Home > Uncategorized > Examining Prior’s Political Knowledge Hypotheses

Examining Prior’s Political Knowledge Hypotheses

In my last post, I laid out the framework of Markus Prior’s argument in his book Post Broadcast Democracy. In this post I will examine the first three of his hypotheses, which relate to political knowledge, and see how the evidence stacks up.

Hypothesis 1: Broadcast television will increase political knowledge among the less cognitively skilled or educated.

Verdict: Although Prior’s statistical evidence is questionable (77, 79) there does seem to be evidence of increased marginal effects of broadcast television on political knowledge in low education citizens versus those with higher education. In his regression analyses, Prior operationalizes broadcast television by breaking down VHF network affiliates, VHF independent stations and UHF network affiliates. In one analysis he logs the number of broadcast stations and finds large and significant effects on political knowledge, and higher effects on those with low education rather than high education.  Beyond this he takes note of the number of stations which reach 50% or more of the geographic area of a particular county. The interesting thing to note about his findings is the lack of statistical significance in the coefficients for one, two and four or more network affiliates but strong and statistically significant effects for three network affiliates when the analysis is done with dummy variables. Prior concludes that there is a linear relationship between television and political knowledge as the number of network affiliates moves from one to three, but then decreases when there are four or more stations. Statistically, the coefficients and standard errors do not seem to support this conclusion with the vigor Prior claims. This is an area where Prior would do well to attempt to unpack these findings more. Although his dummy model leaves some questions, his logged model and his analysis of the marginal effects does show support for this first hypothesis.

Hypothesis 2: The days of large network news ended with the expansion of cable television.

Verdict: The evidence presented (in the form of Neilson Media Research rating) show clear and significant differences between ratings of broadcast news in homes with and without cable television, and even larger differences between households with only broadcast television and those with premium cable (100). However, two issues confound his analysis. First, and most importantly, is the inability to draw causal inferences from this data. Although we can analyze trends, it is impossible to tell if the decrease in broadcast news audience is, in fact, due to the adoption of cable technologies. Further, we begin to run into a selection bias when looking at trends in news audience among those who only have broadcast television. As the adoption of cable television becomes more widespread, the segment of the population becomes overwhelmingly unrepresentative (104).

Hypothesis 3: This expansion of cable television increased the knowledge gap between those who prefer entertainment versus news.

Verdict: The findings presented by Prior in regard to his third hypothesis must be looked at as a two part process. In order to examine the knowledge gap we must first understand the relationship between cable television and entertainment preferences versus news preferences, and then examine these preferences in relation to any apparent knowledge gap. Prior’s findings regarding the relationship between news exposure and entertainment across those with and without cable access clearly show that those with a news preference receive more news when they have cable access and those with an entertainment preference receive more news when they only have broadcast access (109). Understanding the appearance of different exposure to news based on relative entertainment preference and cable access, Prior looks at political knowledge. The gap between the political knowledge of those with an entertainment preference and those with a news preference is striking in among those who have cable television, and even more so among those who have cable television and internet access. It is important to note that among those who do not have access to these technologies, there is relatively little difference in political knowledge between those with high or low entertainment preference (114-115).

Thus far, barring the lack of a causal relationship between declining news audiences and the advent of cable, Prior’s first three hypotheses stand up to scrutiny. In his final four hypotheses, Prior moves away from political knowledge and begins to examine political activity. In my next post, I will examine Prior’s hypotheses on the relative size of the turnout gap between more and less educated citizens, and the changes in partisanship that come with the death of broadcast television.


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