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Researchers Warn of Preference and Competency Gaps in How Americans Use Technology to Access the News

October 30, 2011, 8:01 PM

--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, American university doctoral student.

Technological advances in how we communicate, from the advent of the printing press to the launch of the World Wide Web, have the unique ability to trigger waves of utopian and dystopian claims. Even among scholars, some have been prone to this exaggerated response. These dramatic calls for alarm or elation hardly ever come to pass, but many of these technologies do permanently reshape the form and means of communication. Due to their relative novelty, digital technologies like broadband and mobile communications, particularly cellular phones capable of accessing the Internet on the go, are still undergoing this prediction and review process as they are incorporated into our daily lives.

One lingering concern that scholars often have about new technologies is the impact that they will have on political participation. Markus Prior illustrates this in his examination of the role of cable television and the Internet in relation to political knowledge gaps among segments of the public. His study is particularly interesting in its amalgamation of two different generations of technology. Cable television has been around longer, with a full generation of adults having grown up with cable TV in their homes, while the Internet is new enough that the first generation of digital natives is just now entering college.

Prior suggests that the cumulative effect of these two technological advancements is to create a high-choice media environment that far surpasses the limited options of the formative days of broadcast television when just a few networks dominated. Positioning himself in contrast to academics like Cass Sunstein, who suggested that increased media choice allows partisan individuals to selectively ignore discordant political information, Prior argues that the real concern raised by this ability to pick and choose sources from the larger media landscape is that individuals lacking innate interest in politics can avoid it all together by focusing on entertainment outlets.

Analyzing a combination of panel and cross-sectional survey data, he goes on to illustrate how a high-choice media environment simultaneously increases participation and information-seeking in politically inclined individuals while allowing the less inclined to avoid incidental exposure to political information via outlets such as newspapers and broadcast news. Prior also shows in his analysis that these preferences gaps also lead to gaps in political participation in the form of voter turn-out. 

While Prior warns of disengagement brought on by technology, Scott Campbell and Nojin Kwak look hopefully to the rise of mobile communication as a potential means of reinvigorating this dimension of civic life. In addition to fostering perpetual interaction through ultraportability, Campbell and Kwak suggest that mobile communications are particularly relevant because they enable lower cost access to online information that traditional home-based Internet access.

In a survey study, they found that mobile use was positively correlated with political participation whether individuals used their phones primarily for information exchange or for entertainment. This latter finding, the connection between recreational use of mobile technology and political participation, is intriguing because it contrasts previous findings to the opposite effect. Furthermore, while the mechanism and explanation for this phenomenon is not revealed by this study, it does hint at the potential for mobile use to replace some of the incidental exposure to news and information essential to political participation that Prior argues has been lost in our high-choice media environment. If entertainment-minded individuals are able to opt out of news and political participation through cable television and Internet use, then an increase in political participation associated with recreational mobile use could reveal new strategies for engaging a broad audience with further research.

Another interesting facet of the Campbell and Kwak study concerns the role of user understanding of and familiarity with technological devices. Evoking Esther Hargittai’s concept of a “second-level” digital divide, they found that technological fluency was also an important factor affecting political engagement related to mobile use. While the digital divide is commonly understood to refer to a problem of access to technology among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, the extension of this notion illuminates a broader barrier to productive use of new technology: the ability to comprehend and control how these increasingly sophisticated devices work.

Having evolved from simple mechanisms for making phone calls on the move, cell phones are rapidly incorporating many of the features traditionally associated with desktop and laptop computers. New user interfaces like touchscreens, while ostensibly designed to maximize intuitive interaction, often come naturally to younger generations while requiring older individuals to adapt from previous push button modes.

While physical and functional accessibility continue to be primary concerns surrounding the spread of new technologies, the studies by Campbell, Kwak and Prior demonstrate the need for rational approaches to assessing the potential positive and negatives outcomes of their adoption. While Prior finds troubling news for voter turnout specifically and political participation generally in his analysis of the high-choice media environment spawned by cable television and Internet technologies, Campbell and Kwak find potential for reversing that trend in mobile communications, though warning of the likelihood of “competency” gaps. In the end, both conclude that much research is still needed to parse out a more complete understanding of how these technological advancements impact our lives through their daily use, which is the most rational conclusion of all when dealing with such relative unknowns.

--Guest post by Jamie Schleser, a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication.  Read other posts by AU doctoral students and find out more about the doctoral program in Communication at American University.


Campbell, Scott W., and Nojin Kwak. "Mobile Communication and Civil Society: Linking Patterns and Places of Use to Engagement with Others in Public." Human Communication Research 37.2 (2011): 207-22. Print.

 Prior, Markus. "News Vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout." American Journal of Political Science 49.3 (2005): 577-92. Print.







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