Saturday, April 19, 2014

The "Empty Calorie Hypothesis"

Drink too much Coke and you fill up on empty calories. Does the same apply to the news?

I've written about this before (see here, and here). The idea is simple -- if people fill up on "news-like" stuff (late-night comedy, talk radio, TV cable talking heads) do they feel so "full" that they are no longer motivated to seek out traditional (real) news? My "empty calorie hypothesis" predicts that yes, consuming such sugary content will make you less likely to eat your spinach (news).

Okay, fine Hollander, but how do you explain why people who watch Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or Bill O'Reilly tend to do better on tests of political knowledge than people who don't watch those programs? Explain that, Mr. Researcher?

Er, good point. And that's Dr. Researcher to you.

First off, we have to control for the fact that people who seek out such programming tend to be news junkies to some degree, so the causal direction gets mixed up. Also we need to control for education, the single most powerful predictor of what people know. Experimental research suggests you don't really learn all that much from humor faux news programming, or at least not as much as you think you learn. My idea is this -- the more you watch or listen to such programs, the more you feel as if you've met some subconscious goal of staying informed. Because of that, you're a little less likely to consume regular news. And because of that, you are less informed (all other things being held equal).

Some interesting studies have examined the kinds of news The Daily Show covers (the funny stuff) and the kinds of news it ignores (tragedy, death, etc.). In other words, relying on something like faux news programming is amusing as hell, but it provides a spotty view of the world. Stewart would say as much himself. He's there to entertain. Sure, inform to some degree -- especially those great interviews he does with folks -- but really he's there to make us laugh. News junkies, they'll watch him (or Sean Hannity, or whoever) but my argument is basically one of time. We only have so much of it. And goal-based motivation. We want to be informed, some of at higher levels than others, and if we "fill up" on some stuff, then we can't consumer the other stuff. And in this case, the "other stuff" is traditional, comprehensive, fact-based news.

I'm mulling over a grant proposal to study just this. I'm attending a grant-writing workshop in a week or so and this is me thinking out loud, in a less-than-theoretical way. I can baffle you with PhDweeb stuff, but there are sound theoretical reasons why my hypothesis should hold up, if tested in the right way. The consequences of this, of course, is all of us amusing ourselves to death. Democracy relies on an informed, not an entertained, public.

So exactly how will I research this? A few vague ideas:
  • First, demonstrate how people define what is news differs greatly from what scholars and journalists might define as news. In other words, entertainment is also seen, by many, as news.
  • Second, establish that people have some internal level of feeling informed that makes them comfortable. News junkies, high need. Most people, less so.
  • Third, establish that for some people entertainment-based programming indeed helps fill them up with, if not empty calories, a very selective set of less-than-nutritional calories. 
  • And of course prefacing this is why this matters, and what are the consequences if I'm right for the public, and for democracy.
Okay, that's my idea. So very easy to do, I'm sure. Nothing a big fat NSF grant couldn't fix.

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