Mind the Gap

By Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin
Wednesday, July 5, 2006; 4:24 PM

In this age of polling, hardly a day goes by without some new report about the state of American public opinion. But pollsters rarely acknowledge the well-documented finding in political science that citizens know little about current events in general and even less about overseas events. This so-called "knowledge gap" between domestic and international news was the subject of this study.

Explanations for the unwillingness of Americans citizens to live up to their civic responsibilities are many. One has to do with the supply and content of news. Driven by market pressures, news organizations across the globe are turning to more entertainment-centered forms of reporting, making it more difficult for lazy citizens to encounter substantive political information as a matter of course. An important consequence of the shift to "soft news" has been the scaling back of international bureaus and staff. Heavily "domesticated" news programming creates fewer opportunities for people to learn about overseas events. Even at the height of the Cold War, when international issues were front-page news, the American public displayed only superficial awareness of overseas events and foreign policy. In the post-Cold War era, despite massive increases in education and access to information, Americans continued to lag behind citizens of other industrialized democracies on measures of international affairs information. In 1994, for example, an eight-nation survey found that citizens of Mexico, Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany, Britain and France were more able than Americans to provide correct answers to a series of questions tapping foreign affairs. Whereas 37 percent of the American sample was unable to answer a single question, the comparable level of ignorance (averaged) for Italy, France, Britain, Germany and Canada was 19 percent.

The goal of this study was to compare the level of public information about domestic politics and foreign affairs. Our survey included a variety of factual information questions focusing on news stories that originated either in the United States or abroad. The information "test" consisted of an equal number of "easy" and "difficult" questions. Easy questions focused on events or public figures that attracted considerable news coverage in the weeks preceding the survey. For example, respondents were asked to identify Congressman William Jefferson and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, both of whom elicited more that 150 news reports in major national newspapers between late May and mid-June. On the other hand, questions asking about EPA administrator Stephen Johnson and Hamas head Khaled Mashaal were more difficult because both received only a handful of references in the press.

In addition to quizzing participants about national politics and international affairs, we asked a series of questions about "soft news," focusing in particular on well-known athletes and entertainers. For instance, we asked people to identify the baseball player implicated in the "Balco" controversy (easy) and the Swedish model involved in an air rage incident (difficult). Finally, we asked people to identify the location of well-known tourist landmarks (e.g. the Great Barrier Reef) or to match companies (e.g. Hyundai) with their host countries. Thus, we have measures of how much people know about American politics, international affairs, sports-entertainment, and world geography. Given trends in media coverage, we anticipated that people would be most informed about soft news and least informed about international affairs. Somewhat surprisingly, the first prediction failed. Post readers who participated in the study and a parallel volunteer sample recruited by the survey research firm of Polimetrix both answered more politics questions than soft news questions correctly. Our second prediction was confirmed; respondents knew less about foreign affairs than any other subject matter category.

All respondents were given a total of twenty questions, five each in the four categories -- American politics, international affairs, geography, and soft news. Within each topic they were randomly assigned to two easy and three difficult questions. Approximately 2800 participants from Washingpost.com completed the survey along with 1700 members of the Politmetrix national panel.

We summed the number of correct responses within each of the subject matter categories and divided by the number of questions. The resulting average score can be interpreted as the probability of a correct answer to any particular question. A score of .25 would indicate a level of information no better than guessing (each question had four response choices). As Figure 1 indicates, however, respondents did spectacularly better than just guess. For the easy versions of the geography and American politics questions, some 80% of the respondents answered correctly. At the other end of the scale, less than 40% passed the difficult foreign affairs questions. Overall, participants proved equally well informed about politics, geography and soft news (across the three areas, the average level of informed responses was 61%). In the case of foreign affairs, the level of information dropped off significantly (by a factor of 11 percent). The domestic-international knowledge gap is real.

Which political questions proved the most easy or difficult? Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed virtually universal recognition (98%). Mayor Ray Nagin was only slightly less familiar (91%) followed by Karl Rove (87%). At the opposite end of the scale, two members of the Bush cabinet were virtually invisible: only 24% could identify the Secretary of HUD and 14% knew the name of the EPA Administrator.

Several international leaders proved very well known (with recognition levels higher than 80%) including President Fox of Mexico, UN Secretary General Annan and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. On the other hand, respondents were completely in the dark when asked about Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal (7% answered correctly) and the newly-elected President of Chad (11%).

The most well-known celebrities were entertainers -- Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie were familiar to over 95% of respondents. Somewhat surprisingly, participants did not do as well when asked about professional athletes -- 57% linked Barry Bonds with steroids and 35% could identify the point guard (and league MVP) for the Phoenix Suns.

As the results summarized above make clear, our participant pool was hardly uninformed or preoccupied with titillating soft news. Clearly, the people who choose to take political information quizzes were drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the "attentive public" -- people who expect to get a good grade. The extent of the sampling bias is apparent when we compare our results with those based on a representative sample. Five of the questions used in this survey were also included in a random sample survey of registered California voters administered in November of 2005. The common questions concerned the UN Secretary General, the Governor of California, the crime of which Michael Jackson stood accused, the church affiliation of Tom Cruise, and the location of the 2008 summer Olympics. Participants in this study were nearly twice as informed as the representative sample of Californians: 88% versus 47% of the two groups answered the questions correctly.

Would the knowledge gap have been increased or decreased had our participants been drawn from the ranks of the less attentive? One way of finding out is to compare the results by participants' level of education. (Respondents from Washingtonpost.com were, on average, highly educated: 50 percent had some post-graduate education. The comparable number in the representative sample of California voters was only 27 percent.) For the relatively easy questions, the size of the domestic-international knowledge gap was the same (around 11 points) for the least and most educated groups. But when the questions were more difficult, the gap persisted only among the most educated; the less educated respondents showed no gap at all because their ability to answer the difficult domestic politics questions was substantially reduced. Thus the magnitude of the knowledge gap depends both on the difficulty level of the questions and the attentiveness of the respondents.

The existence of the knowledge gap can also be attributed to the lower level of media coverage accorded international stories. Overall, the domestic politics questions received twice as many news reports as the foreign affairs questions. But the gap is not simply a reflection of the under-reporting of foreign affairs. Analysis of the relationship between the amount of national press coverage and the level of citizen information revealed stronger effects of news in the case of domestic politics. News coverage significantly increased information about domestic politics -- for every 7 additional stories, the level of public information increased by 1 percent. But news coverage of foreign affairs was not as powerful a predictor of foreign affairs information. The fact that our participants knew less about foreign affairs, therefore, is not simply due to the weaker supply of international news; even when there is foreign news available, it does not seem to get through. People learn less from foreign news than domestic news.

The fact that Americans tend to be less than well-informed about international affairs raises important questions about the formulation of foreign policy. First, one wonders if the public's foreign policy preferences (and hence the actions of elected officials) would change were they more informed about international affairs. The scholarly verdict on this question is as yet inconclusive. Second, it is possible that foreign policy affords political elites greater opportunity to lead (some might say manipulate) public opinion. Perhaps a more informed public would have been less accepting of the Bush Administration's assertions concerning the rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein. In general, a more informed citizenry increases the likelihood that elected officials will be held accountable for their actions.

Shanto Iyengar is Professor of Communication and director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University. Richard Morin is director of Washington Post polling and a staff writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company