Knowledge Gap and the Media Malaise hypothesis

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the Knowledge Gap and the Media Malaise hypothesis. This text is the second part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.

This view sees the media as decreasing knowledge levels and having positively harmful effect on democratic deliberation (Newton, 1999; Norris, 2000). Recent popular books (Dobelli, 2010; Johnson, 2012) have expounded the harmfulness of the amount  of information in the news media and have recommended seriously circumscribing the amount of news people should consume.
Content of media
Many scholars see the content and nature of television media as being particularly corrosive for democratic participation and knowledge acquisition. For example, Putnam (1995) places part of the blame for low civic engagement and trust in government on the increasing consumption of television as it erodes social capital through occupying people’s time that would otherwise be used in collective pursuits.
The content of typical television media has been blamed for increasing political cynicism through displaying news items conveying conflict and political distrust (Robinson 1976, 70). It has also been seen as a ‘vicarious’ form of entertainment which posits easy explanations to sensational news and therefore breeds a sense of political participation when it actually promotes ignorance of important non-sensational issues and political passivity (Hart, 1996).
In addition to content, the way television media is displayed has been blamed for misleading viewers. For example, the ‘episodic nature’ of television has been blamed for making viewers less likely to attribute blame and responsibilities to public officials and therefore ‘…decreases the public’s control over their elected representatives and the policies they pursue’ (Iyengar 1994, 2-3).
Lastly, Graber (2004) notes that typical television programmes are presented in a way that ignores the ‘neurophysiological’ realities of humans. For example, the small breaks between news items are too brief for people to absorb new information effectively, or sometimes they are even filled ‘with distracting advertising information’ (ibid. 2004, 559)
Context and Media Systems
The change in media content is partly determined by the great structural change in the information environment. These changes are determined by two factors: the change in society and the adoption of new technology (e.g. television and the internet).
As aforementioned, the media is best conceived as embedded in society (Newton, 2006). This means changes in society are also reflected in the media. Modern societies have seen the erosion of traditional social ties that acted as stable sources of meaning and identity – such as conventional religious affiliation, party affiliation and social class (Blumler 1997, 398). This means that citizens are increasingly having fluid identities constructed from ‘disparate’ sources (Miller 1995, 432) . It is at this point that citizens are increasingly relying on the media to help them ‘navigate across a more complex landscape of competing structured and symbolic realities’ (Blumler 1997, 397).
In political life this change has manifested itself with increasing partisan de-alignment, decreasing party-membership and greater electoral volatility. This means that conventional political socialization has become less effective (ibid. 1997, 397). As a response, political advocacy has become more professionalized with traditional electioneering being transformed into political marketing in order to capture floating voters (ibid. 1997, 398).
The effect of this, according to Blumler (1997, 399), is that journalists resent that political news is being fed to them by professional spin doctors and therefore started to shift their focus from the substance to the process of politics. The resultant ‘race horse journalism’ tends to neglect the ideological differences between candidates and parties and, instead, concentrates on individuals and campaign tactics (Petersson 2006, 127).
The change in society has, at least in Europe, coincided with great changes in the media system with the growth of commercial channels. For example, in 1980 Europe had 38 public television stations versus 5 commercial ones, but in 1997 commercial channels (55) outnumbered public stations (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 123).
This commercialisation has been blamed for increasing the knowledge gap and political cynicism (Schulz, 1997). This is because public service television and commercial systems have different priorities. The objective of the former is best summarized by Lord Leith’s classic aim for the BBC: ‘to entertain, inform and educate’ (Holtz-Bacha & Norris 2001, 126). However, the key priority of commercial channels is to make a profit (Curran et al. 2009, 19).
The consequence of commercialisation is two-fold: the media system becomes more fragmented with increased programme choice (Schulz 1997, 62) and the quality of content of the media deteriorates with greater competition (ibid. 67). In other words, the more fragmented and commercialized the media system is, the wider the knowledge gap. Curran et al. (2009) find that media systems dominated by public service companies (Finland and Denmark) report more ‘hard news’ and have a more knowledgeable public when compared to the market model (USA) or dual model (UK). Their findings corroborate earlier research that find similar results for EU countries (Holtz-Bacha & Norris, 2001).
There are several reasons why this may happen. Pfetsch (1996) notes that commercial channels have aired less informational programming, for example in Germany the proportion of news has decreased from 10% in 1986 to 4% in 1993 (Pfetsch 1996, 438). Curran et al. (2009, 19) hypothesise that commercial media target a high-spending audience and therefore would neglect lower socioeconomic groups, which would help explain why there is a knowledge gap between disadvantaged groups (low socioeconomic status and ethnic minority) in the USA whereas there is none in Finland (ibid. 17-18).
Motivation and Selective Exposure
Our current information environment has seen the rise of a plethora of media outlets specifically catering to the media desires of particular groups. The possible effect of this is a growing gap between groups. This sub-section will discuss the importance of motivation in acquiring knowledge and how it interacts with our fragmented media system.
A strand in the KG literature sees motivation (e.g. salience, interest, involvement, or functionality) as the key variable for the acquisition of knowledge (Ettema & Kline, 1977). For example, Horstmann (1991) tested the effects of six different variables with three panel studies from Western Germany and found that motivation had by far the largest impact for the acquisition of civic knowledge. Similarly, Viswanath et al. (1993) ,using a cross-sectional sample from the Diet Intervention Project (CANDI), found the most motivated group acquired more knowledge than the least motivated, though higher education in the motivated group did correlate with increased knowledge.
The corollary to these findings, of course, is that if people lack the motivation for important knowledge they will not seek it. Prior (2005) provides a forceful argument on the effects of the structural change that has happened in our information environment. He notes that we used to live in a ‘low-choice broadcast environment’ that is characterised by only a few choices for media. In this ‘restricted’ environment people were often inadvertently exposed to important news, ensuring that even some of the people least likely to be interested in the political process received a rudimentary level of civic knowledge.
Now in our ‘high-choice environment’, with a plethora of media outlets catering to different interests, ensures that those who are least interested in current affairs are less likely to be ‘accidentally’ exposed to important news – or bypass them altogether. Conversely, those who are most interested in current affairs are now in a better position than ever before to increase their knowledge.
His argument is backed by evidence that shows that in America there has been an increase in television consumption but not in news (Hooghe, 2002). Even events that one would assume would elicit social conflict have not increased news consumption. For example, Althaus (2002) finds that the September 11 Terror attacks and the ensuing War on Terror has been accompanied by a general decline in news consumption.
Some commentators have suggested that low knowledge about public affairs is a form of ‘rational ignorance’. For example, Somin (2010) notes that in the USA the chance that a single vote would be decisive in the presidential elections is 1 in 60 million and, therefore, the ‘incentive to accumulate political knowledge is therefore vanishingly small so long as the only reason for doing so is to cast better informed votes’ (Somin 2010, 259).
If our information environment enables the least interested to avoid news, it also means that it can exacerbate the political polarization in those who are most interested in current affairs. The ‘selective exposure’ literature explores this question by investigating how our political biases affect our choice of media consumption. As such, this line of inquiry is based on Festinger’s (1957) seminal theory of cognitive dissonance which posits that (a) information that is congruent with prior opinions elicits positive feelings, and that (b) information that is inconsistent with prior opinions causes dissonance, ‘a state of mental discomfort and unease ‘(Cited in Garrett 2009, 680). Therefore, people will seek out information that reinforces their prior opinions (reinforcement seeking) and avoid information that challenges their opinions (challenge avoidance) (ibid. 680).
Recent studies have verified this tendency, at least in the USA. Iyengar & Hahn (2009) find that people’s political leanings affect their choice of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news. Likewise Natalie Stroud finds, using rolling cross-sectional surveys and panel studies, that political leanings affect their  choice of media source irrespective of media type (Stroud, 2007), and that selective exposure increases political polarization (Stroud, 2010).
Strong political partisanship itself contributes to widespread misperceptions (Kuklinski et al. 2000). Bullock (2006) finds that false beliefs influence people’s opinions even after they have been shown to be false. Similarly, Nyhan & Reifler (2010) devised an ingenious experiment to understand why political misperceptions were so persistent. They made subjects read out mock newspaper articles containing  statements which reinforced popular misperceptions in US society: the existence of Iraqi WMDs, the effects of Bush tax cuts and the belief that the Bush administration banned stem cell research (ibid. 311). The effect of providing test subjects with ‘corrective’ information was that the most politically partisan had their misperceptions reinforced (ibid. 323).
Some psychological research shows that dissonance is painful because it challenges people’s self-identity that is tied to their beliefs (Cohen et al. 2000). There is evidence that bolstering people’s self-worth makes it easier for them to be able to receive information that contradicts their beliefs (Geoffrey L Cohen et al., 2007; Correll et al., 2004; Nyhan & Reifler, 2011). Though, this measure is unfeasible from the point of view of public policy.
Lastly, emotions play a key role in human cognition, helping to sort out salient information from our environment (Bradley 2009, 10). Therefore, McGinnes & Elandy (2012) argue that news which elicit the strongest emotional reaction remain better in people’s memories than ‘neutral’ news. This, they argue, is behind some of the greatest irrational media hypes in recent memory, such as the swine flu ‘panic’ in 2009. This helps to explain evidence that shows that the more people are exposed to crime-related television news stories, the higher their fear of crime is, irrespective of where they live (Callanan 2012, 106)
In summary, motivation plays a key role in sustaining or widening the KG. The interaction between motivation and the proliferation of media sources means that a sizeable portion of the population can easily bypass current affairs news altogether. Moreover, the selective exposure literature highlights how it is now easier to stick to consuming media that reflects one’s biases and, therefore, has the effect of increasing polarization.
4.4 Impact of new technology
As aforementioned, the explosive expansion of the Internet and concomitant Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has increased access to information and has opened up new avenues for democratic deliberation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the content on the web is ‘about sex, sport and shopping’ (Ward & Vedel 2006, 210). For this reason many scholars remain sceptical about great hopes placed on it to increase knowledge and improve deliberation.
First, it vastly exacerbates the fragmentation of media system (Sunstein, 2001). The consequence of this is that it will lead to ‘cyberbalkanization’: people will ‘purposefully communicate with others who share their beliefs, screening out information that challenges their predispositions’ (McDonald 2008, 50). If before the broadcast and print media potentially exposed people to diverse views the Internet makes it easy to stick to sites containing content that confirms one’s biases (ibid. 51). This notion has been backed by Garrett (2009) who finds that strongly partisan voters will use the Internet to explicitly increase their exposure to ‘opinion-reinforcing information’ (Garrett 2009, 692).
Moreover, there is empirical evidence that the Internet contributes to a growing knowledge gap, as suggested by Prior. For example, the initial stages of adopting the Internet increased the KG. Bonfadelli (2002) finds with data from Switzerland that Internet use increased by 200% from 1997 to 2000 but its use was highly unevenly distributed; the average Swiss user of the Internet at the time was ‘well educated, affluent, young and male’ (Bonfadelli 2002, 75). He also finds that those with higher education used the Internet instrumentally (e.g. for information) and those with less education used it primarily for entertainment (ibid. 81).
Even when the Internet has reached a level of technological maturity and widespread use it has contributed the widening of the gap. McAllister & Gibson (2011) find, using evidence form the Australian Elections Studies from 1996 to 2010, that even when the average levels of political knowledge have remained the same, the growing importance of the Internet in elections is manifesting itself as a growing gap between those who actively use the Internet and those who do not. For example, those who did not have access to the Internet in 2010 had worse knowledge levels than the same group in 2001 (ibid. 15). Indeed, they note that those citizens who primarily used television as their main source for news have less knowledge than the average citizen (ibid. 13).
Second, Morozov (2011, 136) argues that the decentralized nature of the Internet, whereby anyone can publish content, has contributed to the ‘urban myths’ such as the view that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax or the common misperception of the existence of ‘death panels’ in the recent Obama administration’s health reforms (Nyhan, 2010).
It is the relative ease of access to content online that contributes to what Caplan (2001, 4) calls ‘rational irrationality’ which explains why people hold highly biased beliefs with high certainty  based on little information. In other words, people will implicitly weigh the costs of self-delusion with the benefits of holding ‘irrational beliefs’ (ibid. 4). For example, for highly partisan Republicans the private costs for accessing and agreeing with web sites supporting the notion of Iraqi WMDs are far less than the psychological benefits of holding the belief which underpinned the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.
Third, the Internet has not necessarily empowered disenfranchised groups and improved democratic deliberation. Morozov (2011) argues forcefully against the notion that the Internet is a revolutionary force fomenting democratic revolutions around the globe. Instead he notes how authoritarian governments (e.g. Iran, Russia, etc.) have become technologically sophisticated in not only in online censorship but also in harnessing the Internet for surveillance and propaganda.
Even in mature liberal democracies the use of the Internet for political change by disempowered groups has been challenged. Scholars arguing from the point of view of the ‘normalisation thesis’ suggest that the Internet will be adopted and adapted by mainstream political forces, as in the case of previous communication technologies (Ward & Vedel 2006, 216; Agre 2002, 318). For instance, Lusoli et al. (2005, 39) find, using survey evidence in the UK, that those who use the ‘e-channels’ of political influence largely resemble traditional political participants and activists.
Similarly, Davis (2009) argues, using a hundred semi-structured interviews, that the ‘New media’ (Internet and ICTs) has increased the knowledge and communication gap in the UK between the political centre and the periphery. This, he argues, happens for two reasons: (1) enhanced communication between political elites (via popular blogs, think tanks and politicians) and (2) media competition has reduced resources for political content for the masses (Davis 2009, 756-757).
Even online voting, which one would assume would significantly reduce the barriers to voting, has not shown to have a positive effect in increasing political participation. Empirical evidence from Estonia, the pioneer of e-democracy, shows that voting online did not improve the participation of politically disadvantaged groups. Instead, it was mostly used in the wealthy ethnic majority areas, and it mostly substituted for votes at the polls (Bochsler 2009, 1).
In summary, the Media Malaise literature sees the widespread adoption of the Internet as exacerbating the fragmentation of the media system. This leads to an increasing KG as people consume entertainment over news. The effects of this on the most politically partisan is that it can reinforce their biases as they seek content that reaffirms their political beliefs and contributes to public misperceptions.
The effect of polarization and the anarchic nature of the Internet is that it helps to generate some of the most widespread misperceptions. Sometimes trying to ‘correct’ erroneous views reinforces them in the people most vested in them, either due to ‘rational ignorance’ or to avoid ‘dissonance’ in their world-view. The literature paints a bleak view on the effects of the Internet as it continues to occupy a greater place in media consumption.
4.5 Conclusions and Suggestions
In conclusion, the Media Malaise literature shows how the fragmentation of the media system contributes to an increasing KG. Scholars who blame the nature and content of televisions as creating passive uninformed citizens remain unconvincing as those people living in countries with a public service model have higher levels knowledge compared to other media system models.
In fact, a way to minimise the KG is to create a well-funded independent public service company that would be premised on the idea of both entertaining and informing all citizens. This way it would be possible to retain a media source that remains relatively ‘objective’ yet broadly informative.
Aspiring to present the best possible knowledge, without political spin, would help curb (though not eliminate) some of worst instances of selective exposure. Though, presenting a ‘balanced’ view, presenting both sides of an argument, on controversial political topics are unlikely to be effective in eventually harmonizing debates between the most politically partisan (see Lakoff 2002).

The spread of the Internet has enabled the widespread adoption of popular misperceptions. Measures of trying to control to the anarchic nature of the Internet would likely be unpalatable for liberal democracies, as it would involve censorship or steering discussions – measures that are used in authoritarian states (see Morozov 2011). However, there is some evidence which shows that providing corrective information via visual means (e.g. graphs) is more effective than written text to dispel some misperception (see Nyhan & Reifler 2011). For example, graphically juxtaposing the amount of foreign nationals receiving social benefits with the amount in the work force in order to dispel the misperception of ‘benefit tourism’.

One thought on “Knowledge Gap and the Media Malaise hypothesis

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