Political Science


“News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political

Knowledge and Turnout” Markus Prior

Although everyone has contact with the government nearly every day—attending a public school, driving on public roads, using government-regulated electricity, and so on—few citizens have direct contact with the policymaking process. Because of this distance between the public and policymakers, the behavior of intermediaries between the government and the governed is a significant issue in a democratic polity. The media, in particular the news media, are among the most significant of these intermediaries that tell the people what the government is doing and tell the government what the people want.

In today’s media environment, information is more abundant than ever, Markus Prior notes, yet participation and knowledge levels have remained stagnant. Rather than enhancing participatory democracy, as advocates of new media suggest is the norm, the onset of cable television and the Internet has worsened information and participation gaps between those individuals who like to follow the news and those who are more interested in entertainment. Prior argues that the spread of additional news choices, which sounds democratic, has had nondemocratic effects. Newshounds can dig ever deeper into the news, but other members of the public are increasingly able to ignore the news. Other critics have made a similar argument that new media tend to exacerbate public polarization because readers, viewers, and listeners gravitate to outlets presenting opinions they agree with and ignore those sources that would challenge their views.

The rise of new media has brought the question of audience fragmenta­tion and selective exposure to the forefront of scholarly and popular debate. In one of the most widely discussed contributions to this debate.

Sunstein has proposed that people’s increasing ability to customize their political information will have a polarizing impact on democracy as media users become less likely to encounter information that challenges their partisan viewpoints. While this debate is far from settled/ the issue which precedes it is equally important and often sidestepped: as choice between different media content increases, who continues to access any type of political information? Cable television and the Internet have increased

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media choice so much in recent decades that many Americans now live in a high-choice media environment. As media choice increases, the likeli­ hood of “chance encounters” with any political content declines signifi­ cantly for many people. Greater choice allows politically interested people to access more information and increase their political knowledge. Yet those who prefer nonpolitical content can more easily escape the news and therefore pick up less political information than they used to. In a high-choice environment, lack of motivation, not lack of skills or resources, poses the main obstacle to a widely informed electorate.

As media choice increases, content preferences thus become the key to understanding political learning and participation. In a high-choice envi­ ronment, politics constantly competes with entertainment. Until recently, the impact of content preferences was limited because media users did not enjoy much choice between different content. Television quickly became the most popular mass medium in history, but for decades the networks’ scheduling ruled out situations in which viewers had to choose between entertainment and news. Largely unexposed to entertainment competi­ tion, news had its place in the early evening and again before the late-night shows. Today, as both entertainment and news are available around the clock on numerous cable channels and web sites, people’s content prefer­ ences determine more of what those with cable or Internet access watch, read, and hear.

Distinguishing between people who like news and take advantage of additional information and people who prefer other media content explains a puzzling empirical finding: despite the spectacular rise in available political information, mean levels, of political knowledge in the popula­ tion have essentially remained constant. Yet the fact that average knowl­ edge levels did not change hides important trends: political knowledge has risen in some segments of the electorate, but declined in others. Greater media choice thus widens the “knowledge gap.” [Njumerous studies have examined the diffusion of information in the population and the differences that emerge between more and less informed individuals. According to some of these studies, television works as a “knowledge lev- eler because it presents information in less cognitively demanding ways. To reconcile this effect with the hypothesis that more television widens the knowledge gap, it is necessary to distinguish the effect of news expo­ sure from the effect of the medium itself. In the low-choice broadcast envi­ ronment, access to the medium and exposure to news were practically one and the same, as less politically interested television viewers had no choice but to watch the news from time to time. As media choice increases, expo­ sure to the news may continue to work as a “knowledge leveler,” but the distribution of news exposure itself has become more unequal. Access to the medium no longer implies exposure to the news. Television news nar­ rows the knowledge gap among its viewers. For the population as a whole, more channels widen the gap.

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The consequences of increasing media choice reach beyond a less equal distribution of political knowledge. Since political knowledge is an important predictor of turnout and since exposure to political infor­ mation motivates turnout, the shift from a low-choice to a high-choice media environment implies changes in electoral participation as well. Those with a preference for news not only become more knowledgeable, but also vote at higher rates. Those with a stronger interest in other media content vote less.

This study casts doubt on the view that the socioeconomic dimension of the digital divide is the greatest obstacle to an informed and participating electorate. Many casual observers emphasize the great promise new tech­ nologies hold for democracy. They deplore current socioeconomic inequal­ ities in access to new media, but predict increasing political knowledge and participation among currently disadvantaged people once these inequalities have been overcome. This ignores that greater media choice leads to greater voluntary segmentation of the electorate. The present study suggests that gaps based on socioeconomic status will be eclipsed by preference-based gaps once access to new media becomes cheaper and more widely available. Gaps created by unequal distribution of resources and skills often emerged due to circumstances outside of people’s control. The preference-based gaps documented in this article are self-imposed as many people abandon the news for entertainment simply because they like it better. Inequality in political knowledge and turnout increases as a result of voluntary, not circumstantial, consumption decisions.

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Theory The basic premise of this analysis is that people’s media environment determines the extent to which their media use is governed by content preferences. According to theories of program choice, viewers have prefer­ ences over program characteristics or program types and sélect the pro­ gram that promises to be.st satisfy these preferences. The simplest models distinguish between preferences for information and entertainment. In the low-choice broadcast environment, most people watched news and learned about politics because they were reluctant to turn off the set even if the programs offered at the time did not match their preferences. One study conducted in the early 1970s showed that 40% of the respondents reported watching programs because they appeared on the channel they were already watching or because someone else wanted to see them. Audience research has proposed a two-stage model according to which people first decide to watch television and then pick the available pro­ gram they like best. Klein aptly called this model the “Theory of Least Objectionable Program.” If television viewers are routinely “glued to the box” and select the best available program, we can explain why so many

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Americans watched television news in the 1960s and 70s despite modest political interest. Most television viewing in the broadcast era did not stem from a deliberate choice of a program, but rather was determined by convenience, availability of spare time and the decision to spend that time in front of the TV set. And since broadcast channels offered a solid block of news at the dinner hour and again after primetime, many viewers were routinely exposed to news even though they watched television primarily to be entertained.

Once exposed to television news, people learn about politics. Although a captive news audience does not exhibit the same political interest as a

^self-selected one and therefore may not learn as much, research on passive ^ learning suggests that even unmotivated exposure can produce learning. Hence, even broadcast viewers who prefer entertainment programs absorb at least basic political knowledge when they happen to tune in when only news is on.

I propose that such accidental exposure should become less likely in a high-choice environment because greater horizontal diversity (the number of genres available at any particular point in time) increases the chance that viewers will find content that matches their preferences. The impact of one’s preferences increases, and “indiscriminate viewing” becomes less likely. Cable subscribers’ channel repertoire (the number of frequently viewed channels) is not dramatically higher than that of non­ subscribers, but their repertoire reflects a set of channels that are more closely related to their genre preferences. Two-stage viewing behavior thus predicts that news audiences should decrease as more alternatives are offered on other channels. Indeed, local news audiences tend to be smaller when competing entertainment programming is scheduled. Baum and Kernell show that cable subscribers, especially the less informed among them, are less likely to watch the presidential debates than other­ wise similar individuals who receive only broadcast television. Accord­ ing to my first hypothesis, the advent of cable TV increased the knowledge gap between people with a preference for news and people with a prefer­ ence for other media content.

Internet access should contribute to an increasing knowledge gap as well. Although the two media are undoubtedly different in many respects, access to the Internet, like cable, makes media choice more efficient. Yet, while they both increase media users’ content choice, cable TV and the Internet are not perfect substitutes for each other. Compared at least to dial-up Internet service, cable offers greater immediacy and more visuals. The web offers more detailed information and can be customized to a greater extent. Both media, in other words, have unique features, and access to both of them offers users the greatest flexibility. For instance, people with access to both media can watch a campaign speech on cable and then compare online how different newspapers cover the event. Depend­ ing on their needs or the issue that interests them, they can actively search

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a wealth of political information online or passively consume cable poli­ tics. Hence, the effects of cable TV and Internet access should be additive and the knowledge gap largest among people with access to both new media.

There are several reasons why exposure to political information increases the likelihood that an individual will cast a vote on election day. Exposure increases political knowledge, which in turn increases turnout because people know where, how, and for whom to vote. Fur­ thermore, knowledgeable people are more likely to perceive differences between candidates and thus less likely to abstain due to indifference. Independent of learning effects, exposure to political information on cable news and political web sites is likely to increase people’s campaign inter­ est. Interest, in turn, affects turnout even when one controls for political knowledge. Entertainment fans with a cable box or Internet connection, on the other hand, will miss both the interest- and the information-based effect of broadcast news on turnout. My second hypothesis thus predicts a widening turnout gap in the current environment, as people who prefer news vote at higher rates and those with other preferences increasingly stay home from the polls.

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Conclusion When speculating about the political implications of new media, pundits and scholars tend to either praise the likely benefits for democracy in the digital age or dwell on the dangers. The optimists claim that the greater availability of political information will lead more people to learn more about politics and increase their involvement in the political process. The pessimists fear that new media will make people apolitical and provide mind-numbing entertainment that keeps citizens from fulfilling their democratic responsibilities. These two predictions are often presented / as mutually exclusive. Things will either spiral upwards or spiral down­ wards; the circle is either virtuous or vicious. The analyses presented here show that both are true. New media do indeed increase political knowl­ edge and involvement in the electoral process among some people, just as the optimists predict. Yet, the evidence supports the pessimists’ scenario as well. Other people take advantage of greater choice and tune out of politics completely. Those with a preference for entertainment, once they gain access to new media, become less knowledgeable about politics and less likely to vote. People’s media content preferences become the key to understanding the political implications of new media.

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The decline in the size of news audiences over the last three decades has been identified as cause for concern by many observers who have

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generally interpreted it as a sign of waning political interest and a disap­ pearing sense of civic duty. Yet changes in available content can affect news consumption and learning even in the absence of preference changes. People’s media use may change in a modified media environment, even if their preferences (or political interest or sense of civic duty) remain con­ stant. By this logic, the decreasing size of the news audience is not neces­ sarily an indication of reduced political interest. Interest in politics may simply never have been as high as audience shares for evening news sug­ gested. A combined market share for the three network newscasts of almost 90% takes on a different meaning if one considers that people had hardly any viewing alternatives. It was “politics by default,” not politics by choice. Even the mediocre levels of political knowledge during the broadcast era, in other words, were partly a result of de facto restrictions of people’s freedom to choose their preferred media content.

Ironically, we might have to pin our hopes of creating a reasonably evenly informed electorate on that reviled form of communication, politi­ cal advertising. Large segments of the electorate in a high-choice environ­ ment do not voluntarily watch, read, or listen to political information. Their greatest chance for encounters with the political world occurs when commercials are inserted into their regular entertainment diet. And expo­ sure to political ads can increase viewers’ political knowledge. At least for the time being, before recording services like TiVo, which automatically skip the commercial breaks, or subscriber-financed premium cable chan­ nels without advertising become more widespread, political advertising is more likely than news coverage to reach these viewers.

It might seem counterintuitive that political knowledge has decreased for a substantial portion of the electorate even though the amount of political information has multiplied and is more readily available than ever before. The share of politically uninformed people has risen since we entered the so-called “information age.” Television as a medium has often been denigrated as “dumb,” but, helped by the features of the broadcast environment, it may have been more successful in reaching less interested segments of the population than the “encyclopedic” Internet. In contrast to the view that politics is simply too difficult and complex to understand, this study shows that motivation, not ability, is the main obstacle that stands between an abundance of political information and a well- and evenly informed public.

When differences in political knowledge and turnout arise from ine­ quality in the distribution of resources and skills, recommendations for how to help the information have-nots are generally uncontroversial. To the extent that knowledge and turnout gaps in the new media environ­ ment arise from voluntary consumption decisions, recommendations for how to narrow them, or whether to narrow them at all, become more contestable on normative grounds. As [Anthony] Downs remarked a long time ago, “[t]he loss of freedom involved in forcing people to acquire

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information would probably far outweigh the benefits to be gained from a better-informed electorate.” Even if a consensus emerged to reduce media choice for the public good, it would still be technically impossible, even temporarily, to put the genie back in the bottle. Avoiding politics will never again be as difficult as it was in the “golden age” of television.

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Discussion Questions 1. Are you concerned by the findings in Prior’s study? If not, why not?

If you are, can you think of any way to overcome the problem he has identified?

2. What lessons should public officials take from Prior’s study? Should they pay less attention to public opinion because of the gaps in information and interest among members of the public?

3. Do you think the sharing of news and information through social media such as Twitter and Facebook exacerbates or diminishes the trends identified by Prior?

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