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An Occasionally Informed Public Misses Too Much

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November 6, 2013

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on Nov. 4, 2013.

By Pablo J. Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein

Some say politics and family don't mix, but what about politics and news? It depends on the season.

In election years, news consumers pay attention to election-related information. But in non-election years, they practically turn a blind eye.

As this week marks the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's reelection, a look back at the two-week period from October 29 until November 11 of 2012 reveals that the most popular stories both for journalists and for the audience of six American leading news sites (ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX,USA Today andWashington Post) had to do with the presidential election.

But during the exact same two-week period in 2011, the public's attention was largely focused on other topics. For instance, the only story that appeared on the most-viewed lists of all six sites during this period was Joe Paterno's dismissal as Penn State head coach after one of his assistants, Jerry Sandusky, had been accused of child abuse. This was the case even though journalists simultaneously offered a selection of public affairs stories such as the Greek debt crisis and the Republican primary, as the most newsworthy topics of the day.

We are not fortune tellers. But as researchers we would not be surprised that on the same 14-day period surrounding November 6 of this year, journalists will still prioritize coverage of public affairs stories on news sites of this kind. However, barring any unforeseen political, international, or economic crises, the public will largely tune out of it just as they did in 2011, another non-election year.

Why? Because the news choices of the public follow a highly predictable pattern: major political events lead consumers to increase their interest in public affairs news, while most of the time they largely focus on topics such as sports, entertainment, weather, and crime.

Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia University (author most recently of The Sociology of News) calls this phenomenon "monitorial citizenship." Rather than focusing on public affairs routinely, members of the public merely scan the news to identify important developments that might require their attention. They are "apparently inactive, but poised for action if action is required."

That is the pattern we found in our analysis of more than 23,000 stories from these six news sites from 2008 to 2012, a timespan that included two presidential elections and a midterm election, as well as two non-election years.

There is a gap between the most prominently displayed stories of the day and the most viewed ones on each of these sites during each one of these five years. In addition, this gap increases during non-election years and decreases during the electoral process.

To this point, during the final two weeks of the 2008 election campaign there was only an 8 percent difference in the prevalence of public affairs news between the stories journalists consider most newsworthy and those that consumers click most often.

The gap increased more than fourfold, to 50 percent, during the equivalent two weeks in 2009. A year later, in 2010, during the final two weeks of the mid-terms campaign, it went down to 23 percent.

But in the same two weeks during the non-electoral year of 2011 it went up again to 51 percent. Finally, during the final two weeks of the 2012 election campaign, the gap went back down to only 10 percent.

What we have then is a stark disparity between servings of political news by the media and a lack of political news appetite in consumers.

Against the backdrop of a general lack of interest in political news, the demand for this type of news for civic engagement appears to be much more variable than the demand for it. During the five years we studied the largest difference between the highest and the lowest point of consumers' demand for public affairs news was more than double the difference between highest and the lowest levels of supply of political information.

The evolution of media and consumer behavior during the last three months of the presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 also shows that demand for political news changes more drastically than the supply of this type of content.

Journalists increased the proportion of public affairs in the stories they displayed most prominently as the final months of the campaigns unfolded. Consumers also increased the prevalence of this type of news in the stories they clicked most often. But the rate of increase was on average 60 percent higher for consumers than for journalists.

What does this mean for the future of the media industry and its role in democracy?

Traditional media organizations neither meet the public where it is at nor take it to a new destination, which partly explains why the public is tuning out of news. This dovetails with findings from the 2013 State of the News Media report that one in three members of the public has abandoned a news source in the previous year.

If citizens mostly focus on political news when there are pressing matters such as an election, then providing them a steady supply of this kind of news during other periods means a waste of reporting resources. This is an unhealthy option for media organizations whose bottom line is already under duress.

The lack of flexibility of news organizations to meet changes in the public's interest is particularly worrisome. No business can survive in a highly competitive market if it is less dynamic than their consumer base.

The ability of the media to set an agenda that is widely shared and centered on public-affairs topics is a critical contribution to the democratic process. Our studies show that this agenda-setting power is cyclical and tied to the ups and downs of the political environment. Except during major electoral campaigns, the public is not likely to seek out public affairs news on traditional sites such as the ones we studied.

Although campaigns are important and bring excitement to the political arena, many events that have serious consequences for citizens happen during comparatively more routine and humdrum periods throughout the year.

Therefore, citizens might miss on these events and lack the foundation of political knowledge to adequately assess critical aspects of what might be at stake in a particular election.

The limited power of the media to set this kind of agenda entails a less-than-optimal level of information among the citizenry, and runs the risk of leading to lower levels of public deliberation and participation than would be ideal for a vibrant democratic culture.

And no matter who wins on the next election day, our society as a whole might lose.

- Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. Eugenia Mitchelstein is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion