Pew Chronicles the Public’s Knowledge of Current Events: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

NewsIQ Research from the Pew Research CenterAll right, folks. Are you prepared to be depressed?

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has just published the results of its annual News IQ survey in which it asks members of the U.S. public a baker’s dozen questions about current events.

A total of ~1,000 people were surveyed by the Pew Research Center in mid-November. The multiple choice survey covered a mix of political, economic and business issues and included the questions shown below. (The percentages refer to how many answered each multiple choice question correctly).

 The company running the oil well that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico (BP) … 88% answered correctly
 The U.S. deficit compared to the 1990s (larger) … 77% correct
 The political party that won the 2010 midterm elections (Republicans) … 75% correct
 The international trade balance (U.S. buys more than it sells) … 64% correct
 The current U.S. unemployment rate (10%) … 53% correct

 The political party that will control the House of Representatives in 2011 (Republicans) … 46% correct
 The state of Indian/Pakistani relations (unfriendly) … 41% correct
 The category on which the U.S. Government spends the most dollars (defense) … 39% correct
 The name of the new Speaker of the House (John Boehner) … 38% correct
 The name of Google’s mobile phone software (Android) … 26% correct

 The amount of TARP loans repaid (more than 50%) … 16% correct
 The name of the new Prime Minister of Great Britain (David Cameron) … 15% correct
 The current U.S. annual inflation rate (1%) … 14% correct

The percentage of respondents who answered all questions correctly was … fewer than 1%. Ten questions? … just 6% answered correctly. Eight of the questions? … only 22%.

On average, respondents answered just five of the 13 questions correctly. Even college graduates scored relatively weak, with an average of just seven questions answered correctly.

The public appears to be best informed on basic economic issues such as the unemployment rate and the budget deficit, while nine in ten respondents correctly identified BP as the corporate culprit in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill event. Not surprisingly, these were among the biggest news stories of the past several quarterly news cycles.

The worst scores were recorded on the TARP program and the current inflation rate, which fewer than one in five respondents answered correctly (about the same as the David Cameron/UK question which people could be forgiven for answering incorrectly).

You can view detailed results from the survey, including breakouts by age, gender, race and political party affiliation. Not wishing to step into a thicket by editorializing on these differences, I’ll leave it to you to see for yourself by clicking through to the Pew findings on your own.

Pew concludes that while Americans are aware of “basic facts” regarding current events, they struggle with getting a good handle on the specifics.

Might this be a byproduct of how people are consuming news these days? After all, there’s far less reliance on newspapers or news magazine articles … and more emphasis on “headline news” and short sound bites.

That’s the sort of recipe that results in people knowing the gist of a story without gaining any particular depth of understanding beyond the headlines.

Now that you’ve seen the correct answers to the questions, you won’t be able to test yourself against the public at large, so I’ve kind of spoiled the fun. But a little honesty here: how well do you think you would have scored?

One thought on “Pew Chronicles the Public’s Knowledge of Current Events: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

  1. Hardly surprising. And here’s something to consider: David Graddol, lead researcher at the British Council, believes that the next wave of offshore outsourcing will be mid-level office jobs. Rising wages in former low-cost manufacturing countries and increasing fuel costs will make manufacturing abroad less attractive in the future. (Transportation costs can be higher than manufacturing costs in some instances, and with fuel costs headed higher, shipping costs will rise, as well.) Many foreign countries see this coming.

    So, according to Graddol, whose specialty is “English as a global lingua franca,” some countries, including China and India, are putting a special emphasis on English in elementary school, hoping to start snatching mid-level clerical and accounting jobs the same way they snatched manufacturing jobs in the past. If they are successful, globalization may become as much of a threat to people in the service sector as it has been to people in manufacturing. Basic literacy (understanding current affairs, competence at math, the ability to write a coherent sentence) matters a lot more than people realize.

    If Graddol is right, many more of us are going to be competing soon with billions of highly skilled, well-educated people around the globe for our jobs.

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