Television—Including TV News—Dumbs America Down
In order to help isolate the impact a college degree has on civic literacy, ISI examined additional factors that might add to or subtract from an individual’s civic knowledge. The survey results were put through a regression analysis to determine whether various behaviors in a respondent’s life had a unique, statistically significant impact on his or her civic knowledge.
The multiple-regression analysis indicated that a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and even monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminishes a respondent’s civic literacy.
Actively seeking knowledge through print media and high-quality conversations has the opposite effect. Reading about history and current events in books, magazines, and newspapers—and talking about these subjects with family and friends—increases a respondent’s civic literacy.
In fact, an American who lacks a college degree but has initiative and desire—and who does not spend too much time watching TV and talking on the phone—can acquire more civic knowledge than a couch potato with a college degree.
Paula Abdul Beats Honest Abe
Respondents were asked if they could name the three judges on last year’s popular American Idol television program. Paula Abdul turned out to be the most well-known. Over twice as many people knew she was a judge on American Idol as know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
|Named Abdul as a judge on American Idol||56%|
|Recognized phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address||21%|
While earning a bachelor’s degree increases civic knowledge more than any other single factor (+6.9% on the test), the civic knowledge gained from engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities is greater than the gain from a bachelor’s degree alone.
- Frequently discussing public affairs and history with family and friends adds 5.5% to a respondent’s score on the civic literacy test.
- Reading about history and current events in books, magazines, and newspapers for an average of 15 hours per week adds 1.5% to a respondent’s score.
- Americans who make habits of both frequently conversing about public affairs and history and also reading about these subjects for an average of 15 hours per week increase their civic knowledge by 7%—slightly more than the 6.9% gained from earning a college degree.
- More involved political activities (beyond merely voting)—such as attending a political rally, giving money to a political campaign, signing a petition, or publishing a letter to the editor—are also associated with higher test scores. A respondent’s score increases by 1.7% for each one of these activities. This finding corroborates a key finding of ISI’s previous civic literacy surveys that greater learning about America goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship.
- Twenty-four-hour cable news channels are not a boon to civic knowledge. Respondents lose 0.08% on their test score for each hour they spend each week watching TV news programs and documentaries.
- Electronic media is not all bad. Active use of the Internet is positively correlated with higher test scores. Respondents who frequently explore social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace score higher than respondents who do not.
|The Couch Potato Phenomenon|
|This Table shows the change in a respondent’s test score associated with six selected behaviors in his or her life.|
|Behavior||Change in Civic Knowledge|
|Positive Influence of Active Learning|
|Frequently discussing current events and public affairs
(Daily or weekly as opposed to monthly, rarely, or never)
|Participating in more involved or advanced politics
(Nine items ranging from signing a petition to contacting a public official)
|+1.7 per action|
|Reading history or current events in books, newspapers, or magazines||+0.1 per hour per week
|Negative Influence of Passive Electronic Medium|
|Watching movies you own or rent||-0.14 per hour per week|
|Visiting on the telephone||-0.10 per hour per week|
|Watching television news or documentaries||-0.08 per hour per week|
Interestingly, the analysis also discovered that people who do better on the civic literacy test also do better financially, even when holding constant their educational attainment.
The survey suggests that teachers at all levels of the educational system can improve the civic literacy of Americans by inspiring in them a lifelong love of learning. Colleges in particular can increase their contribution to civic literacy by encouraging students to read independently, to reduce their time using telephones and watching TV, and to participate in civic life.