Citizens, Knowledge, and the Information Environment

Authors


  • We thank the following people for helpful comments and assistance: Scott Althaus, John Benson, Bob Blendon, Jake Bowers, Jamie Druckman, Tobin Grant, Bill Jacoby, Jim Kuklinski, Scott McClurg, Bob Luskin, Steve Nicholson, Skip Lupia, Jeff Mondak, Markus Prior, Paul Quirk, Jas Sekhon, and participants in workshops at the University of Connecticut, Harvard University, and Northwestern University. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research provided the survey data used in these analyses.

Jennifer Jerit is a Fellow at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and assistant professor of political science (on leave), Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901-4501 (jerit@siu.edu). Jason Barabas is Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research, Center for Government and International Studies, Harvard University, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 and assistant professor of political science (on leave), Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901-4501 (jbarabas@rwj.harvard.edu). Toby Bolsen is a Ph.D. candidate of political science, Northwestern University, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208 (t-bolsen@northwestern.edu).

Abstract

In a democracy, knowledge is power. Research explaining the determinants of knowledge focuses on unchanging demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. This study combines data on the public's knowledge of nearly 50 political issues with media coverage of those topics. In a two-part analysis, we demonstrate how education, the strongest and most consistent predictor of political knowledge, has a more nuanced connection to learning than is commonly recognized. Sometimes education is positively related to knowledge. In other instances its effect is negligible. A substantial part of the variation in the education-knowledge relationship is due to the amount of information available in the mass media. This study is among the first to distinguish the short-term, aggregate-level influences on political knowledge from the largely static individual-level predictors and to empirically demonstrate the importance of the information environment.

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