Wednesday, April 29, 2009

News media and citizens

Jamieson and Waldman, The Press Effect.
Pew Report “News Interest and Knowledge”
Baumgartner, Jody, and Jonathan Morris. 2006. “The Daily Show Effect
American Politics Research, Vol. 34, No. 3, 341-367 (2006)

The first reading focuses on what key news audiences are, and how much the key audiences know. The truth is that the studies have been surprisingly consistent: Education and socio-economic status (in this report they are referred to as “Those with higher annual incomes”) are the two most important determinants of a person’s knowledge level about politics, both national and international. The second most important characteristic is gender, although this study (and the others) seem to indicate that gender is more about where someone gets their news from than whether they get news at all. Overall, there was nothing surprising in this report. It simply confirmed the prior readings that indicate better educated people with higher socio-economic status follow news, and are more knowledgeable about politics.
In light of the fact that people get their news from the news media – the press – The Press Effect’s conclusions are a little disturbing. The point of the book is to show how the press frames political events, and sometimes ignore the truth and ignores facts in order to “frame” the events in a manner that is consistent with the need to provide coherence to the stories that are being presented. In order to show how the press ignores facts, the authors have analyzed specific news media coverage, and shown how the press has ignored facts in order to provide coherence to a story. One of the instances cited in this book is when the young woman testified that she had seen young babies throw from incubators by Iraqi soldiers – when in fact this never happened. The story was adopted by the President who used it to symbolize the human rights needs of invading Iraq. However, the incident was later proven never to have happened, and the press ignored the falsehood in order to give coherence to the human rights story. The authors of The Press Effect see the main task of journalists as being the watchers of facts, not the reporters of stories. The authors conclude their book with a list of things that journalists should do to return to being fact-based, instead of story based. Is this distinction important for the average news viewer? There is no research about how the viewers and readers react to retractions and corrections in the news. It is possible that once the news reports a story, and it enters into the person’s mind, that something else will not correct it – even if the initial story is false. This type of fact rejection has been shown to be the case in the Kuklinski study where he shows that misinformed people, even when exposed to the facts, don’t change their opinion. Therefore, it would seem, if we are a society that values truth, that the authors of The Press Effect are correct – that the facts need to be presented the first time around, and that the press (since they are the people who give the news to others) need to be more conscious of the facts, and less conscious of telling a story.
However, there has been substantial research done that presentation of the facts in written form leads only to further the information gap between the socio-economic classes. Jerit et al showed that television increases all people’s levels of knowledge, while written information (which tends to be more fact heavy) only increases the knowledge of those with education and higher socio-economic status to begin with. Does this mean that television doesn’t relate facts, or that facts aren’t an effective communication tool across all classes? I hope not. That would be a sad state of commentary on the citizens: That only information in story form is acceptable to all classes, rather than facts. However, it is something to consider when focusing on the drive for facts balanced against the need to tell a story.
The article on The Daily Show seemed to show that, among young college students, watching The Daily Show increased cynicism and that increased cynicism leads to reduced political participation. The authors do not explicitly state the “therefore” of their argument: That watching The Daily Show decreases political participation, but it is a logical conclusion to their research. However, they measured cynicism by asking the participants if “I trust all the news media to cover political events fairly and accurately.” This seems to be too broad of a question, both for the definition of news media and because there is an emphasis on “all.” No one is going to answer yes to this question. This is the question that was used to measure cynicism, and it simply seems like too broad of a question to base an assumption on.

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