Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Skepticism is Not Cynicism

There's a very interesting study in the latest Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (and how often do you get to write those words?) that examines the differences between cynicism and skepticism, and how each plays a role the public's apathy and feelings that the government will respond to their needs (efficacy).

Simply put, skepticism good | cynicism bad.

So being skeptical leads to feeling government is more responsive, cynicism to feeling it's less responsive.  Being skeptical also leads to less apathy.  In other words, the cynics have tuned out, the skeptics are, well, skeptical, but in a good way -- that is, they're looking for more information and feel change can come.  Skeptics help fuel a democracy, cynics are a drag on it.

Okay, but what I want to get into here is the methodology.  Let's look at the two key variables.

Cynicism was measured by such questions as whether respondents agreed or disagreed with such statements as (1) candidates are interested only in votes, not people's opinions, and (2) government is run by a few big interests.  That sort of thing, all fairly generic.  No questions about media.

Skepticism was measured by such statements as (1) I think about news stories before I accept them and (2) I seek out additional information to confirm statements by politicians.  A mix of statements about media and politicians.

See the difference above?  One set of questions, measuring cynicism, doesn't mention the media at all.  The other set, measuring skepticism, has at least three of the six touch directly on the media and one indirectly does so.  Is this a problem?  Cynicism in this study is conceptualized as a lack of confidence in, or distrust of, the political system.  That's pretty global.  Here's a key quote from the study (p. 26, italics mine): "An alternative disposition to cynicism is skepticism, which also assesses individuals' critical evaluation of public affairs information sources, including elected officials and news media, but which serves a beneficial purpose rather than a debilitating one."  Somehow here is the suggestion that cynicism is also about information sources, but if you read the questions above used to measure cynicism, you see it ain't so, at least not as compared to the measures used to tap skepticism.  Why am I making a big deal about this?  In part because apparently the JMCQ reviewers didn't.  You can't treat them as so equivalent when the measures are so very different in the target.  One is global, the other is part global and about the system, part about the media.

Another useful line to examine in that quote above is that one of the concepts (skepticism) is thought to serve "a beneficial purpose" while the other (cynicism) a "debilitating one."  We generally see cynicism as bad, skepticism as good, with the latter suggesting further cognitive effort to resolve a problem.  The questions do get at this but let's be clear, only one set involves the media.  Not both.  Despite this, we have this line from the discussion section:  "Cynicism and skepticism both represent a negative posture toward public affairs and relevant media."  I believe you can say this about one but not the other, not based on the items used above to measure them.

Yeah, I'm nitpicking above.  It's a good study and includes an interesting path analysis to include satisfaction with the media.

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