In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Knowledge Gap

  • Introduction
  • Background and Introductory Works
  • Review Articles
  • Data Archives

Communication Knowledge Gap
Yoori Hwang, Brian Southwell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0078


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: 10.1086/265867

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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.x

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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: 10.1086/267786

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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: 10.1080/10810730600637426

    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.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.