Following on this post about the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released its biannually media consumption survey, I've posted the answers to their questions gauging whether you had a high knowledge score of political information in the comments. A word about such a gauge. The truth is that such gauges are imperfect measures. Pew likes to use these three particular questions because they can be used consistently across time periods, so you can compare the ratios across the years and track the differences. And they are useful questions but also somewhat limited in what they are really measuring.
The point I want to raise is that it would be wrong to read that 18% percent of correctly answered questions as meaning that 72% of U.S. population is too stupid to vote.
People retain knowledge that is useful to them or that they find interesting. Part of the reason why Pew conducts a media consumption survey is really to gauge the media (not only the citizens). One of the many, many flaws in the U.S. news media system is that news is more often presented as a series of news trivia. This happened, then this happened, then this happened.
Jay Rosen over at Press Think has actually been pondering the breakaway success entirely different model of news of This American Life call "The Giant Pool of Money." It explained the subprime housing market scandal.
If you don’t know “The Giant Pool of Money” you really should (here: download the podcast) because it’s probably the best work of explanatory journalism I have ever heard. I listened to it on a long car trip when everyone else was sleeping. Going in to the program, I didn’t understand the mortgage mess one bit: subprime loans were ruining Wall Street firms? And I care because they are old, respected firms?One of the points that Rosen notices is that sometimes stories are so complex that without understanding why this applies to him, he tuned out the new information. Here is he is talking about subprime mortgages but you can see it applying to almost any story with complexity, Georgia, Iraq, Wall Street, candidates' health insurance plans, etc.
That’s what I knew. Coming out of the program, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care. I had a good sense of the motivations and situations of players all down the line. Civic mastery was mine over a complex story, dense with technical terms, unfolding on many fronts and different levels, with no heroes. And the villains were mostly abstractions! Typical of the program’s virtues is the title. It’s called The Giant Pool of Money because that is where the producers want your understanding to start. They insist.
Wrong! For there are some stories—and the mortgage crisis is a great example—where until I grasp the whole I am unable to make sense of any part. Not only am I not a customer for news reports prior to that moment, but the very frequency of the updates alienates me from the providers of those updates because the news stream is adding daily to my feeling of being ill-informed, overwhelmed, out of the loop. I respond with indifference, even though I’ve picked up a blinking red light from the news system’s repeated placement of "subprime" items in front of me.I think Rosen is on to something here and a commenter who emailed him explains why This American Life is even more unique than 99% of media productions -- that they have earned their audience's faith.
Let me add one point. This American Life could execute that episode only because week after week, they keep listeners engaged with excellent storytelling. You know that reaction everyone had to "subprime mortgage" stories, where they'd flip the channel or turn the radio dial whenever they came on? Well the listeners of This American Life didn't do that when they found out that week's episode would delve into the topic. The reaction wasn't, "Oh no, another one of these stories," as it would've been if they encountered the story elsewhere. It was "thank God, This American Life is going to explain this to me."It would be impossible to turn every news outlet into This American Life, but I do think that surveys like Pew show that media consumption is not always synonymous with knowledge. But the reaction to such a survey shouldn't be "well people are just dumbasses." More often I think the issue is that its the media that is dumb.
One data point I noticed is that the media audience with the highest score for those three questions was The New Yorker/Atlantic Monthly. And still Pew found that only half its audience (48%) could correctly answer all three. Shouldn't that be more like 90% since the magazines tend to correlate with people who are very interested in currently events? That seems to me to be a huge disconnect.
One other point, last year Pew released a survey that gauged political knowledge much more deeply. They asked 26 questions, some of which were probably more timely back in April 2007, but even taking an "educated guess" if you are highly politically aware you can answer all of them correctly. You can take the test yourself and then compare how you did to everyone else in your age group, gender, education.