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Ditto-head nation

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A recent survey by Gallup says that 22 percent of Americans get their news from talk radio. That has some media watchers worried because such programs do not follow standard journalistic procedures to “objectively” gather and present news.

Talk radio is a decidedly conservative phenomenon. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans say they get their news from talk radio as opposed to 15 percent of Democrats.

Do these listeners know what they’re getting? Proponents (conscious or not) of strong-media theory argue that the audience is a dupe of the media. As I have argued, this is a largely discredited theory. I believe, as political scientist Anthony Downs did, that citizens find partisan information more politically useful.

Downs wrote Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) and maintained that people participate in politics and acquire information about politics because such participation and acquisition are “intrinsic” values. In other words, this is normal human behavior and not necessarily culturally-driven behavior. But to participate and acquire information takes effort, and citizens will only spend as much effort as necessary to get what they want. If the “costs” are too high, citizens won’t participate or acquire.

Downs demonstrated that people reduce the costs of acquiring political information by seeking out sources that fit their own way of thinking (ideology) and/or promote their party of identification (partisanship). By reducing the “costs” of acquiring political information, partisan sources are more politically useful, i.e. you don’t have to work hard to get what you want. It doesn’t seem to matter to the citizen seeking such information that the partisan source may not contribute to serious political debate.

I would add that the medium of radio helps reduce the costs of acquiring information. Newspapers and television require certain kinds of attention (different for each) that draws attention away from other tasks. Radio, however, can operate in the background as we drive or work.

Considering Downs’ economic theory and the ease of use of radio, I’m frankly surprised the figure is as low as 22 percent.

For more information, see: Calvert R. C. 1985. “The Value of Biased Information: A Rational Choice Model of Political Advice.” Journal of Politics. 4: 530-55.

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