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Communication Knowledge Gap
by
Yoo Ri Hwang, Brian Southwell

Introduction

The essential notion of the knowledge gap is the proposition that a discrepancy exists in the knowledge that people of varying socioeconomic levels attain when engaging mass media content. In other words, the information-rich get richer when reading newspapers or watching television news reports, whereas those with relatively less background knowledge typically gain information at a comparatively lesser rate. The knowledge-gap hypothesis, explicitly formulated by Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien in 1970, goes beyond suggesting a simple knowledge difference between those with more and less formal education. What the hypothesis suggests is not just that there is a gap in knowledge between groups but also that this gap in knowledge widens as more information enters a society. The knowledge gap hypothesis has stimulated communication research in the United States and elsewhere since 1970. So far, researchers have published more than one hundred studies directly considering the knowledge-gap notion, and scholars have widely cited knowledge gap research in many different disciplines.

Background and Introductory Works

The knowledge gap hypothesis first appears formally in Tichenor, et al. 1970. Studying the effects of newspaper readership in Minnesota communities in the 1960s (see Tichenor, et al. 1980 for detail), Phillip J. Tichenor, George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien—an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Minnesota—found that the slope of information uptake was significantly steeper for those with relatively higher educational attainment, such that the gap between individuals with higher and lower education widened over time, though the relationship between newspaper reading and public affairs knowledge was generally positive for all. Education-based knowledge differences are hardly a new phenomenon. In the United States, for example, variation in policy knowledge across the general population has been a cause for concern for much of the 20th and 21st centuries (and earlier). Lippmann 1922 bemoans the inability of most ordinary people to sufficiently understand detailed policy discussions, for example, and Hyman and Sheatsley 1947 notes the existence of “chronic know-nothings,” people who cannot be reached by information campaigns and, consequently, remain chronically uninformed. The notion that people may hold different levels of knowledge as a function of their group membership also animated scholarly works such as Simmel 1955. What that long line of scholarship suggests about the consequences of such disparities, though, makes the prospect of widening gaps in knowledge quite consequential. For Hyman and Sheatsley 1947, the potential existence of chronic know-nothings and knowledge inequalities raises a serious issue for democracy insofar as democracy requires an informed citizenry. Moreover, disparity in knowledge is crucial to understanding inequalities in social control and social power in a variety of forums, such as health and science (e.g., Viswanath, et al. 2006), and not just in the political arena. Priest 1995, for instance, points to the information inequity that citizens in the United States faced in the 1980s and 1990s, given that most rely on news reports for information about environmental and health risks, though only some have the advanced education and training necessary to understand risk reports. The extent to which a particular group has knowledge or information likely also affects the extent to which that group can influence political processes and public policymaking. Thus, scholars have had ample motivation in the past fifty years to not only identify knowledge gaps but also to understand conditions under which such gaps might widen, making Tichenor, et al. 1970 a breakthrough of its time.

  • Hyman, Herbert H., and Paul B. Sheatsley. 1947. Some reasons why information campaigns fail. Public Opinion Quarterly 11:412–423.

    DOI: 10.1086/265867Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the earliest studies that reported the existence of a knowledge gap. The authors argue that certain segments of the public are difficult to inform and discuss the psychological causes of the problem.

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  • Lippmann, Walter. 1922. Public opinion. New York: Harcourt Brace.

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    Lippmann’s book is a classic for political communication scholars, sounding an important alarm about the general lack of necessary background information to understand key policy debates amongst most of the electorate in the United States.

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  • Priest, Susanna H. 1995. Information equity, public understanding of science, and the biotechnology debate. Journal of Communication 45:39–54.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1995.tb00713.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Priest’s concept of information equity between groups highlights a potential ethical consideration for knowledge gap research. Moreover, her emphasis on health and science information underscores the importance of not limiting knowledge gap research to politics and public affairs.

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  • Simmel, Georg. 1955. Conflict and the web of group affiliations. Translated by Kurt H. Wolff and Reinhard Bendix. New York: Free Press.

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    Tichenor himself noted the importance of Simmel’s pioneering work in stimulating thinking about group-level differences in knowledge and knowledge gain. Originally published in 1922.

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  • Tichenor, Phillip J., George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien. 1970. Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly 34:159–170.

    DOI: 10.1086/267786Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal article. This article introduces the original knowledge gap hypothesis and presents empirical supports for the hypothesis using public-opinion-polls data and experiment data.

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  • Tichenor, Phillip J., George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien. 1980. Community conflict and the press. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Explains the Tichenor-Donohue-Olien team’s general research paradigm and how the knowledge gap hypothesis developed. The book discusses the relationships among social conflict, citizens’ media use, and people’s knowledge, based on data from nineteen different communities in Minnesota. Chapter 7 directly discusses the knowledge gap hypothesis.

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  • Viswanath, Kasisomayajula, Nancy Breen, Helen Meissner, Richard P. Moser, Bradford Hesse, Whitney Randolph Steele, and William Rakowski. 2006. Cancer knowledge and disparities in the information age. Journal of Health Communication 11:1–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/10810730600637426Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Viswanath and colleagues discuss the consequences of information disparities, noting that such gaps are particularly problematic with regard to health and science topics for which equal holding of knowledge might help equalize overall well-being.

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Review Articles

More than one hundred knowledge gap studies have appeared in various journals. In light of this flourishing research, several scholars have attempted to synthesize the findings of previous knowledge gap studies. Two narrative reviews were conducted in Gaziano 1983 and Gaziano 1997. Viswanath and Finnegan 1996 includes a narrative review of past work. In addition, Hwang and Jeong 2009 presents a meta-analysis of knowledge gap studies. The review articles consistently support the existence of knowledge disparities but vary in their support of the notion of a knowledge gap that is increasing over time. Authors of these overviews generally conclude that knowledge gaps are persistent phenomena, even in light of technological changes. In Viswanath and Finnegan 1996, for example, the authors conclude their review of relevant studies by forecasting that, in many cases, mass media exposure will continue to exacerbate, not ameliorate, the existing gaps between the information rich and poor.

  • Gaziano, Cecilie. 1983. The knowledge gap: An analytical review of media effects. Communication Research 10:447–486.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365083010004003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first review piece, including fifty-eight studies. Some studies included were designed to test knowledge gap phenomena, and others reported the size of the knowledge gap without directly referencing the hypothesis (e.g., information-diffusion studies, studies reporting public opinion polls). The author categorizes studies into one-time studies and time-trend studies and summarizes findings for each type of study.

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  • Gaziano, Cecilie. 1997. Forecast 2000: Widening knowledge gaps. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 74:237–264.

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    In this study, Gaziano updates her own 1983 review by reviewing thirty-nine knowledge gap studies that had appeared since 1983. As in Gaziano 1983, the author divides studies into one-time studies and time-trend studies and summarizes findings for each type of study. In addition, based on her review, she notes some internal and external barriers to knowledge acquisition.

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  • Hwang, Yoori, and Se-Hoon Jeong. 2009. Revisiting the knowledge gap hypothesis: A meta-analysis of thirty-five years of research. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 86:513–532.

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    A meta-analysis piece. The authors included forty-six empirical studies that reported sufficient statistical information for a meta-analysis. This study summarizes the average effect size of the knowledge gap and the impact of media publicity on the gap, and reports moderators that significantly influence the size of the gap.

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  • Viswanath, Kasisomayajula, and John R. Finnegan Jr. 1996. The knowledge gap hypothesis: Twenty-five years later. In Communication yearbook. Vol. 19. Edited by Brant R. Burleson, 187–227. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This chapter provides a comprehensive review of seventy-one empirical studies and commentaries that have appeared since 1970. The authors summarize how various contingent variables influence both the size of and changes in the knowledge gap.

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Hypothesis Tests

In 1970, Tichenor and colleagues suggested two ways to test the knowledge gap hypothesis. The first method is to assess changes in the gap over time. Specifically, the knowledge gap hypothesis suggests that the gap will increase over time. The second method is to compare the knowledge gaps regarding more and less publicized issues at one time point, because the original description of the hypothesis also implies that a greater gap will be found for more publicized issues.

Changes Over Time

The knowledge gap hypothesis has been actively tested using the changes-over-time approach. For example, Holbrook 2002 examines how the gaps in campaign knowledge changed over time during each of the six presidential campaigns that occurred between 1976 and 1996. Studies examining changes in knowledge gaps over time have tended to use panel data or large-scale time series comprising cross-sectional data at various points in time. For example, Miyo 1983 and Moore 1987 use panel data, whereas Salmon, et al. 1996 uses time series data (1987–1990) consisting of four sets of cross-sectional data. Studies examining changes in the gap over time have demonstrated mixed findings. Although some studies have shown increasing gaps, others have reported no change or decreasing gaps. For a review of gap changes over time, see Review Articles.

  • Holbrook, Thomas M. 2002. Presidential campaigns and the knowledge gap. Political Communication 19:437–454.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600290109997Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a comprehensive analysis of changes in the knowledge gap during each of the six presidential campaigns that occurred between 1976 and 1996. For each presidential campaign, this study examines gap changes over time by measuring time using information about an individual’s date of interview.

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  • Miyo, Yuko. 1983. The knowledge-gap hypothesis and media dependency. In Communication Yearbook. Vol. 7. Edited by Robert N. Bostrom, 626–650. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    One of the earliest studies that directly examined changes in the knowledge gap over time. Using three-wave panel data collected for the 1980 presidential election campaign, this study shows how the gap in political knowledge changes as the level of media publicity increases (i.e., during the campaign) and decreases (i.e., one year after the election).

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  • Moore, David W. 1987. Political campaigns and the knowledge-gap hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly 51:186–200.

    DOI: 10.1086/269028Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using a two-wave panel survey in the context of the 1978 New Hampshire gubernatorial election campaign, this study examines how gaps in the knowledge about two political issues change over time.

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  • Salmon, Charles T., Karen Wooten, Eileen Gentry, Galen E. Cole, and Fred Kroger. 1996. AIDS knowledge gaps: Results from the first decade of the epidemic and implications for future public information efforts. Journal of Health Communication 1:141–155.

    DOI: 10.1080/108107396128112Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using secondary analysis of the National Health Interview Survey data (1987–1990), this study examines how socioeconomic-status-based gaps in knowledge about AIDS changed between 1987 and 1990.

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Issue Publicity as Predictor

Most of the studies using the method of comparing the knowledge gaps regarding more and less publicized issues at one time point first conduct a content analysis and then combine it with survey data to test whether a greater knowledge gap is found for an issue that received relatively more media publicity. Although this approach has not been used as often as the changes-over-time approach, some rigorous studies in this vein nonetheless exist, including Gaziano and Horowitz 2001, Jerit, et al. 2006, and Jerit 2009. Slater, et al. 2009 introduces a modified version of this method. In this study, the authors compared areas with higher and lower media publicity, rather than issues with higher and lower media publicity.

  • Gaziano, Cecilie, and Alice M. Horowitz. 2001. Knowledge gap on cervical, colorectal cancer exists among U.S. women. Newspaper Research Journal 22:12–27.

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    A study using a classic method of comparing issues with higher and lower media publicity. Combining content analyses of three major newspapers with the National Health Interview Survey data, this study examines whether the knowledge gap is greater for the more publicized issue (i.e., colorectal cancer) than for the less publicized issue (i.e., cervical cancer).

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  • Jerit, Jennifer. 2009. Understanding the knowledge gap: The role of experts and journalists. Journal of Politics 71:442–456.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381609090380Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this follow-up study to Jerit, et al. 2006, the author reports that not only the sheer volume of media publicity but also the type of media coverage (i.e., expert commentary vs. contextual coverage) can influence the size of the knowledge gap. More specifically, the study shows that greater levels of expert commentary lead to an increase in the gap, whereas greater levels of contextual coverage reduce the gap.

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  • Jerit, Jennifer, Jason Barabas, and Toby Bolsen. 2006. Citizens, knowledge, and the information environment. American Journal of Political Science 50:266–282.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00183.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on an examination of knowledge gaps across more than forty political issues, this study demonstrates that larger knowledge gaps are found for more publicized issues.

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  • Slater, Michael D., Andrew F. Hayes, Jason B. Reineke, Marilee Long, and Erwin P. Bettinghaus. 2009. Newspaper coverage of cancer prevention: Multilevel evidence for knowledge-gap effects. Journal of Communication 59:514–533.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01433.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on one issue (cancer prevention), this study compares areas with higher and lower media publicity, assessing regional differences in cancer-prevention coverage in local newspapers and testing whether knowledge gaps are stronger in areas where cancer prevention received more publicity.

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Theoretical Issues and Methodological Innovations

Since the formulation of the knowledge gap hypothesis, research examining the contingent conditions and the processes of the knowledge gap phenomenon has significantly contributed to the development of the knowledge gap hypothesis. This section traces this development by looking at knowledge gap research that has examined the roles of Effect Ceilings, Motivation, Structural Characteristics, Differences Across Media, and Interpersonal Interaction in the knowledge gap phenomenon and the Psychological Mechanisms underlying the phenomenon. Finally, this section discusses the Potential Utility of Multilevel Modeling, which has important theoretical and methodological implications for future knowledge gap research.

Effect Ceilings

Ceiling effects are often used to explain constant, or even decreasing, knowledge gaps over time (e.g., Miyo 1983). A number of researchers have suggested that the extent to which knowledge gaps between the information rich and poor widen over time is limited. Holbrook 2002, for example, studies the knowledge gap in relation to presidential campaigns and shows that campaign efforts most exacerbated knowledge gaps that were initially small and had less impact when the gap between the information rich and poor was already large initially. Moore 1987 reveals similar effect ceilings. For theoretical discussions on different types of ceiling effects, see Ettema and Kline 1977.

  • Holbrook, Thomas M. 2002. Presidential campaigns and the knowledge gap. Political Communication 19:437–454.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600290109997Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This work focuses on the role of presidential campaigns and suggests that such campaigns do not operate uniformly in contributing to widening knowledge gaps.

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  • Ettema, James S., and F. Gerald Kline. 1977. Deficits, differences, and ceilings: Contingent conditions for understanding the knowledge gap. Communication Research 4:179–202.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365027700400204Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This early article focuses on some limits of knowledge gaps, including potential ceilings on the extent of gap widening over time.

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  • Miyo, Yuko. 1983. The knowledge-gap hypothesis and media dependency. In Communication yearbook. Vol. 7. Edited by Robert N. Bostrom, 626–650. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Miyo’s work here importantly points out the contingent nature of the knowledge gap hypothesis, comparing gaps that result from newspaper and television exposure and concluding that not all media outlets operate similarly in delivering differential knowledge gain.

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  • Moore, David W. 1987. Political campaigns and the knowledge-gap hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly 51:186–200.

    DOI: 10.1086/269028Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines how the gap in the knowledge about two political issues changes over time in a late-1970s New Hampshire study.

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Motivation

The knowledge gap hypothesis indicates that the gap’s existence is due to the relative lack of intellectual ability of lower-socioeconomic-status (SES) individuals. Ettema and Kline 1977 challenges this deficit explanation of knowledge disparities, arguing that the gap can be explained not by an ability deficit on the part of lower-SES people, but by a difference in interests between high- and low-SES individuals. This work posits that lower-SES individuals do not perform well on knowledge tests because the type of information that is likely to be covered in knowledge tests is not relevant to lower-SES people. Thus, this difference model suggests that motivation is a better predictor of a person’s level of knowledge than simple education level (for example, see Genova and Greenberg 1979 and Ettema, et al. 1983). Influenced by Viswanath, et al. 1993, Kwak 1999 introduces a new model called the motivation-contingency model, which suggests that education does not compete with motivation and, instead, that education’s impact is moderated by motivational factors. The motivation-contingency model has received empirical supports. Bonfadelli 2002 provides a visual depiction of the three competing models.

  • Bonfadelli, Heinz. 2002. The Internet and knowledge gaps: A theoretical and empirical investigation. European Journal of Communication 17:65–84.

    DOI: 10.1177/0267323102017001607Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a theoretical background of the knowledge gap phenomenon in general and then discusses the application of the knowledge gap perspective to the Internet. While doing so, this article offers a visual depiction of the three competing models (i.e., the deficit model, the difference model, and the motivation-contingency model); see figure 1 on p. 70.

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  • Ettema, James S., James W. Brown, and Russell V. Luepker. 1983. Knowledge gap effects in a health information campaign. Public Opinion Quarterly 47:516–527.

    DOI: 10.1086/268809Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Guided by the difference model introduced in Ettema and Kline 1977, this study directly compares the predictive power of motivation with that of education. The researchers tested whether a person’s perceived threat of cardiovascular disease (i.e., a motivational factor) was a better predictor of the person’s gain in knowledge about cardiovascular health than the person’s level of education.

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  • Ettema, James S., and F. Gerald Kline. 1977. Deficits, differences, and ceilings: Contingent conditions for understanding the knowledge gap. Communication Research 4:179–202.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365027700400204Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Relying on education literature, this article introduces the difference model to the communication field. This article spurred active subsequent research that directly compares the relative predictive power of motivation with that of education in knowledge gain.

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  • Genova, B. K. L., and Bradley S. Greenberg. 1979. Interests in news and the knowledge gap. Public Opinion Quarterly 43:79–91.

    DOI: 10.1086/268493Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article presents the first empirical test, based on the difference model, that directly compared the correlations between education and knowledge with the correlations between interest and knowledge. The authors examine whether interest, compared with education, is a better predictor of individuals’ level of knowledge, using two national news stories and employing a panel design.

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  • Kwak, Nojin. 1999. Revisiting the knowledge gap hypothesis: Education, motivation, and media use. Communication Research 26:385–413.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365099026004002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    After reviewing the deficit model (i.e., the causal association model) and the difference model (i.e., the rival explanation model), this article introduces the motivation-contingency model. The author tests the three competing models using survey data collected during the 1992 US presidential election campaign.

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  • Viswanath, Kasisomayajula, Emily Kahn, John R. Finnegan Jr., James Hertog, and John D. Potter. 1993. Motivation and the knowledge gap: Effects of a campaign to reduce diet-related cancer risk. Communication Research 20:546–563.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365093020004003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A piece that stimulated the development of the motivation-contingency model. Unlike prior studies that suggested competitions between education and motivation, this study implies the possibility of a joint effect of motivation and education.

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Structural Characteristics

Since the earliest formulation of the knowledge gap hypothesis, the role of structural (or community-level) characteristics has been a part of the knowledge gap phenomenon. Such interest is apparent in Donohue, et al. 1975 and in Tichenor, et al. 1980, for example, and continues as a theme in later work by Gaziano and Viswanath. Knowledge gap studies conducted from a macrosocial perspective tend to examine the impact of such community characteristics as community size, community pluralism (or homogeneity), and community conflict, on the knowledge gap. In general, for example, the severity of the knowledge gap tends to be mitigated to some extent when the focal issue involves either concerns that are particularly relevant to a community or a high level of social conflict. With regard to community pluralism, we see mixed findings. For a review of the moderating impact of community characteristics on the knowledge gap, see Gaziano 1988. Some research that examines the effects of community density and cohesion (e.g., Cho and McLeod 2007) and of community boundedness (e.g., Rucinski 2004 or Viswanath, et al. 2000) also shows renewed interest in the impact of community characteristics on knowledge disparities.

  • Cho, Jaeho, and Douglas M. McLeod. 2007. Structural antecedents to knowledge and participation: Extending the knowledge gap concept to participation. Journal of Communication 57:205–228.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00340.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study tests the impact of community characteristics on political knowledge and political participation measured at both the individual level and the community level. Its emphasis on the behavioral consequences of knowledge gaps in the political arena is a good example of potential future research in this arena.

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  • Donohue, George A., Phillip J. Tichenor, and Clarice N. Olien. 1975. Mass media and the knowledge gap: A hypothesis reconsidered. Communication Research 2:3–23.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365027500200101Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This follow-up piece to the authors’ initial 1970 paper (Tichenor, et al. 1970, cited under Background and Introductory Works) is one of the earliest works that outlines the Tichenor-Donohue-Olien team’s larger macrosocial perspective. The researchers test whether community characteristics, including community pluralism, social conflict, and issue salience, influence the size of the knowledge gap. To do so, the authors examine individuals’ knowledge of several local issues facing various Minnesota communities.

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  • Gaziano, Cecilie. 1988. Community knowledge gaps. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 5:351–357.

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    In this article, Gaziano provides a pithy review of previous studies that looked at the effects of community characteristics on the knowledge gap and offers suggestions for future research.

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  • Rucinski, Dianne. 2004. Community boundedness, personal relevance, and the knowledge gap. Communication Research 31:472–495.

    DOI: 10.1177/0093650204266102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper introduces perceptions of community relevance as an additional factor to consider beyond personal relevance in assessing policy knowledge.

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  • Tichenor, Phillip J., George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien. 1980. Community conflict and the press. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    This book offers a complete overview of the Tichenor-Donohue-Olien team’s social structural view of knowledge inequalities. In particular, chapter 7 examines how community characteristics, such as community structure, conflict, and issue salience, influence the gap.

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  • Viswanath, Kasisomayajula, Gerald M. Kosicki, Eric S. Fredin, and Eunkyung Park. 2000. Local community ties, community-boundedness, and local public affairs knowledge gaps. Communication Research 27:27–50.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365000027001002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This piece, along with Viswanath and colleagues’ other work, helped rekindle communication scholars’ interest in the role of structural factors in the knowledge gap phenomenon. In this article, the authors test the effects of community boundedness (i.e., issue salience) on SES-based knowledge differences with regard to local public affairs.

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Differences Across Media

Knowledge gap research initially focused on print media and on local newspapers in particular. The original 1970 study by Tichenor and colleagues (Tichenor, et al. 1970, cited under Background and Introductory Works) assessed the impact of newspaper reading on knowledge gain about public affairs. In part, this focus stems from a general concern on the part of Tichenor and others that newspapers’ middle-class bias was leading to knowledge inequalities; those in lower socioeconomic classes likely did not have the appropriate background knowledge to fully engage newspaper articles, according to this view. Gradually, researchers started to consider whether other media operated similarly. In particular, some scholars turned their attention to television because of its potential to reduce the knowledge gap. Because television content is not as bound by literacy constraints and often is intended for a broader audience than newspaper stories, scholars have posited that television can work as a “knowledge leveler,” as seen in Neuman 1976. Through various studies, researchers have found some support for the role of television as a gap reducer (e.g., Eveland and Scheufele 2000, Miyo 1983), and Norris and Sanders 2003 examines the causes of television and newspaper’s different impacts. Studies such as Lee 2009 have started to examine knowledge inequalities related to the Internet. Bonfadelli 2002 has significantly contributed to this line of research by providing a theoretical discussion of the application of the knowledge gap perspective to the Internet. Despite all this work, changes in available media technology in the United States and elsewhere have not eliminated evidence for the knowledge gap tendency. In fact, Prior 2007 notes the likelihood of increased inequality in political knowledge as a result of greater fragmentation and choice availability in the media landscape.

  • Bonfadelli, Heinz. 2002. The Internet and knowledge gaps: A theoretical and empirical investigation. European Journal of Communication 17:65–84.

    DOI: 10.1177/0267323102017001607Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a general theoretical background of the knowledge gap hypothesis and discusses the application of the knowledge gap perspective to the Internet. The author notes that gaps exist not only in access to the Internet but also in the use of the Internet, based on secondary analyses of two Swiss surveys.

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  • Eveland, William P., Jr., and Dietram A. Scheufele. 2000. Connecting news media use with gaps in knowledge and participation. Political Communication 17:215–237.

    DOI: 10.1080/105846000414250Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Extending the knowledge gap to a participation gap, this study compares the effect of newspaper use with that of television use on the knowledge and participation gap. Using 1996 American National Election Studies data, the authors test whether an individual’s newspaper and television use can moderate the effect of education on the level of knowledge.

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  • Lee, Chul-Joo. 2009. The role of Internet engagement in the health-knowledge gap. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 53:365–382.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838150903102758Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study provides an empirical test of the knowledge gap hypothesis in an online setting. It tests whether gaps in general health knowledge between US adults with lower and higher education (ages forty to seventy) increase as these populations’ Internet use for health information increases.

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  • Miyo, Yuko. 1983. The knowledge-gap hypothesis and media dependency. In Communication yearbook. Vol. 7. Edited by Robert N. Bostrom, 626–650. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    One of the earliest studies that directly tested newspaper and television media’s differential role in knowledge disparities. Using three-wave panel data from a 1980 presidential election campaign, the author tested whether newspaper and television use differentially affected the gap’s size—supporting the notion that television can be a “knowledge leveler,” as suggested by (Tichenor, et al. 1970, cited under Background and Introductory Works).

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  • Neuman, W. Russell. 1976. Patterns of recall among television news viewers. Public Opinion Quarterly 40:115–123.

    DOI: 10.1086/268274Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Neuman offers a useful discussion of the early years of knowledge gap research and explicitly notes the potential for differences between print media studies and television studies.

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  • Norris, Pippa, and David Sanders. 2003. Message or medium? Campaign learning during the 2001 British general election. Political Communication 20:233–262.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600390218878Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Norris and Sanders examine whether the media-based differences in knowledge gap effects derive from differences in the formal structural features of textual and audiovisual media or differences in the content. The authors answer this question using data from an experiment conducted during the 2001 British general election campaign.

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  • Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This book highlights evidence from experiments and survey data to explore how changes in the media environment seem to affect news exposure, political learning, and voting. Inequality in political behavior among various groups is a major theme.

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Interpersonal Interaction

Empirical work on the knowledge gap has typically not addressed interpersonal communication explicitly, despite the theoretical linkages between knowledge disparities and interpersonal networks. (See Southwell and Yzer 2007 for a general discussion of the roles of interpersonal communication in knowledge diffusion.) A number of studies have found group differences in conversation patterns, however. For example, Southwell, et al. 2010 reports an education-based gap in the level of conversation. In addition, Southwell and Torres 2006 notes that those who had a high perceived understanding of science talked more about the topic. Rogers 2003 emphasizes the importance of social-network differences in the author’s attempts to explain differences in innovation diffusion. Moreover, some studies, including Moy and Gastil 2006, have looked at social-network characteristics as a predictor of such outcomes as information diffusion and political deliberation, suggesting great potential for future knowledge gap research.

  • Moy, Patricia, and John Gastil. 2006. Predicting deliberative conversation: The impact of discussion networks, media use, and political cognition. Political Communication 23:443–460.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584600600977003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Moy and Gastil’s paper is a prime example of the utility of focusing on conversational quality as an outcome. It highlights one of the potential consequences of the disparity between groups in political cognition as differences in political deliberation.

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  • Rogers, Everett M. 2003. Diffusion of innovations. 5th ed. New York: Free Press.

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    The author’s classic work on the diffusion theory. Chapter 8 specifically discusses how homogeneous social networks can affect the diffusion process. This discussion has important implications for knowledge gap research because it suggests that interpersonal communication resulting from interactions within homogeneous networks likely increases the knowledge gap between networks.

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  • Southwell, Brian G., and Alicia Torres. 2006. Connecting interpersonal and mass communication: Science news exposure, perceived ability to understand science, and conversation. Communication Monographs 73:334–350.

    DOI: 10.1080/03637750600889518Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the relationship between science-news exposure and conversations, and highlights the role of perceived understanding of science as an explanatory mechanism. Because science communication efforts are likely particularly ripe for knowledge gap effects, results suggest the importance of extending knowledge gap research into the health and science arena.

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  • Southwell, Brian G., and Marco C. Yzer. 2007. The roles of interpersonal communication in mass media campaigns. In Communication yearbook. Vol. 31. Edited by Christina S. Beck, 420–463. New York: Erlbaum.

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    As an overview of theory and evidence, this piece provides a useful discussion of the roles of interpersonal communication in information diffusion. Southwell and Yzer discuss group disparities and note that social network interactions can be a consequence of media-based campaigns and can also affect subsequent campaign engagement.

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  • Southwell, Brian G., Nathan D. Gilkerson, Jacob B. Depue, and Laura M. Friedenberg. 2010. “The conversation gap hypothesis: Education and disparity in talk about media content.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the National Communication Association, San Francisco, 14–17 November 2010.

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    This study offers empirical evidence that educational attainment matters in predicting relevant conversation about mass media content subsequent to exposure, suggesting that those with more formal education are more likely to talk about media content.

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Psychological Mechanisms

The knowledge gap tends to be framed as a social phenomenon, because it points to a societal gap between groups over time. As a result, much of the work to investigate knowledge gaps has relied on group-level variables and societal descriptors. At the same time, studies focused at a macrolevel perspective do not address the psychological processes that contribute to such knowledge inequalities. Knowledge is typically measured at the level of the individual and then aggregated to describe group knowledge attainment, and thus we should expect individual-level processes to account for person-to-person variation in knowledge attainment. The knowledge gap phenomenon cannot be completely explained without a clear understanding of such psychological processes. Although Tichenor, et al. 1970 provides a list of psychological factors that may lead to the knowledge gap, such as selective exposure and differences in communication skills and stored information, researchers have not typically investigated these variables thoroughly in previous knowledge gap research. Price and Zaller 1993 argues for the importance of existing cognitive schemata in explaining knowledge acquisition from news exposure, suggesting that past engagement with information can provide the necessary infrastructure for information gain. Without such schemata in place, we can predict less knowledge gain, just as having very limited fluency in a foreign language limits how much one might learn from a news story written in that language. On a slightly different plane, some scholars have moved to incorporate Annie Lang’s limited-capacity model of motivated mediated message processing (for an overview of the limited-capacity model, see Lang 2009) into knowledge gap research. Maria Elizabeth Grabe has been an early innovator in this vein. Several studies conducted by Grabe and colleagues (Grabe, et al. 2000, Grabe, et al. 2008) attempt to explain the knowledge gap from an individual-level cognitive processing perspective.

  • Grabe, Maria Elizabeth, Annie Lang, Shuhua Zhou, and Paul David Bolls. 2000. Cognitive access to negatively arousing news: An experimental investigation of the knowledge gap. Communication Research 27:3–26.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365000027001001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A knowledge-gap study exploring the information-processing mechanisms underlying the variation in information gain between high- and low-education individuals. This study examines whether individuals with higher and lower educational attainment differ in their levels of arousal, attention, or encoding of information when they watch television news.

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  • Grabe, Maria Elizabeth, Narine Yegiyan, and Rasha Kamhawi. 2008. Experimental evidence of the knowledge gap: Message arousal, motivation, and time delay. Human Communication Research 34:550–571.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2008.00332.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A follow-up study to Grabe, et al. 2000. Relying on the same information-processing perspective, this study examines the impact of the level of message arousal on subsequent gaps in knowledge attainment.

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  • Lang, Annie. 2009. The limited capacity model of motivated mediated message processing. In The SAGE Handbook of Media Processes and Effects. Edited by Robin L. Nabi and Mary Beth Oliver, 193–204. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This book chapter provides a short, well-integrated overview of the limited-capacity model of motivated mediated message processing that is the foundation for Grabe, et al. 2000 and Grabe, et al. 2008. The chapter discusses the model assumptions and measurement issues.

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  • Price, Vincent, and John Zaller. 1993. Who gets the news? Alternative measures of news reception and their implications for research. Public Opinion Quarterly 57:133–164.

    DOI: 10.1086/269363Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors assess audience reception of a series of news stories and conclude that an individual’s background level of political knowledge is the strongest predictor of that person’s memory for current news events. Price and Zaller cite the notion of cognitive schemata as an explanation.

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  • Tichenor, Phillip J., George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien. 1970. Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly 34:159–170.

    DOI: 10.1086/267786Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal article that first introduced the knowledge gap hypothesis. The Tichenor team suggested several factors that are likely to induce this gap. Of the suggested factors, the tendency of selective exposure, acceptance, and retention, and differences in stored information and communication skills are particularly useful in explaining the psychological mechanisms.

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Potential Utility of Multilevel Modeling

Multilevel modeling is an analytic tool that could significantly advance knowledge gap research. The original knowledge gap hypothesis directly hypothesizes multilevel relationships. The hypothesis suggests a cross-level relationship between individual-level factors (e.g., education and knowledge) and community-level factors (e.g., media publicity and community plurality). Much previous research, however, has not been able to formally detect multilevel relationships because of a lack of appropriate statistical techniques. Thanks to the advancement of multilevel modeling (hierarchical linear modeling; Park, et al. 2008, Raudenbush and Bryk 2002), communication researchers can test the simultaneous effects of individual- and community-level factors. Although past knowledge gap research did examine the effects of individual-level factors and those of community-level factors, it did not examine the effects of individual- and community-level factors simultaneously. Slater, et al. 2009 highlights how a knowledge gap study can incorporate multilevel modeling. For discussion of the relevance of multilevel modeling for communication research, see Pan and McLeod 1991, Price et al. 1991, and Slater et al. 2006.

  • Pan, Zhongdang, and Jack M. McLeod. 1991. Multilevel analysis in mass communication research. Communication Research 18:140–173.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365091018002002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An article from the multilevel modeling special issue of Communication Research. This article provides an epistemological view of levels of analysis and argues that mass communication can be viewed as multilevel phenomena. This piece suggests that knowledge gap research offers a chance for linking micro and macro levels of analysis.

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  • Park, Hee Sun, William P. Eveland Jr., and Robert Cudeck. 2008. Multilevel modeling: Studying people in contexts. In The SAGE sourcebook of advanced data analysis methods for communication research. Edited by Andrew F. Hayes, Michael D. Slater, and Leslie B. Snyder, 219–245. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    This chapter provides a nontechnical overview of multilevel modeling, explains the statistical basics of multilevel modeling with a small number of equations, and discusses how multilevel modeling can be used in mass communication research. By including example results and explaining how to interpret the results, this chapter helps people with basic statistical knowledge learn the basics of multilevel modeling easily.

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  • Price, Vincent, L. David Ritchie, and Heinz Eulau. 1991. Cross-level challenges for communication research. Communication Research 18:262–271.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365091018002007Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Part of a special issue on multilevel conceptualization for communication research, this overview essay makes a case for communication scholars to begin to address more seriously the idea that variance of interest might reside at more than one level of organization. The piece is directly relevant for knowledge gap research.

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  • Raudenbush, Stephen W., and Anthony S. Bryk. 2002. Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A classic textbook for hierarchical linear modeling (i.e., multilevel modeling). This book covers topics ranging from the basics of multilevel modeling to more technical details.

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  • Slater, Michael D., Leslie Snyder, and Andrew F. Hayes. 2006. Thinking and modeling at multiple levels: The potential contribution of multilevel modeling to communication theory and research. Human Communication Research 32:375–384.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2006.00292.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is an introduction article for a special issue of Human Communication Research on applications of multilevel modeling to communication research. Reflecting advancements in a statistical method to test multilevel relationships, this article presents a well-written overview of the necessity of multilevel modeling and the potential contribution of multilevel modeling to the field.

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  • Slater, Michael D., Andrew F. Hayes, Jason B. Reineke, Marilee Long, and Erwin P. Bettinghaus. 2009. Newspaper coverage of cancer prevention: Multilevel evidence for knowledge-gap effects. Journal of Communication 59:514–533.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01433.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is one of the earliest knowledge gap studies that incorporated a multilevel modeling method. It assesses regional differences in cancer-prevention coverage in local newspapers using a content analysis. By combining content-analysis data with nationally representative Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) data, this study shows that the gap increases as the regional level of media publicity increases.

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Data Archives

Some knowledge gap researchers are interested in conducting secondary analyses of existing data to test their hypotheses. For such work, a researcher has many resources he or she can consult. Researchers who are interested in gaps in individuals’ political or social knowledge, for example, can turn to archives such as the General Social Survey and the American National Election Studies. Researchers who are interested in gaps in audience members’ health knowledge can make use of archives such as the Health Information National Trends Survey or the National Health Interview Survey.

LAST MODIFIED: 02/23/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0078

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