Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review

This is a quick holiday post to note the blog's year in review, the crunching of numbers and the most popular posts.  According to my analytics:
  • Total number of unique visitors to the blog: 3,870
  • Tuesday, Nov. 15, was the blog's most popular day.  The topic that day?  What men think women know.  No idea why.
  • The topic "cognitive mobilization" led most people here. Other important search topics were knowledge, emotion, titular colonicity, and recall and recognition.
  • Obviously more visitors came from the U.S. than anywhere else (3,006 visits), followed by the U.K., Canada, Netherlands, India, Australia, Philippines, Germany, and Brazil.
  • In all, 104 countries are represented.
  • In the U.S., Georgia is the most represented state, probably my own checks of the site plus that of a few colleagues and students.  Next come California, New York, Texas, and Florida.  All 50 states and D.C. are represented.
  • There were visits from 18 different cities in my home state of Tennessee.  None from my hometown of Lawrenceburg.  Sigh.
  • My visitors tended to use either Firefox or Internet Explorer.  But a bunch used Chrome and Safari.  
  • Related to above, the leading "network" was the UGA network as an Internet provider to visitors.  But after that it gets into the various flavors of ways people get online.  Second was Road Runner, followed by Comcast, Charter, Verizon, AT&T, and the University of Amsterdam (I reviewed some faculty research from there in a post and we kinda followed each other afterward).
  • In all, users from 1,589 different Internet providers accessed the blog.
  • I blogged the most this year in April (25 times).  In all, not counting this post, I wrote 191 separate blog postings.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Entertainment as a Source of Political Information

It's easy now to find studies that examine the blurring of politics and entertainment -- and the consequences on political participation and knowledge.  Here's one I like from the recent issue of Parliamentary Affairs that finds that entertainment programming not only motivates and informs young citizens but that this effect in indirect, having to do with perceptions of "authenticity" of the source. 

Interesting stuff.  Oh, I also like the study because it cites me.  Yeah, I'm shameless.

This study falls in that group of findings in which young people operate through "multiple norms of citizenship" (to quote Dalton), and reaching them simply through news is unlikely to be as successful as in previous generations.  As the study above notes:

Young people like to see themselves as media savvy and discriminating cultural consumers. They are wary of anything that they deem to be fake or inauthentic or patronising. However, one of our respondents voiced the thought that the presentation of news could benefit from lessons learnt from entertainment culture: ‘I don’t enjoy watching the news because it’s just so depressing, but if politics was thrown into something like games ... then I would know more about it that way’
The journalism side of me, of course, cringes.  The mass comm scholar side of me, unfortunately, nods in agreement.  To summarize, Mary Poppins had it right all along, that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."  In this case, the news and politics and public affairs, that's the medicine.  The blurring of news and entertainment, that's the sugar.

The danger is our recipe being heavy in sugar and light in the stuff that's good for you.  In the past I've called this my empty calorie hypothesis -- that people are tempted to fill up on soda and soft drinks and fast food.  Empty calories (entertainment forms of news).  They feel full, so they're less likely to consume the stuff (fruits, veggies, real news) that's good for them. 

The power of choice, with an explosion of digital channels and web sites and a million other ways to entertain ourselves to death, has led to a lot of people finding it easier and easier to flee the news -- or to insist the news be more like the stuff they find entertaining in the first place.  That leave us with a shrinking news audience, and with a soft audience that expects news to be, above all else, entertaining.


Mock Elections

Remember school and those mock elections?

The good news -- turns out they do increase the political knowledge of students.  The bad news -- turns out they don't really increase the likelihood of kids to vote when they're older.

So says a study of Canadian schoolkids, according to this story.

It gets worse.
In fact, the report suggests some elements of the program may actually “lead to decreases in certain outcomes – namely intention to vote, agreement that it is a civic duty to vote and confidence in expressing views about politics.” 

I don't have the study details in front of me so I can't weigh its methodology and findings, and like a person quoted in the above story I find the results a bit surprising.  Typically, getting someone to vote (mock or otherwise) kinda sorta trains them into voting.  Get a young eligible voter to cast that first ballot and they are significantly more likely to vote again next time around.

This study suggests, at least for mock elections, at least in Canada, the conventional wisdom doesn't apply.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Millennials Predict an Obama Loss in 2012

Just out -- a survey of millennials finds that more predict Barack Obama will lose in 2012 then will win.

According to the survey, 36 percent predict an Obama loss while 30 percent predict an Obama victory.  A third are unsure.

What the hell's a millennial?  Ages 18-29.

Here's the odd part (I'll explain in a minute).  The sample of 2,028 millennials, while pessimistic about Obama's chances, supported him against either a generic "Republican" candidate or specific candidacies of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry.  In the horserace polling, Obama led by a significant amount, sometimes double digits, against his likely GOP opponents.

Why is this odd?  Generally the candidate we prefer is the one we also tend to see as the likely winner.  It's called wishful thinking. I've written before it before, including this recent column in my local newspaper.  Read the column.  It's good, dammit, and you'll have a grasp of the basics of the concept.

Wishful thinking is a persistent, pervasive effect, but younger respondents in this survey suggest there's some pessimistic aspect to their political beliefs that offsets wishful thinking.  Cynicism?  Skepticism?  One clue, if you read the survey report, is a whole lot of young respondents, by a 4-to-1 margin, believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.  If you think that, then you'd be likely to extend that to the probable winner of the 2012 presidential election.

In other words, you expect the worst.

There are some other reasons why millennials don't follow the typical pattern of predicting your own preferred candidate will win.  Caring a great deal about an election outcome makes you more likely to engage in wishful thinking -- and this particular sample of younger citizens may be disengaged from the political process, therefore theoretically less likely to think, um, wishfully.

For you political junkies and methodological wonks, a pdf of the survey gives more details.  If you dig down, you find some other possible clues for the disconnect between who millennials support and who they think will win.  Question 50, for example, asks how enthusiastic they are about the upcoming election compared to 2008.  Not surprisingly, only 18 percent said they are "more enthusiastic" and nearly a third say they are "less enthusiastic."  That fits my argument above, that if you don't really care, you're less to be biased into seeing your own candidate as the likely winner.

Driving these less enthusiastic folks is a single word -- disappointment.  In Question 51 are a number of kinds of disappointment (Obama's policies, partisanship, etc.).  But it can be summed up nicely by that one word, disappointment. If I were a GOP consultant, I'd recommend this be my theme in 2012. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Facebook and the News

People don't use Facebook for news.

Yes, shocking, but a recent study describes an online survey of 1,050 respondents, a mix of college students, faculty, and staff, from a "large Midwestern university" (The Ohio State University?) to find this heady mix of folks don't really use FB for news.

There's some interesting stuff here, once you get beyond the odd sample, especially the use of variables called Facebook Intensity (frequency of use, along with how much it's a part of your life) and Presence (number of friends and how often you post).  We can quibble for hours with what these mean conceptually and whether methodologically the measures make sense together, but by using these variables in analysis some interesting results are produced. 

Table A4, near the bottom, provides a multivariate analysis with the dependent variable being FB news use.  The authors run the model in three steps.  First, they entered sex and age.  Both significantly predict FB news use (younger and female respondents were more likely to use it for news).  Second, they entered FB Intensity and PresenceWhen that happens, the statistical contribution of age is no longer significant.  The variables Intensity and Presence steal all the variance that was explained by age.  Third, they enter some Life Satisfaction and Introversion into the model.  The former is statistically significant, the latter not, and neither affect the other variables.

What can we make of this?  It's tempting to say that it isn't so much age as it is your relationship with Facebook that explains your likelihood to use the social networking site to keep up with news.  But if you look at the correlations, younger respondents report significantly higher Intensity and Presence scores.   Those variables just do a better job of explaining news use than mere age, which is important to know, because it suggests our relationship with a social networking site is better predictor of how we use it than simply age.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is Voting Futile? Survey says ...

This new story discusses a recent study that finds, well, here's the lede:
OTTAWA – Canada’s dismal rates of voter turnout may be rooted in negative experiences with politicians and public servants, according to a new report.
A Canadian thing?  Hardly. But the report linked to above has a great title of its first chapter:  Democracy's Great.  It's The Politics I Hate

I'm fairly certain you'd find the same result in the U.S.

There's long been a argument that voting is a ultimately an irrational act.  According to the Downs Paradox, the cost of voting exceeds the benefits received.  Costs come not in cash but in time spent keeping up, with making a decision, with getting to a polling place.  Toss in the ugliness of partisan politics and there's little wonder many people not only tune out of the news but are also willing to skip voting altogether.

The study in question here is based on eight focus groups.  The weakness of this methodology, of course, is a lack of generalizability.  It's strength, though, lies in deep meaningful responses, a depth of knowledge you can't really get from surveys.

To sum up:  people in the study were frustrated with the disconnect between the democracy they love and the politics they see.  

Partisan hackery and a fragmented media marketplace are drawing down that reservoir of trust so vital in a democracy. 

The reservoir, sorry to say, is running dry.

It's possible 2012 may break records, in the U.S., for lowest vote turnout in the modern age.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Favorite TV Shows: Democrats vs. Republicans

You won't often see me write these words, but Entertainment Weekly has a fascinating column today about the favorite TV programs of Democrats and Republicans.  Like in politics, they don't agree.  And the differences really get to very different approaches to how they understand the world.

I don't want to repeat the list (use the link above), but the results are a bit scary if you're of a conservative or Republican state of mind.  Sarcasm and what I'd call smarter (more highbrow?) TV appeals more to Dems (30 Rock, The Daily Show, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) while GOPers like a bit more lowbrow stuff (The Bachelor, Swamp Loggers, Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy).  Both like reality TV programs, just different ones.

Thankfully, Republicans also like such good programming as Mythbusters -- funny given the two hosts appeared in the rally by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (who Republicans don't like).  And not all Dem choices are necessarily good TV (best bad examples, Glee and The View).

And there are a lot of programs listed I know nothing about, probably because I'm not as much of a TV guy as I used to be.  Treme on HBO, for example.  Dems love show about rebuilding a working class New Orleans neighborhood, but for Republicans it doesn't even show up statistically.  Never seen it myself.  Modern Family is supposed to be excellent but I've never seen it either.  Dems love it, GOPers not as much.

On the story, you really want to click through to the second page because it moves from the partisan divide of favorites to the partisan divide of least favorites. 
  • Republicans hate Weeds (understandable), South Park (ditto), Jersey Shore (who doesn't?),  and The Walking Dead (which I don't get, with the Apocalypse and all). 
  • Democrats hate Swamp Loggers (there's a show about logging in swamps?  Why?), The Price is Right (okay, no Bob Barker), all of the "ghost" shows, The Ultimate Fighter (ya don't like it when people hit and kick people on the ground?  C'mon!), and COPS (because, of course, you're against law and order).
I always tell my journalism students that you can tell a lot about a person by asking what television programs they watch or what magazines they read.  Indeed, often at trials a lawyer will ask just that before agreeing for a person to serve on a jury.  TV shows, unfortunately, tell a lot about the person -- such as if you watch American Idol or even worse, Dancing with the Stars, how smart can you really be? 

But this EW column gets at the partisan divide in a completely different way.  It's about worldviews.  GOP/conservatives really like the gritty reality shows where people work, and work hard (logging in swamps).  Democrats/liberals like more intellectual heft, or at least intellectual playfulness and sarcasm, a more white-collar touch to their shows (The Office).  I did some worldview research back in my grad student days but a lot of that has passed me on by, but there's probably a good way to analyze these programming choices along those lines.  Any budding mass comm scholars out there, get to  it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fruity Knowledge. Veggies Too.

Yes, this blog for four years has focused on political knowledge and especially the media's role in maintaining what people know.  Sometimes, though, you gotta go elsewhere for content, dipping into the obscure and the arcane.  Especially on slow news/academic days.

And that bring us to -- what Australians know about veggies and fruits.

Told ya.  Obscure.  Arcane.  According to this story:

A new survey of young Australians has found one in two don't know how many servings of fruit and vegetables to eat in a day, and even fewer know the serving sizes of common fruit and vegetables.

Yes, the survey of a whopping 106 college students found only 54 percent "knew the recommended daily amounts of fruit and vegetables."  This is the "first concrete evidence young Australians don't know their fruit and vegetable basics."

The boldface above, that's mine.  Concrete?  A survey of 106 college kids?  I'm not saying I don't believe the results, I'm saying the methodological problems in such a small, narrow sample are enough to make me want to skip my fruit and veggies for the day.  But there is some funny stuff here.  Read below.
Some participants estimated the serving size of grapes to be just one grape, and others estimated the serving size for carrots to be the equivalent of 20 carrots, when it is 20 grapes and half a medium-sized carrot (or half a cup of chopped carrot).
Wow.  I think we can all agree this qualifies as a major nutritional fail.  Again, I agree the results are probably accurate, that college kids are clueless on this, but the way they got there, with such a small (random?  hard to say) sample makes me wonder about just how "concrete" the results really are.

And thus ends our obscure, arcane, methodological moment.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Year in Review (of Twitter)

You may or may not be addicted to Twitter, but the micro-blogging site has up its Year in Review that you may find interesting and just a little bit frightening.  It's a lit of the hot topics on Twitter in 2011.

From a news standpoint, this "world  news" category differs in important ways from the list of most searched via Bing and Yahoo (comparison here).  Twitter is more international, which makes sense.  Bing is the most U.S.-centric, again not a surprise.

Of the odder lists on the hot Twitter topics is the "food and drink" category.  McLobster?  Fried Kool-Aid?  On "movies" #1 is Thor (not half bad), followed by movies ranging from mediocre to good.  On music, you know it had to be that "Friday" song as most mentioned followed by people/bands best left ignored.

Keep in mind the Twitter list doesn't mean positive, it just means mentions.  Hence the "Friday" song playing so prominently.  Read the list yourself via the link above.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Top Cable News Programs (Fox, Fox, and Fox)

Fox News dominates the top cable news program audience numbers, according to this HuffPo story.  Hell, all Top Ten programs are on Fox News.  Double hell, Papa Bear Bill O'Reilly is #1 and a rerun of his show is #9.  The talking heads of CNN and MSNBC can't even beat reruns of O'Reilly.

But if you read the story, you'll see there's been a drop in the Fox audience and a rise in audience counts for the other networks.  This may be a simple ceiling effect for Fox (the news audience is only so big and when you dominate, you can only really go down), or it may signal something more telling, such as Fox Fatigue.  I doubt the latter, lean toward the former.  As the GOP presidential nomination fight continues, it's hard for me to see Fox losing much in terms of audience.

The GOP Prez Race

For political junkies it doesn't get much better than this -- the Republican nomination battle.  Mitt Romney hangs in there to deal with one challenger after another (Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, now Newt Gingrich).  

My hacked-together chart below, based on CNN polling data, shows how Romney has largely held steady (small decline of late) from September to today.  But look at Gingrich in red, feeding off the decline of the Cain Train as it feels the effects of the various accusations.  Perry dropped after bad debate performances and his odds went down even more this week as he confused the voting age.  Political junkies grab your popcorn, because this Romney-Gingrich fight is gonna be a good one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Personality and Political Knowledge

As a budding doctoral student I was trained in personality research from a heavy social psychological perspective (all hail Dr. Mary Ann Ferguson!).  I moved on, but I've always found the topic fascinating.  And as we all know, the Big 5 Personality Traits are a major focus of scholars and here's one study in American Politics Research that looks at these traits and how they line up with political interest and knowledge.

As an FYI, according to that source of all information (Wikipedia), the five traits are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  You can look 'em up if you like.

Back to the study.  It finds:
... that underlying personality traits affect whether people are attracted to political information and what types of information sources they are most likely to use. We find clear evidence that Openness and Emotional Stability are positively and strongly associated with interest in and knowledge of politics. 
But it's not that simple.  Although they found a positive relationship between Openness and watching TV news, "we find a negative relationship between this trait and watching local news programs."  Why?  These folks want diverse and challenging sources of information, the authors argue, and local TV news hardly qualifies as such.

Not surprisingly, they also find some interactions between ideology, the personality traits, and watching satirical faux news programs.  This gets a bit complicated.  Basically, Openness is more associated with being liberal and is positively associated with satire programs, while Conscientiousness, more associated with conservatism, is negatively associated with watching the same shows.  As Table A6 in the study shows, these relationships disappear (Conscientiousness) or are moderated (Openness) with controls are included for ideology.  Simply put, ideology steals much, if not all, of the variance explained by personality traits.

Still, it's a neat idea.  Most political research fails to account for individual differences beyond party identification, internal efficacy, or, sometimes, authoritarianism.  I'd love to see more of this kind of stuff.