Primary Sources

I'm a huge fan of The Atlantic, and one of their columns is called "Primary Sources"--a brief summary of a paper available on the web. One of them this month (“Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions,” Pew Research Center) was so interesting for discussions (and reinforced enough of my beliefs) that I felt a need to reproduce it here. My moral argument for posting copyrighted material is that I'm hoping more of my readers might become Atlantic readers.

Although we live in the information age, a new Pew Research Center study suggests that the American public is no better informed than it was before round-the-clock cable news and the Internet invaded our homes. After surveying more than 1,500 Americans to find out where they get their information and how much they know about current affairs, researchers concluded that Americans “are about as aware of major news events” as they have been for the last two decades.

More people today know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is conservative than did in 1989, for instance, but fewer know that the United States has a trade deficit. Half the country can identify Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House, whereas in 1989 just 14 percent could correctly identify Tom Foley as the speaker; on the other hand, Americans today have more trouble identifying the U.S. vice president and the Russian president than they did in the era of Dan Quayle and Boris Yeltsin.

The most knowledgeable Americans were those who got their news from the Web sites of major papers and those who watched programs like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show; they correctly answered 54 percent of the questions about current affairs, while regular viewers of local TV news and network morning shows got only about 35 percent right.

The survey found that there isn’t necessarily a trade-off between hard-news knowledge and pop-culture savvy: Respondents who demonstrated a “high” knowledge of politics and world events were also adept at identifying celebrities such as Beyoncé Knowles. And while it’s hard to know which sources provide the best information, the report notes that well-informed people gather their news from an average of 7.0 sources—more than the average of 4.6.

First of all: AAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHH! These people are allowed to vote?! To help decide the system of government of this country? AAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHH! (I'm noting the 3000 deaths item--I pop onto The Iraq Coalition Casualty Site every few days, and the Sunni-Shia item.) Incidentally, this is part of my reluctance to participate in elections in general--an ignorant vote counts as much as a well-informed one. Note that I said reluctance, not refusal--here's my absentee ballot from 2004. I figure I'm better off donating money to causes that I like, so they can run ads to help influence the weak-minded masses. That, and the fact that jury duty lists seem to be linked to voter registration lists.

Second: go Daily Show!--I realize that many people in my generational cohort have this as their primary news source; it's good to see that it's linked to above-average awareness. I seldom watch it myself, though.

Third: just another confirmation that local news is as useless as I've always thought it is. I think I moved beyond the local TV news around early high school or so... nowadays, it just fills me with pain to be sitting in front of a TV while it is on. One of the classic lines is that local TV news is 'something that you can stand in front of.' To wit--"I'm standing here in front of the hospital where they are curently treating the victims of tonight's warehouse fire..." "I'm standing in front of the police station where they are questioning the suspects in..." The information density is just so mind-bendingly low in local TV news.

Fourth: I'll admit that I'm somewhat behind the curve on pop-culture news (e.g., how many American Idol contestants could I identify?), but this report is nice to hear that it's not a case of one set of news or the other. The counterexample, of course, would be my sister ("K., did you know that Harley-Davidson is a brand of motorcycle? I just read about it recently in a legal brief!")

Finally: Average of 7.0 sources? Yow. I don't think I'm anywhere near that--New York Times online, NPR, Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe once in a while. Does occasional exposure to CNN Captive Audience Airport Network count?


At 9:53 AM, Blogger dan said...

She didn't really say that, did she?

G+M, NYT, local paper, Economist, Atlantic, Harper's, Guardian. I really only have 2 that I consider very important.

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous perlick said...

Man. The Economist is really my only news source. Unless you count eit or the blogosphere. And I'm still better informed than most apparently.

It's studies like these that have long since convinced me that populist democracy is a mistake. The will of the people should not be making decisions. Don't even get me started on the folly that is the initiative system in California. Representative democracy, even with the risks of corruption and bribery, at least gives us the chance of making informed decisions.

I'd like to think that super-representative democracy could work, where I could be represented by somebody I knew and trusted, and those representatives had regional conclaves to discuss issues, and then had their representative at the national level (it would need more layers). Or something.

Enlightened despotism is still probably the best system, though.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Bats said...

She didn't really say that, did she?

By that you mean my sister, I assume? Dead serious--she said that to me over dinner while she was in law school and I was doing undergrad. What I am amazed by is that she reads the newspaper--how could you not have accidentally stumbled across some article mentioning Harleys in the business section or lifestyles ("...trend among dentists, going whole hog...")?

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous aj said...

I can't see your sister reading the "lifestyles" section. Something about it not being useful/relevant to her life... [oh wait, was that harsh? It really wasn't intended to be. Just my perception of her]

My news sources are pretty limited. news.bbc.co.uk, NPR, and Boston.com for local stuff. Occasionally I'll stumble onto bits by accident on yahoo, but I wouldn't call it a news source. You could pick up stuff from The Daily Show, but it's a heck of a lot funnier if you know what's going on. Kinda like Wait Wait Don't Tell Me in that regard.

I have always been impressed with how much news is in The Economist, and how easy it is to read on a train. As in, there are articles of varying length and detail, so you can just pick what suits the time you have. I suppose now that I have a good commute for reading, I should start reading The Atlantic again. Though in truth, I should probably be reading work-related journals.


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