Reviewed by Hans-Dieter Kübler
The usage figures have been clear for some time: If young people look for information about current events in the news at all, they choose to do so online, using websites and social media. Traditional news media such as radio and television, and especially analog daily newspapers, are largely a thing of the past where this audience is concerned. Especially for users who are less interested in politics, the electronic versions convey their messages in a more trenchant, colorful, entertaining way, often with tabloid-style exaggeration and the pretense of providing a quick overview. As such, they often give the user the impression of being well informed.
The author examined this phenomenon in her extensive dissertation (2017), completed at the University of Hohenheim and now published in a revised and abridged version. In it, she argues that, despite many relevant observations and smaller studies, the way this changed news and information behavior affects political awareness among young people remains to be »comprehensively resolved« (285) and empirically proven. However, the empirical investigation – a two-stage online survey of more than 560 16 to 29-year-olds with representative quotas by gender, age and educational background – was conducted as far back as late 2012 and early 2013. That is a significant length of time in the online era, meaning that the work necessarily ignores some changes and is no longer up-to-date in its detail, as the author herself admits in her commendable self-reflection at the end (cf. 299). On the other hand, the theoretical and methodological explanations are all the more thorough and insightful, conducted in an exemplary, systematic and sophisticated way and making this dissertation an outstanding example of its genre.
As her theoretical benchmark, the author draws on knowledge gap research as developed since the 1970s. She elaborates on this thoroughly and systematically, going beyond the overviews already available to deliver a sophisticated research report, as well as providing a solid base for the research questions and methodological considerations of her empirical survey. In a dissertation like this, there is little space to consider whether other theoretical approaches – such as the ‘uses and gratifications’ or the ‘information seeking’ approach – would be equally well or even better suited to the theoretical explanation, as the knowledge gap hypothesis implies a certain temporal dynamism and social generality that is all but impossible to achieve in small studies like this.
The research questions begin by looking at the (habitual) news use of young people, their education and motivation, their usual news repertoires, and the selected formats, from quality media to social media, which can be clustered into five user types. They go on to examine the users’ prior knowledge and knowledge of the topics, their ability to process information and how they do so in practice, the development of knowledge gaps associated with this, the role of political discussions, and exchange on social media. The topics selected in each case, namely Peer Steinbrück’s campaign to be elected Chancellor and the transition to alternative energies, seem fairly arbitrary. The book should really have examined the way these topics were presented in the various media – although the author herself concedes that she simply could not afford these extremely complex content analyses. A lot therefore remains vague. At the same time, however, the author does analyze the data collected in a very systematic and varied way in order to obtain detailed profiles of use and levels of information.
As would be expected, the results contain few surprises. In contrast to some overhasty prejudices, the majority of 16 to 23-year-olds were found to be interested in current politics, although their focus lies more on structural issues such as the environment and the transition to alternative energies, rather than up-to-the-minute political events. The level of education and the firm political interest it produces have an influence on the news media selected, with news on public service television and journalistic news websites still playing a significant role (at the time). Previous knowledge and thorough information processing influence the quality and intensity of knowledge acquisition accordingly – of course only in relation to the aforementioned topics.
Any hopes that young people with lower levels of education and less interest in politics could benefit from the smart, colorful tabloid media and online networks to gain political information are not fulfilled. Instead, the aforementioned illusions of (superficial) general knowledge attached only to appearances and keywords thrive. The skills needed to differentiate between true and false information and not to fall for fake news also require more thorough and careful training, which the online media usually fail to provide. A separate study would be needed to discover whether discussions and forms of exchange in peer groups could help with this – or would have a reinforcing or even distracting effect.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, January 29, 2019, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/21660
Translation: Sophie Costella
About the reviewer
Hans-Dieter Kübler, born 1947, Dr. rer soc., was a Professor of Media, Cultural and Social Sciences at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW), Faculty of Design, Media and Information, and is Chair of the Institute of Media and Communication Research (IMKO). His work focuses on media and cultural theory; empirical and historic media research; and media pedagogy. He has published numerous works and has been a publisher of the semiannual magazine Medien & Altern (Munich) since 2012.