Home > Uncategorized > Prior’s Seven Hypotheses in our new media environment.

Prior’s Seven Hypotheses in our new media environment.

Political information and the relative differences in levels of knowledge between individuals has been a common subject of study in political science and communications. What, if anything, can account for these differences at a time when barriers to information are relatively few in number? Most accounts attribute this difference to the efficiency with which people can find information. What, then, happens when there is a lack of efficiency, or a lack of willingness to seek out this information? Downs (1957) presented an argument that individuals obtain free political information as a by-product of entertainment-seeking behavior, or in the course of making everyday consumption decisions. Popkin (1991) explored this second example in studying how people avoid costly searches for information on inflation, yet learn about developments in price changes through grocery shopping. On the other hand, entertainment seekers may be exposed to political information in the form of a newsreel at the beginning of a movie. The difference between these two comes in the form of costs. Obtaining information in the course of normal decision making does not entail costs, while obtaining information during an attempt to seek out entertainment introduces opportunity costs. The pop-up or the sidebar with headlines on the entertainment website must be perused at the cost of missing the entertainment that one was originally seeking out.

Given this theory of by-product learning, what can be said about the changing media environment vis-à-vis learning through entertainment-seeking behavior? Prior (2007) claims the diversifying media environment makes it easier for individuals to find their preferred content. This increasing efficiency reduces the chance that individuals will be exposed to unwanted political information. If this proposition is true, the changing media environment, through a reduction in by-product learning, is changing the way people learn, which people learn, who participates, and the quality of that participation. One key to this understanding is that changes in the ordinary citizen are not necessary. Prior’s argument does not necessitate a change in the overall tastes, or intelligence of the citizen, just a change in the media environment.

With this change in the media environment, Prior posits seven hypotheses. 1) Broadcast television will increase political knowledge among the less cognitively skilled or educated, however, 2) the days of large network news ended with the expansion of cable television. Further, this expansion of cable television 3) increased the knowledge gap between those who prefer entertainment vs news. Beyond knowledge, Prior hypothesizes that 4) broadcast television narrowed the turnout gap between more and less educated citizens  and he predicts 5) a widening gap in turnout between these groups with the death of broadcast television. Finally, Prior states that 6) broadcast television reduced the impact of partisanship and that 7) polarization among voters will resurge with this new media environment (52).

How do Prior’s hypotheses hold up? Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis of his seven hypotheses throughout the next week or two. That is, unless you’re an entertainment seeker and decide to head over to youtube instead.



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