Knowledge Gap and the Differential Effects hypothesis

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the differences between newspaper and television consumption on the Knowledge Gap. This text is the third part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.
The previous posts have mostly analysed the overall effects of the media in either increasing or decreasing levels of knowledge. This section, however, reviews the literature that argues for a differential effect between the different mediums. It will examine the cases for newspapers, television, and Open Data.
Newspapers as a knowledge widener?
The research literature has often emphasised the superiority of newspapers over other media to increase knowledge (Jenssen 2012, 21). It is for this reason that the original KG hypothesis argued that newspaper consumption widens the gap as higher socioeconomic groups consumed more newspapers than lower socioeconomic groups (Tichenor, Dnonohue, & Olien, 1970).
There have been some recent studies that confirm this hypothesis. For example, Jerit et al. (2006) find, after analysing 41 cross-sectional studies from the USA that increasing media exposure increases general levels of knowledge among the population, but that the educated acquired knowledge faster from newspapers than the less educated. Likewise, Kim (2008) finds a similar result from South Korea. He hypothesises two causal mechanisms for their results: (1) people with higher education read more newspapers and (2) the more highly educated learn at a faster rate than the less educated (ibid. 203).
Some scholars argue that the complexity of the content of newspapers relative to television combined with the lower capabilities of the less educated explains the existence of the KG. For example, Moore (1987: 189) used two telephone panel studies to assess the effects of the political campaigns that were implemented for the 1987 Gubernatorial elections in New Hampshire. He found that there was an increase of the KG when the issues were more complex (Moore 1987: 186). Moore’s findings are corroborated by Kleinnijenhuis (1991) who found similar results from the Netherlands.
These findings are disconcerting for those who hope to bridge the KG as newspaper articles have become longer and more complex in the last fifty years (Barnhurst & Mutz, 1997). Moreover, newspaper articles in the USA are often written for the level of comprehension of an eighth or twelfth grader even though the majority of Americans ‘do not function comfortably above a sixth-grade level’ (Graber 2004, 558).
Even though the research literature does stress newspapers’ superiority, the evidence is not unequivocal. The different media systems in place may help to explain why newspapers are ‘superior’ in South Korea and the USA (Market Model) but not in other countries which have a public service dominated media. For example, Jenssen ‘s (2012) analysis of Norwegian election survey panels finds a weak support for the newspaper superiority, narrowly reaching statistical significance (ibid. 29). He notes that a possible reason for this is that in Norway there is no division between ‘high-brow’ newspapers and ‘low-brow’ television, as there may be in market model dominated countries (ibid. 32).
Intriguingly, Fraile (2011) finds an inverse relationship in Spain. Her analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS) data on Spain from the years 2004 and 2006 shows that newspapers increased knowledge the most in the least educated group, thus exhibiting a KG narrowing effect (ibid. 177). She suggests that the pluralist ensemble of newspapers relative to the highly concentrated and polarized broadcast media is more trusted by citizens and, therefore, ‘increases their interest and predisposition to learn about politics’ (ibid. 178).
In sum, the evidence is mixed about newspaper superior effect to increase knowledge. The literature suggests that there are great differences between countries when it comes newspaper consumption. The highly educated are more capable to process complex texts and do consume more newspapers and therefore may be more exposed to more public affairs content. However, evidence from Norway does not support the idea that newspapers are vastly superior in imparting knowledge when compared to other forms of media, and the study on Spain seems to suggest a knowledge levelling effect of newspaper consumption.
Television as knowledge leveller?
Tichenor et al. (1970) initially hypothesised that there is a possibility that television could play a role in narrowing the gap: ‘Since television use tends to be less correlated with education, there is a possibility that television may be a “knowledge leveller” in some areas‘ (Cited in Jenssen 2012, 20).
This notion that television content is easier to understand and therefore more effective for those with a lower education level, as suggested by Kleinnijenhuis’s (1991) study, has been backed by some empirical evidence. For example, Eveland & Scheufele (2000) find, after analysing cross-sectional data from the American National Election Study (ANES), that within the group which consumed the most television the KG was narrower between education groups compared to light users of television.
Correspondingly, Freedman et al. (2004) studied the effects of televised political advertisements on people’s political knowledge during the 2000 US presidential elections. They find, using data on political advertisements in the US with the National election survey data, that those citizens with the least amount of background knowledge (e.g. lower socioeconomic groups) gained the most (Freedman et al. 2004, 734). Though, when a similar research design was applied to Canada the effect of political campaigns was to increase the KG between socioeconomic groups (Nadeau et al.  2008).
With the lack of a meta-analysis on television’s effects on the KG it is difficult to ascertain its general effect. The best designed studies have shown that television does have a positive effect in increasing general knowledge levels and that it does not, at least, exacerbate the knowledge gap between socioeconomic groups (see Jerit et al. 2006; Jenssen 2012). Therefore, television should not be seen as a poor source of information, but as a valuable way to reach different social strata of society.
Conclusions and Suggestions
In summary, the evidence for a differential effect of newspapers and television on the knowledge gap is mixed. The complexity of the content in newspapers as well as the greater propensity for higher socioeconomic people to read them means that newspapers may in certain countries, such as the USA and South Korea, increase the KG. Though in other countries, such as Spain, it is associated with decreasing the KG.
The notion of television as a ‘knowledge leveller’ is something that intuitively makes sense, especially if its content is deemed as inherently easier to grasp than newspapers. The studies, however, show also mixed results for the notion. In certain countries, such as Norway, it is as informative for lower socioeconomic groups as higher ones implying that while it increases general knowledge levels it does increase the KG.
One way to reduce the KG would be to ensure that newspapers are written in a simpler way as to maximise knowledge transfer. One possible reason why the KG has widened in the US through newspapers is due to their education system’s relative inability to provide a high enough base-line literacy capability across socioeconomic groups. Curbing the education-based capability differences would help mitigate the gap.
Lastly, having politically ‘neutral’ media may increase people’s trust in what is reported and therefore their propensity to pay attention to news. This may be especially important with television as it is a medium where socioeconomic differences are less pronounced.

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