Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Information, Misinformation, and Political Talk Radio

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Information, Misinformation, and Political Talk Radio

Article excerpt

This article provides an empirical test of the theory that individuals gather political knowledge by inferential reasoning-constructing political "reality" from the messages to which they are exposed by making inferences about what they do not know based on extrapolations from what they see or hear. This "filling-in" may often result in misinformation, or the belief in incorrect information (as distinguished from a simple lack of information, or ignorance). Widespread misinformation among the electorate changes our conception of democracy as a "marketplace of ideas," and may have much more serious consequences than does a broad lack of information or sophistication on the part of the electorate. Data from a 1997 random-digit-dial survey of 810 adults residing in San Diego was used to test the hypothesis that listening to political talk radio leads to higher levels of both information (regarding non-ideologically charged facts) and misinformation (regarding ideologically charged facts). Analysis revealed that active listening (not only listening but also calling and/or taking action because of talk radio) corresponded to higher levels of information, regardless of the ideological nature of the talk radio programs to which the listeners were exposed. However, greater frequency of exposure to conservative talk radio independently corresponded to greater misinformation, while greater exposure to moderate programming was associated with being less misinformed, controlling for partisanship, ideology, and a number of other predictors.

One of the theoretical foundations for democracy is an informed citizenry. Much research has considered the extent to which the American electorate possesses the requisite sophistication to execute republican government (Converse 1964; Nie, Verba, and Petrocik 1976; Smith 1989). Many have concluded that while the majority of Americans may not be well informed, the uninformed take cues from the smaller percentage of sophisticated "opinion leaders" (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1964; Zaller 1992). However, fewer scholars have considered the ramifications of a misinformed citizenry Misinformation, or erroneous understanding, differs dramatically from simple ignorance, or the lack of understanding. The misinformed hold their incorrect beliefs with confidence (Kuklinski, Quirk, Schneider, and Rich 1997). Hence, the difference between the uninformed and the misinformed may be akin to the difference between staying home on election day versus holding a placard at a rally. The uninformed are likely to opt out of politics, or to rely on heuristic measures such as party ID or opinion leaders, thus enabling them potentially to behave as if they were informed (Page and Shapiro, 1992; but see Bartels 1996). By contrast, the misinformed may participate at high levels-writing congressmen, proselytizing for a candidate, contributing money, and so on. As such, while an uninformed citizenry might not pose a threat to democracy, the presence of a largely misinformed citizenry may misdirect electoral outcomes and the general direction of public policy.

How does misinformation spread? Misinformation may not always result from the dissemination of false assertions. Individuals may draw false conclusions by making grand inferences from bits of incomplete information. When considering a political issue about which we have only partial information, we may "fill-in" the missing pieces with contrived information that matches our established world view (Schneidman 1969; Kuklinski, Quirk, Schneider, and Rich 1997). This inferential reasoning theory of political "learning" guides our present analysis of talk radio and information/misinformation. We explore the extent to which regular and active listening to political talk radio may lead to greater levels of both information and misinformation.

Because of the engaging, often volatile, somewhat ambiguous, and always repetitive character of talk radio content, we hypothesize that listening may increase levels of information regarding non-ideologically charged matters (such as which party controls the House of Representatives) while simultaneously corresponding to misinformation regarding ideologically charged affairs (such as whether the deficit increased under the Clinton administration and whether America spends more money on welfare than defense). …

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