There are no end of lamentations about what voters do—and often do not—know about politics and current events.    Could the solution be waiting in the welcoming arms of Big Bird?  Could watching public broadcasting, which tends to feature more substantive “hard” news than does commercial broadcasting, make people more knowledgeable about politics?


In a new article (ungated), Stuart Soroka and a team of scholars address this question.  They conducted surveys in 6 countries—Canada, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK, and Korea—asking respondents about their knowledge of current affairs and their attention to various media.  Obviously, there are challenges of sorting out correlation and causation here.  Do people who consume public broadcasting become more knowledgeable?  Or are knowledgeable people just more likely to consume public broadcasting?  Via statistical modeling, Soroka and colleagues go some distance in isolating the possible effects of public broadcasting—though they are clear that their modeling is no panacea.

Nevertheless, the results are interesting.  In most countries, people who consume more public broadcasting know more about current events than people who consume less of it.  But these same differences emerge to a lesser extent among those who consume more or less commercial broadcasting.  This suggests that public broadcasting helps citizens learn.  Here’s a graph:


One further question is why watching public broadcasting seems to help more in some countries (like the UK) than in others (like Italy).  With only six countries in this analysis, there’s no firm answer.  But Soroka and colleagues show that two factors may have something to do with it.  First, the larger the public portion of the public broadcaster’s budget, the larger the apparent impact of consuming public broadcasting.  Second, the more independent is public broadcasting from the government, the larger its apparent impact.  This helps explain why public broadcasting seems to be less effective in Italy, since the public broadcaster there is much more under the government’s control than, say, the BBC.

Back here in the US, these findings don’t necessarily bode well for what Americans know, or could learn, about politics.  The audience for public television is shrinking.  The news for public radio is better, mainly because its audience is stable, not because it is growing.  Perhaps the growing on-line audience for public broadcasting is cause for optimism, but regardless of these trends, the audience for American public broadcasting is just small compared to that in many other countries.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.