TV NEWS TEACHES MORE ABOUT POLITICS TO THE LESS-EDUCATED
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Television news, much maligned for its lack of content, may actually help less-educated people learn about political candidates.
A new study found that people who had a high school education or less scored higher on a quiz about the 1996 presidential candidates
In contrast, people with college degrees scored the same whether they watched television news or not, said William P. Eveland, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University.
Watching television news appeared to shrink the political knowledge gap between less educated people and more educated people, he said.
"It appears a given half hour of television news will have a greater effect on someone with a low level of education than someone with a high level of education," said Eveland.
Highly educated people were able to learn more about the candidates by reading the newspaper than by watching television, the study found.
Eveland began this work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California at Santa Barbara, in collaboration with Dietram Scheufele, assistant professor of political communication at Cornell University.
In the current issue of the journal Political Communication, Eveland and Scheufele analyzed data from the 1996 American National Election Study. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan, surveyed more than 1,700 Americans between September and December 1996.
The authors classified participants by level of education: low -- those with a high school diploma or less; moderate -- those with some college experience or an associate degree, and high -- those with a bachelor's or more advanced degree.
According to 1999 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of all Americans fall into the "low" education category, with a high school diploma or less. One fourth have attended some college or hold an associate degree, and the remaining fourth have received a bachelor's or more advanced degree.
Participants in the 1996 survey answered questions about that year's two main presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. For example, they were asked which candidate was more conservative, and to describe each candidate's stance on issues such as tax cuts and military spending.
Watching television news helped people with low and moderate education begin to catch up to people with more education, Eveland said.
"It's not as if higher-educated individuals scored 100 percent on the knowledge test," Eveland said. "It's just that the highest educated people didn't learn a bit from watching television. That result may simply mean that highly educated people had little to learn from television's mediocre content."
All people, regardless of education, were able to learn about the candidates if they read the newspaper. But people with less education seemed to learn more from watching television than from reading the newspaper.
Part of the disparity could be due to the fact that news is structured differently on television than it is in newspapers, the researchers speculated.
Most newspaper stories begin with a main point in the first sentence and then fill in the details, whereas television news tells stories in a chronological, "storybook" kind of way, said Eveland.
Some other studies have indicated that people with less formal education might not have the background information necessary to understand the first sentence of a traditional newspaper story, so they don't learn as much by reading the newspaper.
Television news also repeats images and verbal cues, which may aid learning as well, he added.
Eveland is continuing this work at Ohio State, with a look at how much people learn from watching televised presidential debates. His preliminary results mirror those for television news: less educated people learn more.