Monday, November 18, 2013

By Radio News I Mean ...

In research we often ask what I call global media exposure questions. You know, how often (or how many days) do you watch television news or read a newspaper. Generic questions, used for decades, and questions growing less and less useful. A lot of surveys now use "paper newspapers" and ask about Internet news sites. That's a nice improvement, but more and more surveys also ask about specific network use (Fox, MSNBC, etc.) or even down to the program level (The O'Reilly Factor, etc.).

Here, I'm talking about radio news.

When we ask someone how often they get their news from radio, consider what might be going through their minds? NPR? Those bits of news between music? Talk radio? The generic question is too, well, generic. It fails to capture the highly segmented nature of radio news.

Allow me to prove my point with some analyses I'm in the middle of and should be finishing instead of writing this. Let's look at belief in conspiracy theories. I'm looking at four -- two from the left and two from the right.
  • Theories from the Right: The "birther" belief that Obama was born outside the U.S. and that the health care law contained "death panels."
  • Theories from the Left: That the government knew in advance of 9/11 and that the feds directed Hurricane Katrina flood waters into poor New Orleans neighborhoods on purpose.
Yeah, both are nuts and you have to be a certain level of kooky to believe in them. Let's set that aside to examine my point that measuring a generic form of news exposure (radio news) fails to capture what we really mean when we answer a question like that. Below I have the four conspiracy theories and three radio measures. The first is just Radio, the generic measures. The second is to NPR, the third to Rush Limbaugh. As a nerd alert, these results are from regressions, so that means I've statistically controlled for the explanatory power of lots of other factors, such as party ID or ideology. In other words, it's the unique contribution of listing to these radio sources to the model. If you'd like the beta weights, lemme know. I can nerd them to you.

Radio Exposure: Generic exposure is mostly not related to any of the theories except the one about the death panels.

NPR: Listening to NPR makes you less less likely to believe in any of the theories, be they from the left or the right.

Rush Limbaugh: Listening to Limbaugh makes you more likely to believe the anti-Obama conspiracy theories and less likely to believe the leftish theories.

So when we ask about generic radio, we're missing a lot. Look at the NPR listeners, they're less likely to believe in any of this stuff. Of course the audience for NPR is better educated, but I controlled for the impact of education (and age, and income, and other stuff). Limbaugh's effect, even beyond these controls and even controlling for ideology and partisanship, still makes listeners more likely to believe the anti-Obama stuff and less likely to believe the anti-Bush stuff. Radio itself? Not much going on, which suggests by relying on a generic measure you can lose a lot of explanatory power.

What's different about these audiences, even after statistical controls? The Limbaugh audience is more anxious about their financial situation, the NPR audience less so. Anxiety and uncertainty can play a direct role in believing in conspiracy theories of any kind, not necessarily partisan ones.  That may be the clue here, one that deserves further study.

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