How much do Americans know about the news?
The nation is in the throes of a devastating and deadly pandemic. The economic recovery is stalling. Rage over police killings of Black Americans and racial injustice is rocking communities around the country. And a high-stakes presidential election is a mere week away.
In this volatile political moment, you might expect Americans to be paying close attention to the news.
But are they? Past surveys suggest that Americans have low knowledge of civics, and recent studies indicate that many suffer from news fatigue and burnout. But there is surprisingly little systematic research measuring how well Americans pay attention to the news.
The existing news knowledge surveys test subjects on items that are selected by the researcher according to some unknown criterion. For instance, Pew’s News IQ Quiz asks questions ranging from how humans are infected with the Zika virus to why tap water in Flint, Michigan, is unsafe. The results are hard to interpret, and the poll cannot be replicated over time because we do not know what the selection criterion is. My colleague, Andrea Prat of Columbia University, and I set out to tackle that question in a more systematic way.
First, we devised a protocol for identifying the most important news stories. Each month, we asked a panel of U.S. journalists from mainstream media outlets to select what they believed to be the top three national stories about the federal government. Next, we created a quiz to measure whether voters were aware of those stories. The quiz consisted of six short stories, three of which described real news articles and three of which described plausible but ultimately false stories written by the panel of reporters.
We then partnered with the polling group YouGov to ask voters to pick out the three stories that were true. The survey was conducted 11 different times between December 2018 and June 2020; nearly 8,000 people participated. Finally, we created a methodology that aims to disentangle various factors that could affect news knowledge, such as partisanship and the effect of time passing, among others.
Some of our results were reassuring: Most Americans are decently informed and able to discern real from fake news. The average voter knows 1.3 of the three most important news stories of the month and almost two thirds of voters — about 64 percent — know the most important story (as determined by the journalists). These results are somewhat at odds with the commonly held view that Americans’ knowledge of politics is scant. Indeed, virtually everyone knew some of the news stories. For instance, 82 percent knew that President Donald Trump was impeached. Similarly, 68 percent knew about the U.S. government’s partial shutdown nearly two years ago. On the flip side, however, some articles never quite penetrated the public consciousness. For example, only 32 percent of people knew about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Trump administration to ban asylum seekers from Central America.
Strikingly, we found large variations and inequalities in voters’ awareness of news stories across age, gender, partisan preference, and socioeconomic status.
Age is the single biggest determinant of how knowledgeable voters are about political news. The best-informed voters tend to fall into the 50-70 age group with wealthy, educated, white men over the age of 47 being the most conversant. The least-informed voters are young, less educated, low-income, minority women. Overall, voters are 10-30 percent less likely to know stories unfavorable to their political party.
Put simply, what you know about the news is largely dependent on how old you are, how much money you have, your race and gender, your education level, and whether or not you identify as a Democrat or a Republican. That our findings arrive as the nation continues to be in the grips of the COVID-19 health emergency and virus-induced economic downturn have disproportionally impacted poor and marginalized groups, along with continued social unrest over racial injustice cannot be ignored. It’s highly likely that this information inequality plays a significant role in shaping U.S. policy.
Consider the link between how much voters know about the news and the attention those voters receive from politicians. When people are well-informed about the policies their elected leaders champion and implement, elected officials have a greater incentive to cater to those voters’ preferences in order to increase their odds of reelection. Thus, they are motivated to skew their policies towards better-informed voters — wealthier, older white men. By contrast, there is little inducement for them to devote attention to uninformed voters.
The result bodes ill for a functioning democracy: Inequalities in news knowledge reinforce other inequalities.
What can be done to break this unhealthy cycle? The government can’t exactly mandate that its citizens become more knowledgeable about current events. It could, however, put resources into programming in schools to encourage students’ news consumption habits, fund ad campaigns that emphasize the importance of staying informed and consulting multiple news sources, and sponsor continuing adult education initiatives centered around news literacy. The government could also provide more money to public organizations that work to promote informed and objective decision-making about political news.
More support for public broadcasting is another possible way to combat the information gap. At a time when a majority of Americans say they do not trust the mass media for fair and accurate coverage, objective coverage from independent, nonprofit news organizations could be an alternative.
There are no easy solutions. But acknowledging the problem is the first step towards fixing it and creating a more healthy democracy.
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