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?

“Necessity or not”? Pew says Americans’ views are changing.

Pew Center for People & the Press logoThe Pew Research Center fields a Social & Demographic Trends survey on a fairly regular basis which asks Americans if they think certain items are “necessities” … or a luxury they could do without.

Included in the survey are a variety of items ranging from automobiles and appliances to communications devices.

The 2010 survey was conducted in May and queried nearly 3,000 respondents. The results of this survey were released in late August, and they reveal that landline phones and television sets are quickly becoming less essential to U.S. consumers.

In fact, only ~42% of the survey respondents feel that a TV set is a necessity, which is down 10 percentage points from just one year ago.

Here is what respondents reported in response to being asked whether they consider each of the following items to be a “necessity”:

 Automobile: 86% (down 2 percentage points from the 2009 Pew survey)
 Landline phone: 62% (down 6 points)
 Home air conditioning: 55% (up 1)
 Home computer: 49% (down 1)
 Cell phone: 47% (down 2)
 Microwave: 45% (down 2)
 Television set: 42% (down 10)
 High-speed internet: 34% (up 3)
 Cable/satellite TV: 23% (no change)
 Dishwasher: 21% (no change)
 Flat-screen TV: 10% (up 2)

Of course, landline phones and TV sets have been fixtures of American life for as long as most of us can remember. But the Pew research shows this is now changing, and it’s especially so among those in the 18-29 age bracket. In fact, only ~30% of the younger age segment believe that having a TV set is a necessity.

As for landline phones, current government data show that only three-fourths of U.S. households have a landline phone, which is down from ~97% in 2000. Not surprisingly, going in the opposite direction are cell phones; today, more than 80% of U.S. adults use them, up from only about 50% in 2000.

The Pew survey results from 2010 versus 2009 reveal several other declines in “necessities,” but those declines are only slight and may be a result of the economic downturn. Instead, it seems clear that the major shifts are happening due to technological change, not because of the economic picture.

The Pew survey results don’t reveal too much that’s surprising … but it’s important to put some statistics to our broad hunches. And those stats are telling us that certain changes are occurring rapidly.

Where Does the News Begin? Pew Looks for Answers.

Pew studies news reporting today ... and who's crafting it.
You don’t have to be over 50 years old to be concerned about where the world might be heading when it comes to the generation of news stories and how they are vetted. As newspapers and other publishers have cut the size of their reporting and editorial staffs, the quality and consistency of news reporting has suffered in the eyes of many.

Recently, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism decided to take a look at this issue to see how it’s playing out on the ground by studying the “news ecosystem” of a single geographic region. The market chosen for the study – Baltimore, Maryland – just happens to be in my backyard, so I’ve been able to review the results with a good understanding of the dynamics of the region in question.

Pew’s Baltimore study evaluated the news environment during the summer of 2009 and came to some interesting conclusions. While the regional media landscape – print, web, radio and TV – has broadened considerably to include 53 separate outlets that regularly produce and broadcast some form of news content, much of what is truly “new news” came from the traditional news outlets and not from other media resources.

Six major local/regional news threads were studied, ranging from the Maryland state budget situation to crime trends, issues affecting the metro transit system, and the sale of the Senator Theater, a local historical landmark. An analysis of those news threads found that:

 More than 80% of the news stories were repetitive – just rehashes of someone else’s original news content that contained no new information.

 Of the ~20% of the news stories that did include new information, nearly all of the content came from traditional media, published either in conventional format (e.g., print) or in digital.

 General-audience newspapers like the Baltimore Sun produced roughly half of the news stories, followed by local TV stations such as WBAL-TV contributing ~30% of the reporting.

 Specialty business or legal newspaper outlets such as the Baltimore Business Journal and the Daily Record contributed just under of 15% of the news items, with the remaining news reporting coming primarily from local radio stations such as WYPR-FM.

 Interestingly, about one-third of the news coverage generated by newspaper publishers appeared on the Internet rather than in their print editions.

Thus, the Pew study demonstrates that “new news” is coming from the same sources as before, led by the local papers. But another clear picture to emerge from the Baltimore profile is that the scaling back of editorial staffs has resulted in less original reporting, with much heavier reliance on simply republishing stories that have appeared elsewhere.

At the same time, new interactive capabilities are giving “we the people” an unparalleled broadcast platform via the ability to post feedback and commentary, not to mention utilizing Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as a megaphone.

In today’s “everyone’s an editor because they can write” environment, no one can stop us from broadcasting our own opinions and analysis to the world. But that’s not the same thing as a properly sourced, properly vetted news story. And that’s what Pew sees falling away.