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Are We Divided? Or are the Elites Divided?

My headline above sums up an old political science argument -- are political divisions the stuff of real people, or just the stuff of political elites?  This brief but excellent The Atlantic column gets into it.  Ultimately he blames the elites, the chattering class, not regular folks, for the festering political divide.  And the data kinda support this, that most of the partisan divide can be found among political elites, chatterers, and news junkies -- not real live regular people.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Power of the Probe

A probe in survey lingo is a follow-up question prompted by a respondent's failure to answer a previous question.  For example, in the 2008 ANES, respondents were asked to identify Nancy Pelosi.  If they could not or did not answer, the interviewer was trained to prompt with "Well, what's your best guess?"

That's a probe.

Not all surveys probe an initial lack of response, and this can make a significant difference if we're studying something like political knowledge.  For example, the ANES made available a redacted version of the open-ended responses to certain questions, including those measuring political knowledge (download a zip file here of the Excel document).  It's interesting.  You can see the various open-ended responses, which I've blogged about previously, but they also include a column of the probes.  If a respondent gave an initial answer--right or wrong--the probe code is 5 (no probe) or one of the other codes that signify other stuff. 

A "1" in the probe meant they asked for a respondent's best guess.  And sometimes, the probe resulted in a respondent "guessing" correctly.  How often?  There were 1,294 instances of probes of the Pelosi question.  Roughly counting, I estimate at least a hundred instances, perhaps more, where the probe resulted in a correct answer.  And that's only looking at the Pelosi question. 

In other words, a probe can definitely influence the results, which I suspect has some bearing in analyses.  And this doesn't even get into what is considered a "correct" versus an "incorrect" response.

If I was so inclined, I'd do a paper on the power of probes to elicit a correct versus an incorrect response, and then position these competing approaches to political knowledge against key variables to see whether the probe improves results.  Honest, I'd do it, except I don't know where the heck I'd publish something like this.  Public Opinion Quarterly?  Dunno, cause I'm not sure I'm smart enough to successfully publish there.  It's full of folks far brighter than myself.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lesson Time: Knowledge

I blog here about recent research or new angles to what people know about politics and public affairs or how they learn from the media.  Today it's lesson time, a quick primer on knowledge.  Cognitive scientists break knowledge into a number of categories.  I know, just typing cognitive scientists makes me want to take a nap, but hang in there and let's look at the different types of memory:

Episodic Memory -- events or personal information about ourselves, such as our birthday or hometown.  When we talk about memory in everyday life, this is the one we most often mean.
Semantic Memory -- how we store words and facts.   The how here is important.
Declarative Memory -- the system for retrieving the "whats" of our knowledge, such as who is our congressional representative.  Often what we measure in political knowledge tests.
Procedural Memory -- the system for retrieving the "hows" of our memory, such as how a bill becomes law.  It's really hard to study this system.

So why do these matter?  Because there is a long (in milliseconds) process involved here in retrieving stored information, and a lot can get in the way.  Imagine the typical text news story in inverted pyramid in which the most important, or more recent, information is presented first.  On the Louisiana oil spill, the lede today is about BP trying to divert some oil with another dome, but if you haven't been following the oil spill at all, the lede won't make a lot of sense to you.  There are no semantic details to draw from to make sense of a "most important or recent first" approach to newstelling.  This is where we -- the royal journalistic we -- fail to engage some readers, especially young ones with little background info.  And this is why television news often works best for people who don't know a lot about the news, because in part the way its structured, in part the way video is used to "ease" folks into the news.

Print, in other words, is for those who already have a clue.

This raises all kinds of interesting problems for those who provide print news.  But that's another post for another day.