Yesterday, Politico’s Dylan Byers flagged a statement by CNN’s John King at Wednesday night’s debate, in which King asserted, “The American people don’t often pay attention to what’s going on in the world until they have to.” Byers, who noted that King was “not necessarily wrong,” interpreted King’s comment as suggestion that Americans were “uninformed” and concluded that it that “warranted explanation”
A defensive King replied later in the day, sending Byers a statement in which he declared that he “would never suggest Americans are uninformed“:
Perhaps my shorthand was not my most articulate moment, but I did not “suggest” and would never suggest Americans are uninformed.
I take particular pride in being in the old school of political reporting — and by that I mean I travel as often as I can to spend time with voters to listen to their concerns. It is the greatest joy and most valuable reporting of my work, and the LAST thing I would do is question the values and common sense and interest of the most important people in politics.
King then defended his question, saying that he was merely noting that “attention to international news can ebb and flow.” To support this claim, he referred to Pew News interest surveys.
The choice to refer to Pew is interesting, particularly considering that Pew has found that the American public is not well-informed on average about politics and current affairs. In a 2007 survey, the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press used 23 factual questions about public affairs to create a knowledge index. They then translated the response into the common school grading scale, finding that “Americans did not fare too well. Fully half would have failed, while only about one-in-six would have earned an A or B.”
This isn’t to say that Americans are fools or idiots, just that a large swathe of Americans are poorly informed about public affairs, especially if called on to recall information rather than recognize it. The Pew finding is perfectly in line with the consensus among academics. For example, in a 2005 “overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics” (pdf), Annenberg School for Communication Dean Michael Delli Carpini described the academic consensus:
Over 50 years of survey research on Americans’ knowledge of politics leads to several consistent conclusions. The most powerful and influential of these conclusions is that the “average” citizen is woefully uninformed about political institutions and processes, substantive policies and socioeconomic conditions, and important political actors such as elected officials and political parties. (Bennett, 1988; Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960; Converse, 1964, 1975; Ferejohn, 1990; Neuman, 1986).
Delli Carpini actually has a more optimistic view of the American public, challenging the “woefully uninformed” consensus with his research, arguing that “the average American is poorly informed, but not uninformed.” But the point is that the American public is not overly knowledgeable about public affairs and surely does not meet idealized standards of political knowledge and awareness.
If John King thinks journalists should seek truth with accuracy, he shouldn’t be ashamed to say that many Americans simply don’t know a lot about politics. Though there are disagreements at the margins and about what it means, that is pretty much the settled conclusion of those who study public opinion.
I realize there is a certain pose that is common to journalism, especially TV journalism, of lionizing the wisdom of the people, but we shouldn’t act like it is a faux pas to suggest that the public is not as informed as we wish they were.
UPDATE: This morning, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took on Bill O’Reilly’s claim that “this is one of — the most uninformed electorate in the last 100 years” by noting the rise in educational attainment that has been found in American National Election Studies over the past 60 years. Wemple quotes Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University and one of three “principal investigators” for the 2012 American National Election Study, saying, “So we would have to believe that going from 6 percent  to over a quarter of the electorate  having a college or post-graduate degree while simultaneously having the least amount of information strikes me as implausible.”
This doesn’t necessarily contradict my argument from before. With higher education levels, the political knowledge in the public may be increasing, but the average voter is still likely to be poorly informed.