We’re No Better Informed About Our World Than In 1989

Despite the information and communication revolutionary time we live in, Americans remain in the dark about our world.

Pew released a survey back in April detailing Americans knowledge of current affairs, comparing the status quo to that of 1989.

We’ve had a literal explosion of new media and communications services and tools come into being these past 15 years. They have completely reshaped how we get our news and how we connect with our communities.

Social Networks, Blogs, RSS, News Aggregators, Email, Email Lists, Message Boards, Websites, News portals, the Web, the Internet, Cable network 24/hr. news, talk radio, online magazines, collaborative news filters, algorithmic news filters, the list goes on and on.

You would think with so many choices, so many avenues to get informed, we’d actually be better informed.

You’d be wrong.

On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago. The new survey includes nine questions that are either identical or roughly comparable to questions asked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2007, somewhat fewer were able to name their governor, the vice president, and the president of Russia, but more respondents than in the earlier era gave correct answers to questions pertaining to national politics.

In 1989, for example, 74% could come up with Dan Quayle’s name when asked who the vice president is. Today, somewhat fewer (69%) are able to recall Dick Cheney. However, more Americans now know that the chief justice of the Supreme Court is generally considered a conservative and that Democrats control Congress than knew these things in 1989. Some of the largest knowledge differences between the two time periods may reflect differences in the amount of press coverage of a particular issue or public figure at the time the surveys were taken. But taken as a whole the findings suggest little change in overall levels of public knowledge.

The survey provides further evidence that changing news formats are not having a great deal of impact on how much the public knows about national and international affairs.

I’m among a bunch of folks who tend to trumpet online services as a cure-all for our past lack of information awareness and communications access.

On the opposite side of the bench have been those who have sounded alarm after alarm about how our ever growing media-and-communications-scape will fragment us ever further and result in ever tightening echo chambers, making us less informed about subject matter as a whole.

Turns out both perspectives are wrong.

Here we are, with so much new technology, so much new media, transforming the way we live our lives, and yet we are as informed, as ill informed, as we were in 1989.


Newsweek: Dunce-Cap Nation

Wired: Infoporn: Despite the Web, Americans Remain Woefully Ill-Informed

2 thoughts on “We’re No Better Informed About Our World Than In 1989

  1. Is it a function of knowledge or of attention span, though? You can vary and increase the communications media all you like, but it doesn’t matter if our brains are already at capacity.

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