Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Can People Know? How About Where You Are

When we ask about what people know, rarely is it this.  Shamelessly lifted from this Boing-Boing post, there's a geolocation app that "analyzes a person's tweets, Facebook posts, and Flickr stream to generate a map of where that person is and where he or she goes."

It's name?  Creepy. Or, rather,

Haven't tried it myself.  Yet.

Knowledge and Friendship

The more you know about what sets a friend off, what makes him or crazy, the better the relationship with that person.  That's according to a study described in this brief unsatisfying news story.

A quick caveat: the story says the study was published in Psychological Science, but I can't find it.  The two listed authors from the news story do not appear in the journal's online index of authors.  Despite being labeled as "published" it's probably been accepted and is in press for later publication. 

Back to what little we can tell from the short news item. People filled out a long list of behavioral "triggers" people might find annoying, such as being a perfectionist, and they answered questions about how much these trigger their friends.  Not knowing what set your friend off, that can affect the quality of a friendship (measured, I don't know how, given I can't see the actual article).  But this is kinda useful.  For example, my son goes to college next year and I may insist he and his lucky future dorm roommate engage in just this exercise.

Okay, so you're not surprised by the findings.  Still, it's a neat little approach to the study of friendship -- even if it smacks just a wee bit of researching the obvious.  But to be fair, no doubt there's a lot more to the study itself than the brief news story provides, both in terms of theory and methodology, so I'm more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Can Twitter Predict Elections?

In ancient times, oh about 50 years or so ago, we'd do man-on-the-street interviews to get a sense of who might win an election.  Then polls became the accepted way to predict an election outcome. 

Can Twitter do the job as well?

This study of the 2009 German federal elections suggests yes, it can.  While I unfortunately don't have access to the entire study, and therefore can't judge its methodological merits, according to the abstract the authors analyzed 100,000 tweets to find "the mere number of party mentions accurately reflects the election result."  Wow.  In other words, positive and negative mentions come up to roughly the same as the election outcome.

I've written about this before, in part about elections, in part about using Twitter to make predictions about what movies will succeed at the box office.   Does this mean Twitter will replace expensive polling and surveys?  Nope, not a chance.  A lot more needs to be done to see if this really works, and I can't imagine any serious political consultant going with tweets as the basis of an election strategy.  At least not yet.

But we already see a world in which Twittter is constantly analyzed along with more traditional data from focus groups to surveys to get a sense of the public's response to any number of campaigns, issues, or current events.   It's predictive power remains unproven, but I have a hunch it'll turn out to be fairly accurate, at least at the macro level.  What it won't do, at least yet, is allow you to break people into subgroups (women, Republicans, younger versus older) and explore more deeply what works for some people, what doesn't work for others.  So even if Twitter proves predictive, as of yet it's not particularly good in helping us understand the why of support.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some Finnish Comfort

Americans are politically dumb.  That's the conventional wisdom.  Okay, maybe not conventional, but you'll hear it said often enough -- usually by the losers in an election.  I'm more than happy to point out how poorly Americans do on many tests, from politics to history to math, but I'm also happy to point out when someone else blows as well. 

Thank you, Finland.

According to this story, Finns don't do so well themselves.  Or as the article states: "The result gives an unsettling picture of political awareness of the Finnish people."

Don't feel too bad, Finns.  I'd suck at a Finnish political knowledge test myself.  Or Finnish geography test.  Or, well, anything about Finland, because I haven't been there or to any of those neat countries located at the top of Europe.  I think I flew over Finland once, but that's about it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Humor and Learning

Do we learn more when laughing?  Does humor help, or hinder, learning?

The answer to that second question is -- yes.  Both.  At least according to something called Instructional Humor Processing Theory, which comes out of education research so I'm uncertain as to whether we can safely apply this to, say, whether or not people learn from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.  In the study I'm looking at, appropriate humor aids learning, inappropriate humor does not.  The latter includes other-disparaging (I assume saying bad things about other people) humor, the basis of my educational efforts, and offensive humor, also an important aspect of my pedagogical approach.  In other words, clearly I deserve the blame for my students not learning from me.

Can we apply these findings and theory at all to late-night faux news comedy shows?  I don't think so, which is too bad because it's an unanswered question whether humor gets in the way of political learning.  My gut feeling is humor draws attention, which should increase learning, but the laughter kicks in and we actually don't learn as much as we think we learn from the content.  We can only process so much information, and emotion can often get in the way of cognition.

So how do we explain surveys that find positive associations between watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and scores on political knowledge?  Cross-sectional data, even with statistical controls, can be awfully misleading.  I'm not saying there isn't a relationship, I'm merely saying we need more careful experiments to really tease this one out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Everybody Lies -- Especially about Church Attendance

As Dr. House famously says: "Everybody lies."

As my father used to less-than-famously say, people lie about three things: voting, going to church, and their gas mileage.

This is about the middle one, the lying about church. No preaching.  Instead I'm pointing at a new Public Opinion Quarterly piece on the overreporting of church attendance in the U.S.  We've known for some time that people exaggerate their attendance at religious services, but this study does something interesting -- it looks across 14 countries to compare how Americans stack against others. 

In general, surveys suggest a "yawning divide" in religious attendance between Americans and Europeans and Canadians.  Call it American religious exceptionalism.  But is this really so?  Using diary data rather than cross-sectional surveys, Philip Brenner finds Americans to "in line with a number of European countries."  Yes, American religious attendance is high compared to other similar countries, but so high as to qualify as an "outlier" and, according to these data, looks a lot like a few other countries.

What I find interesting is why this gap exists between what we say we do, in terms of religious behavior, and what we really do.  Maybe House is right.  Maybe everybody lies.  Or maybe this has more to do with self-presentation and social desirability, a sense of how we should answer versus what we really do.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What People Know isn't
as Important as We Thought

An article in the Spring 2011 Public Opinion Quarterly includes an article with a title sure to grab my attention: Rethinking the Role of Political Information (pdf of full article here).

Why did it grab my attention?  First off, I don't want to have to rethink anything.  How dare the journal and the author suggest I do so.  And yet here it is, POQ, saying I should.  Of course anything with political information dovetails nicely with what I scribble about here, so I skim academic journals for blogging material (because, let's face it, no real person with a life is going to bother doing this). 

Reasons enough, and yet here's the kicker for me -- it's a study that challenges the conventional wisdom.  Not challenge in an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting kind of way, but the author (Matthew Levendusky at Penn) does suggest, based on his analyses, we give too much credence to the power of what people know.  He does a nice job of discussing how much political information matters, or we think it matters, while managing to appropriately not cite me at all (grrr, c'mon guy, I need the social sciences citation hits).  In an analysis that gets a wee bit more complicated than I want to wrestle with here, he finds support for his notion that previous studies overstate the relationship between political information and political behaviors such as voting and participation.  Or, as he put it, "the effects of general political information are much smaller than previous estimates suggest, thereby opening up the possibility that other factors and other kinds of information ... matter to voters."   

In a large part, this matters mostly to those who do academic research in which political knowledge is a control variable in predicting political behaviors.  In a small part it suggests something more and something deeper, that perhaps what people know -- always thought to be vital in a democracy -- perhaps doesn't matter as much as we thought, and that the costs of improving political knowledge in the electorate will provide us few gained benefits in other behaviors, like voting and participation. That's a little depressing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Americans Fail ... Their Own Naturalization Test

Yup, it's embarrassing when -- as this column points out -- Americans can't pass their own naturalization test.  Drawing from the column, which drew from a Newsweek article:
  • 29 percent couldn't name the vice president
  • 73 percent couldn't correctly identify the reason for the cold war
  • 44 percent couldn't identify the Bill of Rights
  • 6 percent couldn't circle Independence Day on a calendar
The original Newsweek poll is here with a headline that asks, only somewhat rhetorically, How Dumb Are We?

Obviously this begs the question on how important it is to know these various factoids to participate meaningfully in a democracy.  The easy answer is yes, it's important.  The hard answer is -- perhaps not.  Is it rational to spend time and money to keep up with all this stuff when a single vote may not make all that much difference?  Is it even rational to spend time and energy voting?  These are Downsian approach questions beyond anything I'll try to get into here.  But even if you do believe in rational approach, you have to be at least kinda embarrassed by the numbers above.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Swearing on TV: It's All About Context

The same swear words are seen differently depending on the kind of television channel they're heard, according to a new study in Mass Communication and Society.

In the press release, the study found "some TV viewers believe swearing on premium channels and cable is less offensive than vulgarity on broadcast channels. Similarly, viewers are more tolerant of swearing on the premium channels than they are on the cable options."

The rest of the release follows:
This breaks from previous research stating that how swear words reach people does not effect how offensive they are. Authors Daniel Shafer and the late Barry Sapolsky, both from Florida State, and Barbara Kaye from Tennessee also found sexually suggestive words as the most offensive and excretory language as moderately offensive, while more mild language and religious blasphemy were less offensive. This applies in general conversation or TV viewing.

How offended they are by profanity was linked to the social, religious, or political group they are affiliated with. College student swearing, for instance, is generally more accepted perhaps because it often not taken literally:

College-age participants may be habituated to these words and do not find them as troubling as their status as indecent words banned from broadcast television would imply . . . indicating a connotative shift from their literal meanings to expressions of anger.”

The study also found that women tend to be more offended by swearing than men, as are conservatives compared to liberals, and regular churchgoers compared to less religious individuals.
Now a lot of the latter stuff falls into that "duh" category of masscomm daring to research the obvious.  I know.  I'm as guilty as anyone.  But actually you need to establish the obvious rather than merely assuming it to be so.  But the idea that people differ in their acceptance of vulgarity depending on the channel is rather interesting, and demonstrates once again the power of how people approach the media and the consequences those approaches can have on how we evaluate such content.

So cuss away, at least on HBO or FX or Comedy Central.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

U.S. Attitudes toward Nuclear Power in the Shadow of Japan

With all the devastating news from Japan, particularly the issues with the nation's nuclear power plants affected by the earthquake and tsunami, it's useful to revisit what people think in the U.S. about nuclear power.  One easy way to do this is to view polling questions, including the recent USAToday/Gallup survey after the reactor issues this week.

Respondents were asked March 15 whether they favor or oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S.  The results are an almost even split, with 44 percent favoring and 47 percent opposing (9 percent unsure).  Okay, both sides in the nuclear debate can take something away from this, but have opinions changed of late?  You'd expect so, given the news out of Japan.  A Pew survey last year, for example, found 56 percent of U.S. adults favored incentives for increased development of nuclear power. 

An argument could be made, though the questions are different, that the disaster in Japan has softened acceptance of nuclear power in the U.S.  But hold on.  ABC/Washington Post polls suggest less has changed than one might imagine.  These polls asked whether the U.S. should build more nuclear power plants.  In surveys from 2001, 2009, and 2010, the results look a lot like the ones asked just this week.  Forty-six percent favored more construction in 2001, 52 percent in 2009, and 49 percent in 2010.  In other words, roughly the same kind of split we see in this week's survey.

The takeaway?  Perhaps the survey a couple of days ago was too soon to truly judge current public opinion about nuclear power.  The same survey by this coming weekend could be much more critical about nuclear power plants, depending of course on how things go in Japan and the subsequent news coverage.

All we can truly hope for, of course, is good news out of Japan as it wrestles with these issues.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

State of the Media 2011

The gigantic State of the Media 2011 report is available, for those who love reading page after page about the, er, state of the media.  The last few years have qualified for the Bram Stoker Awards (odd factoid -- I was actually recommended for a Stoker once, for a short story.  I didn't win). It's been that bad, the state of the media.  Horror story, actually.  For example, below you can see the percentage gains (online only) and losses (everyone else) in audience share. 

So the reports of late have made for horrific reading.  And yet, and yet.  On the sorta good news front, adverting revenues have bounced back for nearly everyone except newspapers (which produce over three-fourths of the actual news out there).

I've yet to digest the entire report.  That's what Spring Break is for (um, instead of going to the beach, go figure).  If I'm surprised by anything that ties specifically to what people know, I'll blog about it -- such as the fact the number of news/talk radio stations continues to rise (there were about 1200 in 1998 and now there are about 3,500).  Important caveat on that last one, the data don't seem to separate political talk from sports talk, and ESPN has been very aggressive in planting sports talk stations around the country.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Expectations and Satisfaction with the News

Do people expect more from print versus television news?

Let's be clear, the majority of those surveyed say they turn to TV for news more than any other medium (though we're seeing a shift from TV to the Net).  So if people prefer TV news, shouldn't they expect more from it?  Or do they expect more from print because, well, their expectations of quality are different than their preferences?

I raise these questions not because I can point to a study that will answer them, but only to show the kinds of silly ideas that get stuck in my head in the middle of the night.

My gut feeling, without scouring Pew and other sources of such data, is that a news medium differs in the mind of most people on a number of dimensions. There is preference (TV is easy, entertaining, colorful, engaging, and of course suffers from delusions of adequacy).  But I suspect there are dimensions beyond preference.  We may prefer Dancing with the Stars, but we know other shows are better for us.  Indeed, respondents may say TV is better, but I wonder whether they also have higher expectations for print news -- in terms of fairness, or comprehensiveness, or simple good judgment and ethical behavior.

Here's an experiment.  Take a TV news story, create an identical (as close as you can) print version, randomly assign folks to watch one or read the other.  Make sure the story is something of an ethical lapse, mild at best, on the part of the newscast.  Maybe it's sensationalistic.  Give the stories to study subjects and see what they think.  I'm guessing, without any good theoretical rationale, that the disappointment will be greater for the print product than for the TV product.  This may be the print guy in me talking. 

Here's where it all falls apart.  If a person has a "relationship" with a TV personality they are more likely to forgive or argue away any lapses on the part of that person (think Olbermann, think Beck).  You have to control for that or just set it aside.  The real question is this: are there unconscious higher expectations for a print version of a story compared to a TV version of a story?  I'm willing to bet there are, but hell if I know exactly how to test it since creating a comparative version in both media is really difficult.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fun Friday

It's the first Friday of Lent -- no meat, sure, but also that means it's time to toss together a bunch of stuff this week that modestly touches on what people learn from the media.  Okay, in some cases it's a stretch, especially the first one.
  • Exercise, according to a study, curbs the cravings for pot.  I repeat this study for no other reason than (1) I find it humorous with lots of potential for jokes and (2) it's based on an N of 12.  Twelve?  Sheesh.
  • To keep a health theme, this story says a diet with olive oil can reduce heart risks.  I think we knew this one already, but this is based on a meta-analysis of 50 earlier studies.  I did a meta-analysis once.  Once.
  • In a case of the startlingly obvious, giving students quizzes before a test makes them do better on the test.  In fairness, an earlier piece of research I blogged about suggested that practice tests are better than studying at improving learning.  So I don't want to be too snarky here.  Only a little.
  • Gotta touch on social networking and here's my favorite study of the day, that use of social networking by homeless kids leads to risky sexual behavior.  But it can increase or decrease these behaviors, depending on use, the study points out.  Yes, can I have a duh from the choir?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Multitasking the TV

According to some U.K. research discussed in this story, 80 percent of young people use their mobile phones while watching TV and 72 percent comment specifically about the programs to social media, mostly Facebook and Twitter. 

I'd be excited if it were the news generating such interest and involvement, but unfortunately it's not.  "The most popular shows commented on by respondents," says the article, "include ITV’s The X Factor and Coronation Street, Channel 4’s Skins, E4’s Glee and the BBC’s EastEnders."  In other words, the fun stuff, not the news stuff.

So we have a potential upside and downside here, at least in terms of what people know:
  • Upside: When they do watch news (not often), perhaps young people also post to social media, thus helping reinforce their exposure to such information and, by extension, their knowledge.  It's a testable notion.
  • Downside: Do you actually learn while watching TV and posting about what you see?  Evidence from previous studies on multitasking suggests not, but as far as I know no one has specifically tested this with news and posting about news.  All you budding mass comm scholars out there, here's one to grab and go with.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Falling Fox?

This column gives us an early look at a new report that'll emerge next week about how the news media is doing -- audience wise.

The lede?  Fox News is hurting the worse, at least in terms of percent drop in audience, over the past year.  The international nature of some of the biggest news stories has hurt Fox.  The network is more into talking about the news than covering it, so it stands to reason that the upheavals in the Middle East do not play to their strong suit.  A number of the network's popular talking heads (Beck the most, but also Hannity and O'Reilly) are seeing drops in prime audience.

CNN?  Up, but only a smidge.  MSNBC?  Up, more than a smidge.  But this is at a time when more people are turning to the Net for news, so any smidge up is better than a drop down.

What's unknown are the reasons why people are easing away from cable news, especially Fox.  Partisan?  I doubt it.  Ideological?  Not sure.  Tired of the same old crud?  Very possibly.  Beck has worn thin even among Fox execs, or so the stories go.  Fox, in gaining a huge audience, has painted itself into an ideological corner and now has no easy way to extricate itself without pissing off its pure blood conservatives.  I'm not sure how many more GOP presidential candidates the network can afford to keep -- or kick off -- its payroll and see be seen by average folks as a reasonable source of news.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Misinformation is Just a Click Away

Here's a story about some fascinating research near and dear to my heart, the study of misinformation and myths people pass on to others (Obama seems to be the top target of this stuff, from birthers to whether he's Muslim).  I've not read the study myself, published in the April 2011 Human Communication Research, but the point seems to be that an old friend -- email -- may be more to blame than all those crazy web sites and partisan talking heads.  Why?  “rumors e-mailed to friends and family are more likely believed and shared with others,” writes the author, R. Kelly Garrett of Ohio State.  Makes sense.

Think of this as the two-step flow of mythmaking.  How often have you gotten emails with dire warnings and had to reply with a link to Snopes or some other mythbusting site to point out the world is not going to end tomorrow?  Get an email from a friend and, if they're not seen as completely kooky, it apparently carries a little more weight.  I'll read the full article this weekend and discuss further because this is an important step in understanding how these misperceptions emerge and grow.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Growing Knowledge Gap?

I was listening to a talk -- via the magic of iTunes -- by John Lloyd of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and he said one thing that caught my ear.  I'm working from memory, but he discussed focus group research that found a growing gap between those who follow public affairs and those who do not.  He didn't use the academic term knowledge gap, but his point was a good one and deserves discussion. 

It's a bit convoluted, but bear with me. 

With so many choices now available (cable TV, satellite, the Net, etc.), it's clearly easier now than ever before for those with little or no interest in the news to avoid the news.  Without such haphazard exposure to news, especially from TV, the least informed among us are even less informed -- or so goes the theory.  Those who want to keep up, those motivated to do so, or with the ability to do so, have never had it better.  So many ways, so many channels, so many choices. 

Hence, the gap.  Or the perceived gap, because as far as I  know no one has systematically tested this idea of late.  It makes sense, but it's damn hard to demonstrate a growing gap over time, especially as the kinds of questions we ask in surveys tend to differ just enough to make you wonder whether differences over time are real or merely an artifact of the kinds of survey questions offered in a given year.

My gut feeling?  The gap has widened, that Lloyd is right (as is Marcus Prior and a host of others, including myself, who work in this area).  But I'm not exactly sure how to demonstrate this with longitudinal data, at least not convincingly, though there are a few classic books from many years ago that did this (Paradox of Mass Politics being one).  I'm going to give it more thought because if I do find a way, it's an  interesting research question to tackle.  And maybe they'd invite me to Oxford to give a talk (I taught there for six weeks as part of the UGA@Oxford program, so I'm read to go back ... hint hint).