An article by a Princeton scholar that I just came across makes an alarming case that the more media choices that viewers have, the more likely that people who already care about news and politics will pay even more attention to news, and will vote more — but at the same time, people who start out preferring entertainment to news will react to abundance by watching even more entertainment and less news, and voting less.
Markus Prior maintains in “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout” that there’s something good to be said for the bad old days, when there were only three networks.
Back then, a lot of people watched the network news basically because there was nothing else on to watch. As captive consumers, they were involuntarily picking up information about politics and public affairs. But in our new, multi-channel, multi-platform media universe, people who really don’t want to watch the network evening news have plenty of other places to go, where that pesky hard news stuff doesn’t get in the way of their pleasure.
So as long as consumers are free to follow their preferences, the explosion of choices hasn’t meant a more informed public; it’s meant a more entertained public.
It’s particularly scary when Prior suggests that the most effective way to force-feed information about politics to politically disengaged viewers is via the ads that come between the entertainment:
Ironically, we might have to pin our hopes of creating a reasonably evenly informed electorate on that reviled form of communication, political advertising. Large segments of the electorate in a high-choice environment do not voluntarily watch, read, or listen to political information. Their grestest chance for encounters with the political world occurs when commercials are inserted into their regular entertainment diet…. At least for the time being, before recording services like TiVo, which automatically skip the commercial breaks, or subscriber-financed premium channels without advertising become more widespread, political advertising is more likely than news coverage to reach these viewers.