Sometimes you read a journal article and think, "Dammit, I should've done this study." Such is the case in the latest issue of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, fresh in my mailbox today. Even worse, the first two two authors are doctoral students. Humbling.
What's it about? To simplify, the dependent variables are political knowledge and political participation. No big deal there. These concepts have launched a million scholarly studies. But what they did is so obvious, and the results so interesting, that it kinda ruins my day. The study examines the difference between exposure to citizen journalism and professional journalism -- again, no biggie there -- but also trust in those media. Best of all is a two-way interaction I'll discuss in a minute.
The basic result is this: after statistically controlling for other factors, exposure to traditional news was positively associated with political knowledge while citizen journalism exposure was negatively associated with knowledge. Knowledge in this case was an index of four standard political actor recognition items. The results for offline and online participation are a little messier, so let's set them aside and focus just on knowledge.
Here's the interesting bit. While the exposure items line up pretty much like I'd expect them to (pro news positive, citizen news negative, in their association with knowledge), the authors also included trust in pro and amateur news. The citizen news media trust measure was unrelated with knowledge, but trust in professional news media was negatively associated with knowledge.
Let me say this again. Exposure to pro news is a positive predictor of political knowledge, but trust in such media is a negative predictor. This isn't terribly surprising, given that those who have the most to do with the news media tend to trust it less, largely because they are stakeholders or have been misquoted or know a lot about stories that journalists are forced to simplify, thus losing some of the nuances that come with any issue.
To clear this up, the authors examine a two-way interaction between the trust and exposure measures to find that among those high in trust of professional news media, exposure has no real effect on knowledge. But, among those low in trust, as exposure increases, so does knowledge. In other words, exposure to news increases knowledge, but only for those who don't trust the news. I'm not sure the discussion quite clears this up, and to be frank I need to think on it more myself before reaching some kind of conclusion as to what it all means. But it is fascinating stuff.