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Auntie Knows Best? Public Broadcasters and Current Affairs Knowledge

  • Stuart Soroka, Blake Andrew, Toril Aalberg, Shanto Iyengar, James Curran, Sharon Coen, Kaori Hayashi, Paul Jones, Gianpetro Mazzoleni, June Woong Rhee, David Rowe and Rod Tiffen...

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.

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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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7 See online Appendix for further discussion of this point.

8 But not inconceivable, since news programming judged similar in content might still produce knowledge effects via presentation and/or framing differences from one newscast to another.

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12 Aalberg, Aelst and Curran, ‘Media Systems and the Political Information Environment: A Cross-National Comparison’.

13 Prior, Markus, Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

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15 Graber, Doris A., Processing Politics: Learning from Television in the Internet Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)

16 Xenos, Michael and Moy, Patricia, ‘Direct and Differential Effects of the Internet on Political and Civic Engagement’, Journal of Communication, 57 (2007), 704718

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17 Of course, the impact of one medium versus that of another may have less to do with the medium itself than with the content of that medium. Knowledge effects resulting from selecting newspapers instead of television newscasts are likely to be due to the tendency for newspapers to print more relevant news for the task of answering the knowledge indicators. In this way, findings on newspapers versus television may not be very different from research focused on differences between public and commercial news programmes.

18 Jenssen, Anders Todal, ‘Does Public Broadcasting Make a Difference? Political Knowledge and Electoral Campaigns on Television’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 32 (2009), 247271

19 Claes H. de Vreese and Hajo Boomgaarden, ‘News, Political Knowledge and Participation: The Differential Effects of News Media Exposure on Political Knowledge and Participation’, Acta Politica, 41 (2006), 317341

20 Aarts, Kees and Semetko, Holli A., ‘The Dividend Electorate: Media Use and Political Involvement’, Journal of Politics, 65 (2003), 759784

21 Holtz-Bacha, Christina and Norris, Pippa, ‘To Entertain, Inform, and Educate: Still the Role of Public Television’, Political Communication, 18 (2001), 123140

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Jenssen, Andres Todal, Aalberg, Toril and Aarts, Kees, ‘Informed Citizens, Media Use, and Public Knowledge of Parties Policy Positions’, in Toril Aalberg and James Curran, eds, How Media Inform Democracy. A Comparative Approach (New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 138–158

22 Holtz-Bacha and Norris, ‘To Entertain, Inform, and Educate’.

23 Toka and Popescu, ‘Public Television, Private Television and Citizens’ Political Knowledge’.

24 Iyengar, Shanto, Hahn, Kyu S., Bonfadelli, Heinz and Marr, Mirko, ‘ “Dark Areas of Ignorance” Revisited: Comparing International Affairs Knowledge in Switzerland and the United States’, Communication Research, 36 (2009), 341358

Curran, James, Iyengar, Shanto, Lund, Anker Brink and Salovaara-Moring, Inka, ‘Media Systems, Public Knowledge and Democracy: A Comparative Study’, European Journal of Communication, 24 (2009), 526

Curran, James, Salovaara-Moring, Inka, Coen, Sharon and Iyengar, Shanto, ‘Crime Foreigners and Hard News: A Cross-National Comparison of Reporting and Public Perception’, Journalism, 11 (2010), 117

25 Aalberg, Aelst and Curran, ‘Media Systems and the Political Information Environment’.

26 It is important to note that the Aalberg et al. study does not find evidence of cross-national news supply convergence over the past thirty years. If anything, the opposite trend is occurring: that is, the amount of news programming offered (and consumed) in commercialized versus publicly-oriented systems is diverging if we focus on peak viewing hours and audience share.

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.

28 Aalberg, Toril and Curran, James, ‘Main Conclusions’, in Toril Aalberg and James Curran, eds, How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 189199

29 Curran et al., ‘Crime Foreigners and Hard News’; Curran et al., ‘News Content, Media Consumption, and Current Affairs Knowledge’, in Aalberg and Curran, How Media Inform Democracy.

30 Hallin, Daniel C. and Mancini, Paolo, Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

31 Iyengar et al., ‘ “Dark Areas of Ignorance” Revisited’.

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

33 Russell W. Neuman, Marion R. Just and Ann N. Crigler, Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)

34 Rubin, Donald B., ‘Matching to Remove Bias in Observational Studies’, Biometrics, 29 (1973), 153183

Rubin, Donald B., ‘Estimating Causal Effects to Treatments in Randomized and Nonrandomized Studies’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 66 (1974), 688701

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Rosenbaum, Paul R. and Rubin, Donald B., ‘The Bias due to Incomplete Matching’, Biometrics, 41 (1985), 103116

35 Note, then, that unmatched individuals are dropped from matching analyses. This is of course one of the major differences between matching and more traditional approaches.

36 Heckman, James J., Ichimura, Hidehiko and Todd, Petra E., ‘Matching as an Econometric Evluation Estimator: Evidence from Evaluating a Job Training Programme’, Review of Economic Studies, 64 (1997), 605654

Black, Dan A. and Smith, Jeffrey A., ‘How Robust Is the Evidence on the Effects of College Quality? Evidence from Matching’, Journal of Econometrics, 121 (2004), 99124

Michalopoulos, Charles, Bloom, Howard S. and Hill, Carolyn J., ‘Can Propensity-Score Methods Match the Findings from a Random Assignment Evaluation of Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs?’ Review of Economics and Statistics, 86 (2004), 156179

Smith, Jeffrey and Todd, Petra, ‘Does Matching Overcome LaLonde's Critique of Nonexperimental Methods?’ Journal of Econometrics, 125 (2005), 305353

Arceneaux, Kevin, Gerber, Alan S. and Green, Donald P., ‘Comparing Experimental and Matching Methods Using a Large-Scale Voter Mobilization experiment’, Political Analysis, 14 (2006), 3762

37 Levendusky, Matthew S., ‘Rethinking the Role of Political Information’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 75 (2011), 4264

38 Those advantages are discussed in some detail elsewhere; see fnn. 34 and 35, as well as the online appendix. And note that in this case, just to be sure, all the results reported below were replicated using a more traditional regression approach. Results are very similar, though with a somewhat larger effect for media exposure. This is in line with the expectation that proximity matching would yield somewhat more conservative estimates; but our focus here is not to test the relative merits of proximity matching, but rather the impact of public versus private broadcasting on knowledge, and in this regard the differences across media and across countries are very similar using either approach.

39 Becker, Sascha O. and Ichino, Andrea, ‘Estimation of Average Treatment Effects Based on Propensity Scores’, Stata Journal, 2 (2002), 358377

40 For a particularly useful discussion, see Marco Caliendo and Sabine Kopeinig, ‘Some Practical Guidance for the Implementation of Propensity Score Matching’ (IZA Discussion Paper No. 1588, 2005).

41 Dehejia, Rajeev H. and Wahba, Sadek, ‘Causal Effects in Nonexperimental Studies: Reevaluation of the Evaluation of Training Program’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 94 (1999), 10531062

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.

44 Shehata, Adam and Strömbäck, Jesper, ‘A Matter of Context: A Comparative Study of Media Environments and News Consumption Gaps in Europe’, Political Communication, 28 (2011), 110134

Blekesaune, Arild, Elvestad, Eiri and Aalberg, Toril, ‘Tuning out the World of News and Current Affairs’, European Sociological Review, 28(2010), 110–126

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)

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.

54 Brekken, Tove, Thorbjørnsrud, Kjersti and Aalberg, Toril, ‘News Substance: The Relative Importance of Soft and De-contextualized News’, in Toril Aalberg and James Curran, eds, How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 6478

55 Hamilton, James T., ‘The (Many) Markets for International News: How News from Abroad Sells at Home’, Journalism Studies, 11 (2010), 650666

56 Napoli, Philip M., ‘Market Conditions and Public Affairs Programming: Implications for Digital Television Policy’, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 6 (2001), 1529

57 McChesney, Robert W. and Nichols, John, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that will Begin the World Again (Philadelphia: Nation Books, 2010)

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

59 Devra C. Moehler and Naunihal Singh. ‘Whose News Do You Trust? Explaining Trust in Private versus Public Media in Africa’, Political Research Quarterly, 64 (2011), 276–292

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)

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

Winston, Brian, ‘Towards Tabloidization? Glasgow Revisited, 1975–2001’, Journalism Studies, 3 (2002), 520

63 Tracey, Michael, The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

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

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).

* 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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