New book wonders about democracy’s chances with uneducated public

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November 14, 2013

Let’s say you’re clicking through your favorite news source—CNN, USA Today, The Washington Post—and you see a story about President Obama’s travails getting the Affordable Healthcare Program off the ground. Then you see a story about baseball player Alex Rodriguez and his current legal troubles.

Which story are you likely to click on?

If you say the story about A-Rod, then you would be in the majority.

Pablo BoczkowskiEugenia Mitchelstein

This phenomenon—the public’s preference for stories about sports, crime, and entertainment over public-affairs news—is the subject of a fascinating new book by professor of communication studies Pablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein, a PhD candidate in the School of Communication’s Media, Technology, and Society program. The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge explores why stories about politics, economics, and international news are taking a backseat to lighter journalism and shock stories, at least during times when there’s little heightened political activity, like an election or a government crisis.

“We’re not claiming this is a new phenomenon,” Boczkowski said. “This phenomenon has existed for a very long time. The internet, however, has made it much more possible than before for the public to avoid certain topics. And they’re avoiding them en masse.”

The News Gap

Boczkowski said he got the idea for the book when he was doing research in Argentina in 2006. “I decided to do a study of the most clicked on stories at Diario Clarín, in Argentina, and some of its competitors,” he said. “I put together a research team and we found a major discrepancy. Major. I wasn’t expecting it. When I saw the size of the gap I thought if this exists in other contexts it’s basically the beginning of the end. No business that operates in a competitive environment can survive with twenty percent of its product unsold on a daily basis,” he said. “Nothing can survive those conditions.”

He joined forces with Mitchelstein and thanks, in part, to a generous research grant from Robert (C57) and Kaye Karlan (WCAS57) Hiatt, they examined readership trends in seven countries across the Americas and Western Europe, and ultimately produced The News Gap.

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