August 18, 2008

The latest Pew Survey on News Consumption, which is conducted every other year, was released yesterday, and is chock full of interesting tidbits and results. Most notably, there was a great section of the report on news-consumer knowledge and sophistication.

About half of Americans (53%) can correctly identify the Democrats as the party that has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In February 2007, shortly after the Democrats gained control of the House after a dozen years of GOP rule, many more people (76%) knew the Democrats held the majority.

The public is less familiar with the secretary of state (Condoleezza Rice) and the prime minister of Great Britain (Gordon Brown). About four-in-ten (42%) can name Rice as the current secretary of state. The public’s ability to identify Rice has not changed much over recent years: In April 2006 and December 2004, shortly before she was sworn in, 43% could correctly identify her.

The prime minister of Great Britain is not well known among the public. Just more than a quarter (28%) can correctly identify Gordon Brown as the leader of Great Britain.

Overall, 18% of the public is able to correctly answer all three political knowledge questions, while a third (33%) do not know the answer to any of the questions.

I’ll admit, I’m torn about how humiliating this is to the nation overall. For the typical American not to know Gordon Brown strikes me as only mildly distressing — Brown has only been Prime Minister for about a year, and most of the public was probably more familiar with Tony Blair.

But one-in-three Americans got all of the questions wrong. For all the talk about the Democratic Congress, barely half the country knows there’s a Democratic majority.

Maybe my perspective is skewed because I just finished reading Rick Shenkman’s “Just How Stupid Are We?” but at a certain point, the political world is going to have to come to grips with the fact that a striking percentage of the electorate has no idea what’s going on.

As for the other results from the Pew survey, it was also interesting to note which news consumers did better than others.

From the report:

Regular readers of magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine stand out for their political knowledge; almost half (48%) can correctly identify Rice, Brown and the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. NPR listeners rank closely behind, with 44% of regular listeners registering a high knowledge score. More than four-in-ten regular Hardball (43%) and Hannity & Colmes (42%) viewers also score relatively high for political knowledge.

In general, well-educated news audiences have high levels of political knowledge; for instance, 54% of regular readers of publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s Magazine are college graduates, as are 54% of regular NPR listeners. However, a greater proportion of regular readers of business magazines are college graduates (60%), but just 36% answered all three political knowledge questions correctly.

Just a third of regular Rush Limbaugh listeners are college graduates, but this audience scored as well on political knowledge as did regular business magazine readers. Similarly, only about three-in-ten (31%) regular Hannity & Colmes listeners are college graduates, but a relatively large proportion (42%) answered all three questions correctly.

Some highly knowledgeable and attentive news audiences - such as The New Yorker’s, Limbaugh’s, Hannity & Colmes’ or Hardball’s - are older than average. However, age is not always a correlate of political knowledge: the CBS Evening News has one of the oldest audiences of the news outlets included on the survey; 63% of the regular viewers of this program are 50 or older. But just 10% of regular CBS News viewers correctly answered the three questions.

The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are notable for having relatively well-informed audiences that are younger than the national average: 34% of regular Colbert viewers answered the three political knowledge questions correctly, as did 30% of regular Daily Show viewers. Less than a quarter of either audience is older than 50 (22% Colbert, 23% Daily Show), compared with 41% of the general public.

Now, I found this particularly interesting because four years ago, Fox News viewers were the most confused about current events, especially when it came to subjects such as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Saddam Hussein “working closely” with al Qaeda. Viewers of “The Daily Show” were among the best informed at the time.

So, have things changed? I kind of doubt it — these Pew questions were easier and covered non-controversial subjects. My hunch is, had Pew asked more about subjects relating to Republican talking points, those Fox News viewers would have done considerably worse.

Call it a hunch.

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