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The unprecedented amount of choice afforded to media audiences today introduces the possibility that a number of existing political inequalities will be amplified as audiences become increasingly fragmented across media channels and sources. Of particular concern are potential information preference-based gaps in exposure to news and political learning that emerge when individuals opt out of news and political content in favor of more entertainment-oriented content like sports, movies, or streaming services (Prior, 2007). Generally speaking, this perspective argues that those who are interested and engaged in politics and news will self-select into news content, further bolstering their well-established base of political knowledge. However, those who are uninterested in news or politics and instead choose entertainment content will be less likely to encounter news—even accidentally—and fall behind their more interested and motivated peers in regard to their level of political knowledge.
While appealing on its surface, the interest or motivation-based knowledge gap does not fully account for the realities of the contemporary media environment in which there are endless opportunities to be exposed to news and political information, even for individuals who choose not to consistently seek out that content (Bode, 2016). While individuals may have less interest in seeking news content, they increasingly have more opportunities to be incidentally exposed to news and political information through their online activities.
Two key questions from this theoretical tension emerge: First, are people are able to build important knowledge about politics through incidental exposure to news? And second, does incidental exposure to news diminish the preference-based knowledge gap such that those who are less interested in politics are able to catch up and resemble their more interested and motivated peers?
This study addresses these important questions using two independent two-wave panel surveys with diverse samples of adults in the United States. The data for the surveys were collected in 2012 and 2016 during the height of the last two presidential elections in the U.S. We leverage these two unique datasets to examine the extent to which people are incidentally exposed to news and political information during an election cycle. We then look at whether incidental exposure promotes knowledge about the presidential candidates’ policy positions over time and if so, who benefits most in terms of learning from this type of exposure. Our findings are remarkably consistent across the two election cycles and provide some of the strongest evidence to date regarding the potential learning benefits of incidental exposure. Across the two surveys that were conducted in two separate election seasons, four years apart, we find that incidental exposure is associated with gains in knowledge about the presidential candidates’ political issue positions during the campaign. Perhaps more important, the data suggest that the those with low levels of political interest see the largest gains in knowledge about the candidates, allowing them to diminish the knowledge gap with their more interested peers. The results suggest that concerns over preference-based knowledge gaps that result from a high-choice media environment may be overstated.
Bode, L. (2016). Political news in the news feed: Learning politics from social media. Mass Communication and Society, 19, 24–48. Doi: 10.1080/15205436.2015.1045149
Prior, M. (2007). Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.