Comm Studies Professor Uncovers Relationship Between Online News Behavior and Political Knowledge

What are you really learning when you read articles about the upcoming presidential candidates? Are you just learning facts about them or can you relate what they are saying to certain issues? Communication studies assistant professor Michael Beam, Ph.D., recently led a study examining the relationship between reading and sharing news online and political knowledge with co-authors Myiah Hutchens, Ph.D. and Jay Hmielowski, Ph.D.

The study titled “Clicking vs. Sharing: The Relationship Between Online News Behaviors and Political Knowledge” was recently published in Computers in Human Behavior, and took a look at the impact of viewing and sharing online news on two dimensions of knowledge: factual and structural. The researchers analyzed 3-wave survey data collected from a national sample during the months before the 2012 election.

“We wanted to know more about the way people learn from the media and news about politics, especially with the social media world now where we see a kind of hybrid system where we can read the news and also interact with it,” Beam said. “News is often our lens for understanding our opinions about voters.”

Beam says past research has generally found a positive relationship where people who watch more news possess more factual knowledge, which is typically measured by seeing if people can identify facts about politics. This study also looked at structural knowledge, which is measured by having people report the connections they see between pieces of information.

“Someone with structural knowledge understands that health care is related to taxes, which is related to our economy,” Beam said. “These people can successfully identify political issues that are related to each other.” 

The results found reading news online is related to factual knowledge, but not related to structural knowledge. In addition, sharing news online is related to structural knowledge, but not factual knowledge. However, results also show that people who are sharing are also reading news online. 

“The takeaway from this is that reading news online gets you the point of learning facts about the political world and news, but sharing it and discussing it online then takes learning a step further to bring you a richer connection between those facts,” Beam said. 

Beam says this is especially relevant to college students because they are a group who is primarily getting their news through social media and nontraditional media.

“They are not likely to be turning on the 6 o’clock news or reading a newspaper,” said Beam. “They are more likely to be going on Twitter or another online news site.” Beam added that the ability to share information means that college students are likely getting added benefits from online news use. 

“Our study shows that engaging in online news sharing is going to reap benefits above just reading news online because you have to think about the content more,” Beam said. 

“We still have six candidates to choose from in primary debates and we still have a complex decision to make,” Beam said. “It turns out, by engaging online we’re going to maximize our learning. People might shy away from political sharing because we don’t want to hear other opposing opinions or offend people with different views. However, the fact that you think about sharing information, you gain more structural knowledge.” 

Beam’s main area of research centers on media and political polarization, particularly through selective exposure. Several of his studies investigate how the new media landscape is impacting collective public opinion, which is created from Americans learning, discussing and deliberating choices as U.S. citizens. 

Beam has a bachelor’s degree from the School of Telecommunications at Ohio University and a Master’s and Ph.D. in communication from The Ohio State University. He spent over a decade working as a computer system administrator and network technologies and now teaches courses in new communication technologies, media effects and quantitative research methods.


POSTED: Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 1:42pm
UPDATED: Monday, September 19, 2016 - 10:19am
Rachel Gill