The Knowledge Gap and the Virtuous Circle hypothesis


Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the effect of media in increasing knowledge. This text is the first part of a serialised review on the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.


The Finnish Institute has embarked on a new programme strand dealing with the Knowledge Gap (henceforth KG). The KG is the differential distribution of knowledge between different socioeconomic groups, often defined by education level. As a result, there is a stratification between the knowledge rich and knowledge poor. This division had consequences for the quality of democratic deliberation as well as sustaining social inequities. A growing gap may increase social inequality as those who are better informed have the ability to use information (e.g. computerized databases or government leverage) not only to secure their own social position but also to prosper relative to those with less knowledge. The media is the primary medium through which people gain knowledge. 
Within the literature there are three competing views on the media’s effects: (1) The Virtuous Circle hypothesis, (2) the Media Malaise hypothesis and (3) Differential Effects hypothesis. The Finnish Institute will publish a series exploring the KG from these perspectives. This first blog post will critically introduce the findings from the research literature classified under the first of these perspectives: The Virtuous Circle Hypothesis.
This perspective views the media as potentially having a benign effect in people’s levels of knowledge and democratic deliberation. Pippa Norris suggests that there is an interactive process, ‘virtuous circle’, whereby those who are interested in current affairs will seek current affairs content from the media. This repeated media exposure will eventually increase their level of knowledge (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 138).
Others are optimistic about the potential of (new) media of not only increasing knowledge in those who are already interested, as suggested by Norris, but also in groups that have the least amount of prior knowledge. This section will explore the Virtuous Circle hypothesis with respects to three domains: changing content of media, how context matters in media effects, and the impact of new technology.
Content of Media
The mass media is the main source of important information for the public in developed countries (Hendriks Vettehen 2004, 416) , for example empirical evidence from Germany shows that almost every citizen is exposed to mass communicated messages during election campaigns (Schulz 1997: 58). Correspondingly, research findings show that those who consume news and current affairs programming have high levels of political participation (Norris 1996, 477), and that media consumption is more effective than personal networks in exposing people to views unlike their own (Mutz & Martin, 2001).
The virtuous circle research literature has conflicting views on how the content of media affects levels of civic knowledge. De Vreese & Boomgaarden (2006) find that the consumption of political news, irrespective of medium, has a positive effect on people’s knowledge and participation. Mcleod et al. (1996), however, find that it is the consumption of specifically local ‘hard news’ that shows the greatest increase in knowledge.
Television media consumption has been blamed for its malign effects on people (see discussion in chapter 4). The Virtuous Circle scholars, however, argue that the content of media is what matters as opposed to the media per se. McLeod et al. (1979) conducted a study that examined the media effects of the American presidential debate of 1976, which was the first time in 166 years that the confrontation of two strong candidates was being directly transmitted to the public via the media. They found that even though exposure was non-equivalent between different socioeconomic groups, the effect of watching the debate was to increase political interest and knowledge. They argued that watching the debates stimulated further consumption of subsequent media analyses (McLeod et al. 1979: 478).
In the same vein, Petersson’s (2006, 133) study on the media effects of the 2006 Swedish parliamentary elections shows that the consumption of political news from ‘morning newspapers’ and public broadcasters has  a positive correlation with political trust and knowledge. Conversely, those who use tabloids and commercial newscasts display the opposite correlation. These findings suggest that the content and style of reporting plays a crucial role in imparting knowledge.
Most studies argue that the consumption of ‘hard news’, defined as the ‘coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life’ (Patterson 2000, 3), has positive effects on knowledge. However, there are those who argue that explicitly entertainment-centred media consumption may also contribute to knowledge gains. For example, Baum (2002) has argued that ‘soft news’, defined as a story-orientated format with ‘the absence of a public policy component, sensationalized presentation, human-interest themes, and emphasis on dramatic subject matter’ (Baum 2002, 92), has positive effects on knowledge. Similar effects have been shown with regards to talk shows (e.g. Oprah and Leno) which increased knowledge in the most politically inattentive individuals (Baum & Jamison 2006, 958).
Undoubtedly being exposed to content about current affairs increases overall knowledge and therefore it may play a role in decreasing the knowledge. Though, unequal exposure or motivation to consume relevant information may increase gap, as argued by Tichenor et al. (1970). To understand how the media can alter the gap between the knowledge poor and the knowledge rich depends on the context of media consumption, the subject of the next subchapter.

Context matters

The media is best understood as embedded in society (Newton, 2006), therefore the social context determines how the media affects general knowledge. The most straightforward example how context matters is the contrast between media poor and media rich environments. For example, in 1992 Pittsburgh went through a period of eight months without a major local newspaper which coincided with a drop in knowledge levels (Mondak 1995, 525).
Another contextual factor is the level of social conflict. Tichenor et al. (1975, 21) hypothesised that the greater the social conflict in a community, the more the media will reduce the knowledge gap. For example, De Vreese & Boomgaarden (2006, 332) found that the conflict-driven style of reporting on EU affairs account for higher political participation in the Netherlands than in Denmark, even though the latter had more EU news items.
A high level of social conflict increases the motivation for knowledge, especially in times of political campaigns. Kwak (1999, 403) develops, on the basis of his study of the 1992 American presidential elections, a ‘three-way’ interaction model that accounts for education, campaign interest and newspaper attention for people’s acquisition of knowledge. In particular, he argues that when campaign interest was high more attention was given to newspapers and the knowledge gap between groups decreased. Conversely, when campaign interest was low the gap widened (ibid. 403).
Similarly, Strömbäck & Shehata (2010) develop, on the basis of a three-wave panel study, a model that shows the relationship between political interest, news media exposure and attention to political news. They find a causal and reciprocal relationship between political interest and attention to political news, and between political interest and public news media exposure (Strömbäck & Shehata 2010, 592).
In sum, the social context is crucial to understanding the relationship between motivation and media exposure. When there is generally a high level of motivation across different social groups, for example due to heightened social conflict, the media helps to reduce knowledge gap. When there is a differential in motivation, Strömbäck and Shehata’s (2010) model shows how the gap increases. One of the greatest changes to our information environment has been the adoption of new technology, the subject of the next sub-chapter.
Impact of New Media
The Internet has been the most profound technology to enhance our ability to communicate across space and time since the printing-press (Weber et al. 2003, 27). It has done this by greatly lowering the barriers to the access and the creation of information (Hargittai & Walejko 2008, 239). Therefore, our current information environment is highly conducive for increasing knowledge. Empirical evidence from the USA shows that as the costs of using the Internet have decreased, the more it is being used to look for information (Xenos & Moy 2007).
The Internet provides new channels to acquire political knowledge. The proliferation of news sites, blogs, e-mail lists and online discussion groups have provided new ways to participate and engage with fellow citizens (Ward & Vedel 2006, 213). Tolbert & Mcneal (2003, 184) find in their two-stage regression analysis on the impact of Internet on voter turnout, using data from the 1996, 1998 and 2000 American Election Studies (NES), that Americans were increasingly bypassing traditional media and turning to the Internet for political information. Likewise, McDonald (2008, 61) finds that online news increases political sophistication even when controlling for traditional media use.
In particular, the Internet has been lauded for its potential to reach out to politically inattentive groups, such as the young (Delli Carpini, 2000). For example, an experiment conducted by Lupia & Philipot (2005) indicate a good way to increase the political interest in the young (18-25) is to design websites that are specifically catered to them; presenting ‘political news that is more like MTV than The Economist’ (Lupia & Philpot 2005, 1137). Moreover, survey evidence from the UK suggests that the Internet has been especially good in mobilizing groups that are politically inactive offline (e.g. women, young, less-educated), implying that ‘e-stimuli and developing experience of the Internet increase the likelihood that one will engage in organisational contacting and online participation’ (Gibson et al. 2005, 578).
Lastly, the Internet has been credited for increasing political interest. Shah et al. (2005, 551) find that online information seeking and civic interaction have a greater influence on civic engagement than either traditional media or personal communication. McDonald (2008, 61) hypothesises that the interactivity and the use of visual images account for the fact that those who use online news express more interest in politics when other variables are held constant.
In sum, the Internet has made it easier to access and create information. Evidence shows that the Internet can be used to reach groups that are inattentive, therefore possibly decreasing the knowledge gap. Using the right ‘vehicles’ to transport important information, like ‘soft news’, can do this.  Though, it is unlikely to have an impact, as only a small proportion of the population is likely to tune into this kind of content (Prior, 2003).
Conclusions and Suggestions
In conclusion, the Virtuous Circle literature shows how the media can either increase or decrease the knowledge gap. The increase in the availability of information has the potential to increase general knowledge levels depending on the social context.  Trying to ‘untangle’ causal and reciprocal relationships between variables like interest, exposure and media attention is fraught with difficulties. Nonetheless, attempts to identify specific conditions for increasing knowledge levels is a more nuanced approach to the KG ‘problem’ than purely instrumental models that predict a straightforward relationship between the increasing availability of information and increasing knowledge levels.
After reviewing the literature there are a few possible ways to decrease the KG. Firstly, broadcast media can increase the amount of informative entertainment in order to inadvertently increase knowledge in an otherwise inattentive section of the population. For example, in the UK such shows would be ‘Mock the Week’ or ‘QI’.
Secondly, the Internet is a key medium to disseminate knowledge. It is important that access and the ability to use the Internet is further fostered. Moreover, it would be good to design websites according to different demographic groups to try to increase, say, their political interest. This would, admittedly, be a very difficult task to do as these pages would have to compete against an endless amount of other web pages.
Lastly, having localised media (e.g. newspapers) may provide content likely to be important and interesting for people. By subsidising these newspapers it would be possible to upgrade the quality (entertainment and ‘hard facts’), and a competitive price (if not for free) would help spread the newspapers.
*A full bibliography will be provided in the last entry of this series

5 thoughts on “The Knowledge Gap and the Virtuous Circle hypothesis

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