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).

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