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. 

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