Kristofer Jäntti blogs about his findings from the Knowledge Gap literature and suggests future avenues for further enquiries. This text is the fourth part of a serialised review of the Knowledge Gap. The full report will be published after the final entry of the series.
In conclusion, the research literature suggests that there are differences between countries when it comes to the media effects. This makes it difficult to make generalized accounts on the efficacy of different mediums that would hold across different countries. Moreover, methodologically trying to discern interaction effects between different variables is difficult at best. Even asking the right survey questions is difficult, trying to devise ‘objective’ questions that do not ‘trigger’ guessing, and to differentiate between generalized knowledge and campaign specific knowledge.
The Virtuous Circle hypothesis stresses the importance of the media as the primary source where citizens get information. The sheer explosion in the amount of media outlets, especially with the maturation of Internet and concomitant ICTs, means that has greatly increased the possibility for those who are most motivated to increase their knowledge. The literature has specified how and under what conditions the media is likely to lead to a narrowed gap as well as how it is being used to reach otherwise marginalised groups, hence potentially improving the health of democratic society.
The Media Malaise hypothesis emphasises the negative effects of exposure of modern media. The studies showing that television is particularly corrosive for knowledge gains and democratic participation remain unconvincing. However, the effect of greater media choice (Prior, Sunstein) does suggest our current media environment feeds our innate cognitive biases. For example, selective exposure to either entertainment or conducive political views means that a large portion of the population is getting more ignorant while others are under the grip of misperceptions that complement their political world-view. What is particularly interesting is how even providing ‘corrective information’ can itself reinforce misperceptions in the most partisan portion of the population. This implies that it may be very difficult to counter evidently wrong information via public broadcasts, for example.
The Differential Effects literature does not provide conclusive evidence for ‘differential effects’ for neither newspapers nor television for either being culprits for increasing or decreasing the knowledge gap. They do suggest, however, that television may be the medium through which knowledge may be increased equally in all socioeconomic groups, provided that they are exposed to the same content.
The attempt to make government more transparent by releasing public documents for public scrutiny has beneficial effects in countries that have high level of corruption. The attempts to effectively use ‘Open Data’ (OGD and PSI) depend, of course, on the quality of the data and what it is being used for. In some cases the unintended effects of OGD may even increase social inequalities through inadvertently empowering the powerful.
One issue that has emerged during this survey is that the type of media model has an effect on a country’s general knowledge level. Countries with a public service dominated media have generally more knowledgeable publics and the gap between groups is narrower when compared to countries with market or mixed models. Interestingly, the evidence presented in this survey also suggests that public service dominated countries also have less of a division between print and broadcast media.
Lastly, there is also the issue of the researcher’s underlying assumptions of what ‘well-informed’ citizens should know (see Graber 2004). For example, deliberative models of democracy require that citizens have the requisite knowledge to actively ‘deliberate’ about important social issues. Extensive evidence shows that people often fall short of such requirements. It may be the case that modern states and societies are too complicated for people to acquire detailed knowledge about all important policy-decisions (Somin 2010, 260).
Tangible suggestions for future surveys
1. To what extent the Internet has displaced traditional media outlets for people’s source of news.
2. To what extent have online communities challenged the social standing of traditional sources of authority (e.g. science and health establishment)?
3. Where do immigrant populations get their source of information in our information environment?
4. How should the semi-anarchic nature of the Internet be regulated? What are plausible ways to do this?
5. To what extent can education help to curb the knowledge gap?
6. What are the ethical implications for targeting disadvantaged groups to increase their knowledge?
7. Is curbing the knowledge gap desirable?
8. How has ‘open data’ helped to either increase or decrease the knowledge gap?
9. How has the change in the information environment impacted on people’s health knowledge?
Is there an ‘analogic’ divide?
11. Are there differences between formal and informal learning on the Knowledge Gap?
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