Citizenship in 21st Century America
Week 4: Becoming Informed
From this perspective, citizens are not just obligated to participate or to exercise choice. They must also do so in an informed way. How can they be responsible citizens if they do not know the issues, if they do not know the differences between the candidates? Is it responsible to vote based on personality without any consideration for what candidates will do? This view sees an informed choice about issues, about policy positions and their consequences, as a necessary part of citizenship. Citizens have an obligation to become informed before they vote or participate. Only then will democracy produce a meaningful expression of the "will of the people."
Americans currently score pretty low on levels of political knowledge, as has been demonstrated by many studies; in a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, for example, only 49% could correctly identify Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and only 37% knew that the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a conservative. Knowledge about political issues is also low; 45% were unable to correctly identify the approximate number of American military personnel killed so far in Iraq.
The media are often blamed for the lack of political knowledge among American citizens. American television news programs - especially local TV news, which is watched by more people than watch the network newscasts - tend to focus on stories that are dramatic or sensational, in order to appeal to a wider audience. Political stories are considered boring and garner little media attention. And during major political campaigns, when it is harder to ignore politics completely, the media tends to focus on superficial topics such as the horse race (who's ahead, who's behind) and candidates' personal lives (will a candidate's husband or wife be a hindrance or a help?). There is very little in-depth coverage of issues or candidates' positions on them. Other countries place stricter public interest demands on television networks that use the public airwaves, and consequently have higher levels of political coverage. Some argue that one way to increase levels of political information among citizens would be to boost the supply of political information provided by the media by increasing public interest obligations of broadcasters. Many countries require their broadcasters to devote a minimum percentage of their airtime to public affairs programming, for example, or to provide coverage of a minority as well as majority viewpoints on political issues.
Because American campaigns are conducted almost entirely through the media, candidates are also very dependent on TV commercials to spread their word and attract voters. Some people argue that a 30-second TV spot is hardly an ideal format for candidates to share information about their policy positions. Rather, candidates aim to come up with ads that either attract voters through more basic appeals (creating an image as a "family man," for example) or that try to turn off an opponent's supporters through the use of negative tactics ("my opponent is an untrustworthy flip-flopper"). While these ads may provide some information, they fail to make the campaigns very substantive. In many other democracies, candidates are given blocks of free airtime on television. This allows for more substantive presentations - for example, discussions of issue positions - than can be crammed into a 30-second slot, proponents say. And it allows candidates to cover serious topics that are discounted as too boring by the news media.
Other people argue that the fault for low levels of political knowledge might not be with the supply of information, but rather with unequal opportunities for citizens to take advantage of it. These people note that there are systematic differences between citizens with high levels of knowledge and those with low levels of knowledge. For example, wealthier people tend to be considerably more informed than poor people. One contributing factor to this might be that poor people are less likely to have internet access; 76% of people with an income over $75,000 have a broadband connection at home, for example, while only 30% of those with an income under $30,000 have one. There is now a huge quantity of political information available on the web (candidate websites listing issue positions and providing text of speeches, for example), but this is of no use to people who do not have internet access. One way to reduce the inequality of information between wealthy and poor people would therefore be to provide all citizens with easy access to the internet.
Reformists have suggested that we need to find new ways of engaging all citizens and helping them learn about politics. One proposal is to provide public funding for non-partisan voter information groups who aim to help voters become informed. There are, for example, organizations that gather information about candidates' issue positions, voting records, campaign financing, interest group support, and/or public statements. This information is in many cases made available on the web. Some organizations even offer a toll free phone number that citizens can call to get information about the candidates in their area. Providing public funding for these and other civic education initiatives would allow such efforts to become more widespread and to come up with novel ways to disseminate information to citizens.
There are others who argue that Americans' low levels of political knowledge are irrelevant and that voters can still make good decisions without having to learn in-depth about the candidates and their issue positions. These people argue that citizens can successfully approximate their "correct" voting decisions (i.e., the decisions they would take if they were fully informed) by using "shortcuts"; voters can rely on a candidate's party identification and on endorsements by public officials they trust, for example. In this view, citizens have plenty of information to make the correct voting decisions without ever needing to have a clue who the Speaker of the House is.
Approaches: Becoming informed
||Arguments For||Arguments Against|
|Increase opportunities for citizens to become informed by increasing public interest obligations of broadcasters||Television is a main source of political information for most citizens. Increasing the amount of political coverage on television would thus be likely to increase political knowledge. Networks get to use the public airwaves and it is reasonable to expect them to contribute to the public good.||Even if television networks increased their public interest programming, that would not guarantee that citizens would watch it. Citizens could simply choose to change to another channel or turn off the TV all together. There is also no way to be sure that more coverage would be better coverage; more sensationalist coverage is not going to make citizens more informed on the issues.|
|Increase opportunities for citizens to become informed by providing free air time to candidates||When candidates have to buy TV time, they cannot afford to buy big blocks. The 30-second spots that they are able to buy do not give enough time for them to address substantive topics such as their issue positions, but free airtime would enable them to do so. It would also erase some of the advantage enjoyed by candidates with more money.||There is no guarantee that candidates would use free airtime to cover more substantive topics; they could still choose to make superficial appeals or just to attack their opponents. There is also no guarantee that voters would watch longer political campaign ads/programs even if they were on TV.|
|Decrease the gap in political knowledge between wealthy and poor people by using public funding to ensure that all citizens have access to the internet.||The internet provides an unparalleled opportunity for citizens to inform themselves about political issues from a wide variety of sources, and more and more candidates and elected officials make information and services available online. We should make sure that all citizens have equal access to this amazing resource.||How can we be sure that people would use their publicly-funded internet access to learn about politics? Even if they do, the internet is full of unreliable sources and could make citizens more misinformed than informed.|
|Provide public funding for non-partisan civic education groups that gather relevant political information and make it available to the citizens who need it.||Average citizens do not have time to dig for all the information they might need to make an informed choice between candidates. Dedicated civic education groups can sift through multiple sources to come up with a comprehensive and balanced guide for citizens. Citizens are much more likely to make use of this information if they can find it all in one place.||It would be difficult to guarantee that these groups were really non-partisan. Even if the groups gather all the relevant information, there is no guarantee that citizens would take advantage of it. Public funding of such efforts would be a waste of tax payer dollars.|
|It is not necessary to increase opportunities for citizens to become informed||Citizens learn as much about politics as they feel they need to know to make the right decisions for them. There are many shortcuts that citizens can take to make effective decisions without studying the issues in-depth.||There are numerous examples of cases in which people seem to have voted against their own interests or against positions that they seem to hold. Lack of information leaves voters vulnerable to manipulation by candidates who know how to use advertising techniques.|