In my own experience as a native of Serbia, I was always under the impression that some people who enjoy the political scheming found in Serbian tabloids, and who easily memorize such intricacies, find it to be a useful distraction from life hurdles; a way to live out personal conflicts through identification with political characters. And it certainly provides some material for heated water cooler arguments. Items found in Serbian media often center on political gamboling and accusations of treachery and corruption. Those resemble an elaborate piece of dramaturgy, rather than a thorough examination of public interest. But little seems to differ cross-culturally, as recent research I describe below suggests.
To explain, at the height of the Egyptian turmoil and in the aftermath of perennial clamor surrounding the State of the Union address, I began wondering why some people embark on a news hunt the moment they open their eyelids in the morning, while others get the news only if it eventually gets them, when it dons the front page of virtually every media outlet available?
Today, cable and new media seem to widen the gap between news seekers and news avoiders: those who want the serious political, so-called hard news can now get more of it faster, while those who wish to remain isolated or safely ensconced in celebrity media can do the same. What media scholars term as "news junkies" remain relatively few, but thanks to the proliferation of news sources they now watch and read a lot more politics than ever before. On the other hand, those described as "switchers," can now successfully TiVo and narrowcast political news into oblivion.
Latest studies shed some light on this previously neglected question. Researchers have found that Big Five (personality traits) are significant predictors of interest in political information, news gathering and consequently political knowledge. Openness (the extent to which the person needs intellectual stimulation and variety) and emotional stability (low levels of anxiety) are associated with higher levels of engagement in political discourse. And the other three: conscientiousness (dutifulness and adherence to social norms), agreeableness (preference for harmonious exchanges with other people) and extroversion relate to consumption of specific political information.
It seems almost intuitive that extroverts, who garner much satisfaction from interaction with other people, would be more likely to participate in political activities, whose nature requires interpersonal discourse. The same goes for those who score high on openness, enjoy novel activities and challenge conventions.
However, those with high levels of agreeableness seem to have less of an interest in political news because it involves conflict, which they tend to avoid. Likewise, pronounced neuroticism also results in conflict avoidance. Therefore, a high dose of anxiety and lack of emotional stability don't go hand in hand with politics. I think it's likely, as well, that people who tend to feel overwhelmed with their emotional states and personal problems might not find enough of an incentive to devote themselves to public issues.
Interest in political news has been traditionally linked with two factors -- level of education and income. But recent research shows that personality traits can have a stronger effect on political attitudes and behavior than these two demographic features.
A logical follow-up question is how such high concentration of political knowledge in the hands of the few affects the democratic system. Since political knowledge influences turn-out rates, this variance raises questions about the quality of public opinion and sanity of voting decisions.
For example, I can't help but notice that gossip-centered discussion on projections and appearances can hardly qualify under "quality news" relevant for public opinion. The BBC "Newsnight" program made a great point the other day linking the usual hype around Obama's State of the Union, with the Oscar nominee, "The King's Speech." The tradition of focusing on performance rather than substance, harks back to the era of King George VI. What matters is not the emotional connection the leader exudes, but its successful projection and few seem to find anything wrong with the fact that the debate centers primarily on the deftness of the projection.
I would think that such light banter confined to the realm of political marketing is an apt distraction from personal issues, which might in fact drive those scoring high on anxiety, with otherwise low interest in politics, to these less relevant news items.
This "performance over substance" scenario can be traced in the debate over Jared L. Loughner's grin, as well as the demonization of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 Iraq campaign, which left the public confused over whether the invasion was about weapons of mass destruction, democracy or even 9/11. Perhaps such discourse is, in fact, more appealing to those who can displace their inner turmoil onto the public sphere -- a well known process in political psychology. That is, once we all rally behind an idea or personal attack, there is little to disagree with for those scoring high on agreeableness; and those with internal unease have a lot of emotions to live out vicariously in the public sphere.
As media instructs us to leverage new technology in order to Connect the World and Go beyond Borders, our desire and the ultimate limit to doing so, might well reside only in ourselves. It appears that all eyes are set on Egypt, yet perhaps few of those who are watching are seeking to make sense of the unfolding situation.
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