Today's Americans Duck Knowledge, Study Says A new Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey shows that most Americans are no more knowledgeable about current affairs today than they were years ago — despite the explosion of information technologies that give the public access to news around the clock.

Today's Americans Duck Knowledge, Study Says

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/9605725/9605726" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now a poll that addresses these two questions. First, can you believe how much better informed people are about politics nowadays, what with the Internet and cable news channels, than they were say almost 20 years ago? And this question: Can you believe how little people know about politics today compared with, say, 20 years ago? Well, pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, has done polling to find out which of those two statements is true - a poll of knowledge of the news today versus knowledge of the news back in 1989. And the answer, Andy, is? Is?

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): Neither of these.

SIEGEL: Neither of those statements is correct.

Mr. KOHUT: Two information revolutions later, the emergence of 24-hour cable television and then the Internet news, we find no change in the level of public information, at least on the nine questions we chose to repeat from the late '80s and early 1990s.

SIEGEL: Now give us a sense of what some of those questions were.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, some of them were pretty basic. Who is the vice president? In 1989, 74 percent volunteered correctly Dan Quayle. This year, only 69 percent said Dick Cheney. We had similar...

SIEGEL: Is that within the margin of error or is Dick Cheney less well known than Dan Quayle was?

Mr. KOHUT: He is less well known.

SIEGEL: Okay.

Mr. KOHUT: But it could be his numbers are really pretty close. But what's interesting is that they're really no different. Who was your state's governor? In 1989, 74 percent gave the correct answer. In 2007, 66 percent gave the correct answer. Now, we did find somewhat more knowledge about partisan politics and political issues this year. We've found an increase in the percentage of people who knew that the Democratic Party controlled the House of Representatives. Now, Democratic control is news these days, but in any event, on balance, there's relatively little differences in these questions where we can come away and say, boy, the public is so much better informed or not as well-informed.

SIEGEL: Are you consistently finding - I assume that a large number of the people who can't name the vice president also don't know who controls the Congress. Is it, though, there's about 25 percent of the public that's really plugged into "American Idol," and that's about it?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, there's a very large percentage of people who don't know very much about what's going on in the country. Many of them don't vote, don't participate. And then there is a small group of people who are very, very well informed.

SIEGEL: Now, when you analyze those people who are very well informed, you list those news outlets or programs or publications that are talking to the most or are being read by the largest share of knowledgeable people. And you could make the noise of opening the envelope for the Oscars right now. You're going to tell people what is the news or information source that has the highest number of very knowledgeable people following it.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, basically, in statistical terms, it's about a six-way tie -"The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report," 54 percent test high.

SIEGEL: That's the highest number you came up with.

Mr. KOHUT: The high - well, major newspaper Web sites, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, 54 percent, "The News Hour" at 53 percent, NPR at 51 percent. They are all not statistically different. They are all at the top. But what they are, also, is a mix of very different formats. It's not like one format gives us more informed people.

And what we find is that younger people consistently over this period have been less of the view that the news is enjoyable. They don't like the news and don't enjoy the news as much as older generations.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for doing your share to remedy that once again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOHUT: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's Andrew Kohut, who is director of the Pew Research Center, talking about a poll - would you say that our listeners could actually take the test their own knowledge (unintelligible).

Mr. KOHUT: Go to PewResearch.org, and the test is available. And you can see how you compare to other Americans of your age, sex and education level.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Andy.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Here's an update on our main story today, the ghastly shooting at Virginia Tech this morning. At least 30 people are dead in Blacksburg after two incidents. More than 20 were injured. At least one student was killed in a dorm. Then about two hours later, at the other end of campus, a gunman opened fire in a classroom building, killing dozens. The shooter is dead, but he has not been identified.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.