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Auntie Knows Best? Public Broadcasters and Current Affairs Knowledge

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 December 2012


Public service broadcasters (PSBs) are a central part of national news media landscapes, and are often regarded as specialists in the provision of hard news. But does exposure to public versus commercial news influence citizens’ knowledge of current affairs? This question is investigated in this article using cross-national surveys capturing knowledge of current affairs and media consumption. Propensity score analyses test for effects of PSBs on knowledge, and examine whether PSBs vary in this regard. Results indicate that compared to commercial news, PSBs have a positive influence on knowledge of hard news, though not all PSBs are equally effective in this way. Cross-national differences are related to factors such as de jure independence, proportion of public financing and audience share.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012 

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Soroka, McGill University (email:; Andrew, Université de Montréal; Aalberg, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Shanto Iyengar, Stanford University; Curran, Goldsmiths, London University; Coen, Salford University; Hayashi, University of Tokyo; Jones, University of New South Wales; Mazzeleni, University of Milan; Rhee, Seoul National University; Rowe, University of Western Sydney; Tiffen, University of Sydney. This work was supported by a number of funding agencies, including: Soroka and Andrew, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; Aalberg, the Research Council of Norway; Iyengar, the Korean Science Foundation; Curran, the Economic and Social Research Council, UK; Hayashi, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; Rhee, a Korea Research Foundation Grant, Korean Government. In addition to the appendix table in the printed version, supplementary material is available in an appendix to be found at


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27 Though note that we should be careful not to blend individual-level and country-level hypotheses. Within countries, exposure to public broadcasting may be associated with higher levels of current affairs knowledge. But across countries, the existence of PSBs may or may not be associated with the provision of (and knowledge of) current affairs news. A strong PSB may increase the volume of current affairs information available on its own; it may encourage private broadcasters in the same market to present similar types of information; and/or it may encourage private broadcasters to do exactly the opposite – to focus exclusively on soft news and entertainment since the PSB takes care of the rest. The ‘net’ effect on the availability of hard news, in short, is not clear; nor is the connection between PSBs and aggregate-level knowledge across countries. See also a related discussion in the conclusions.

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32 Three of those countries – Greece, Columbia and India – are not included here due to differences in survey methodology and data availability.

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42 Additional results are available upon request.

43 Age is divided into groups, rather than used in its raw, interval-level form, in order to achieve balance for the matching procedure. That said, results do not change when the interval-level measure of age is used as a control in an OLS regression.

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45 See online appendix for complete results.

46 Established in 1982, Channel 4 was Britain's second commercial broadcaster, though it was not exclusively commercial – rather, it reflected (and continues to reflect) a compromise between public-service and commercial approaches. It is publicly owned, and largely commercially funded; at the same time, it has a remit of public service obligations and is regulated by the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

47 Note that the negative coefficient for ITV news is a little peculiar. We might expect private news to not contribute to knowledge; to actually reduce knowledge is another matter. That said, the impact is not implausible: exposure to private television content may distract enough from current affairs information gleaned elsewhere that viewers know less about current affairs than they would had they not spent so much time on ITV. Of course, this may also be partly a product of self-selection – those who know less about current affairs continue to know less by watching ITV.

48 All financial information applies to the 2010 fiscal year (ending 31 March 2011) and is sourced from Annual Reports published online by each broadcaster.

49 Note that we do not distinguish between public monies derived from licence fees versus parliamentary appropriation. Though we might expect that those broadcasters reliant on compulsory, universal licence fees would be most inclined to air content with broad appeal (i.e., something for everyone/audience-driven); and parliamentary appropriation may be the funding model best suited for public broadcasters to act as ‘market failure broadcasters’ – filling gaps in programming created by entertainment-driven commercial media. This is purely conjecture at this stage, however.

50 Here, audience share is proportion of total television viewing, on average, for each hour of prime time. Note that we include all channels available from the main public broadcaster in each country. Thus in Britain, for instance, audience share is the combined share for BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three and so forth. Note also that the standard definition of prime time varies somewhat by country, but ranges from a minimum of 18:00 to a maximum of 23:00. Audience numbers are current (2010 and 2011), as reported in the Annual Report of each broadcaster and which frequently appear in press reports within in each country. Media use is typically measured by private, independent firms such as BBM Canada, Auditel Italy, BARD UK, and Gallup Norway.

51 Iyengar et al., ‘Cross-National versus Individual-Level Differences in Political Information’; Curran et al., ‘Media Systems, Public Knowledge and Democracy’.

52 Hanretty, Chris, Public Broadcasting and Political Interference (London: Routledge, 2011)Google Scholar

53 Note, the de jure independence statistic for RAI corresponds with 2005 broadcasting legislation in Italy. It is possible that the impact of the Gasparri Law on RAI, enacted in the spring of 2004, is not fully captured by this statistic.

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58 In Norway and Britain, for instance, television viewing has about twice the impact of newspaper consumption on what people know about the world.

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60 Recall also that knowledge variance between disadvantaged and advantaged groups is directly related to the broadcasting model. Disadvantaged groups in the United States perform especially poorly on knowledge indicators which suggests that gaps between groups will grow as media systems become more commercialized and/or if PSBs weaken.

61 Iosifidis, Petros, Public Television in Europe: Technological Challenges and New Strategies (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

62 Seymour, Emily and Barnett, Steven, ‘Factual International Programming on UK Public Service Television, 2005’ (London: Communication Research Unit, University of Westminster, 2006)Google Scholar

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64 Hanretty, Chris, Public Broadcasting's Continued Rude Health (London: British Academy Report, 2011)Google Scholar

65 Gavyn Davies, ‘The BBC and Public Value’, in Dieter Helm, Damian Green, Mark Oliver, Simon Terrington, Andrew Graham, Bill Robinson, Gavyn Davies, Jeremy Mayhew and Luke Bradley-Jones, eds, Can the Market Deliver? Funding Public Service Television in the Digital Age (New Barnet, Herts.: John Libbey, 2005), pp. 129–50; Andrew Graham and Gavyn Davies, Broadcasting, Society and Policy in the Multimedia Age (Luton: University of Luton Press, 2001).

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