Testing the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis in South Korea: Traditional News Media, the Internet, and Political Learning

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Type of work: Article (academic)

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Communication | Politics and Political Science

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knowledge gap

Abstract:

News media play an important role as an information source from which citizens learn about public affairs. This informational function is important in a number of respects, mostly because of the strong link between levels of political knowledge and participation in various civic activities (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Political learning also allows citizens to make careful evaluations of issues and candidates, promoting more informed political judgment (Kim, Scheufele, & Shanahan, 2005).

An unintended effect in transmitting news, however, is an increase in the gap in political knowledge between social classes (Moore, 1987). Knowledge gap research (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970) suggests that segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status (SES) acquire media-transmitted information at a faster rate than lower-status segments. The media, therefore, may function to increase the gap in various forms of knowledge including knowledge about politics (see Viswanath & Finnegan, 1996 for an overview).

Using data from a telephone survey of respondents in South Korea, this study analyzes the role of news media in informing citizens about public affairs. In particular, the analysis includes not only such traditional media as newspapers and television, but also the Internet as a new source of political information. Does the Internet function simply as an ‘online’ version of traditional news media (Margolis & Resnick, 2000)? Or does it offer an opportunity to learn beyond what is already available in other media (Tewksbury, 2003)? The effect of Internet use will be examined in detail, looking at whether the Internet may contribute to political learning above and beyond traditional news media.

This study also explores the role of newspapers, television and the Internet in producing a gap in political knowledge between social classes. Researchers (Kwak, 1999; Eveland & Scheufele, 2000; Jerit, Barabas, & Bolsen, 2006) argue that news media may not only increase but also decrease the gap, depending upon the types of news media used (e.g., newspapers versus television news). In particular, the gap-narrowing or gap-widening effect of the Internet has been at the center of controversy among researchers. Does the Internet reduce the gap by making political information more available, accessible, and easier to follow particularly among uneducated lower classes (Anderson, Bikson, Law, & Mitchell, 1995; Gates, 1995; Dyson, 1997)? Or do people in the upper classes surf the Internet more often and use it more effectively, further widening the gap between the information rich and information poor (Negroponte, 1995; DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2001)? This study addresses this issue in detail, looking at whether each form of news media functions to widen or narrow the SES-based gap in political knowledge.

/p>While it is likely that the knowledge gap phenomenon can be found among citizens worldwide, the hypothesis has been tested mostly in the United States. South Korea offers an opportunity to examine whether the hypothesis can be applied to another country with a different political and cultural tradition. The country also represents one of the most ‘wired’ places in the world, thus providing a great opportunity to test the effects of Internet use. As of 2004, for example, about 71 percent of South Korean households subscribed to high-speed Internet services (Borland & Kanellos, 2004). Taken together, this study offers an overall view of media effects on political learning in Korean politics.