SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) A survey measured the US public’s awareness of certain news stories. What does it indicate about how knowledge of current affairs is shaped?
Several questions were answered correctly by less than half the respondents, some by less than 30%.
While it’s difficult to compare like with like, you might not necessarily expect citizens of other nations to answer equivalent questions correctly, either. But the study does offer an insight into how knowledge is disseminated.
For instance, the survey suggested that 73% could correctly identify the federal minimum wage as $7.25 (£4.49).
By contrast, says Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew, “When it comes to more detailed knowledge of foreign policy – when there’s a question about Shias and Sunnis, for instance – it’s something that doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the American news media.”
A majority failed to give the right answer to these five:
In which of the following predominately Muslim countries are there more Shia Muslims than Sunni Muslims?
After a list of nations was read out, 29% correctly picked Iran.
On which of these activities does the US government currently spend the most money?
The correct answer, social security, was chosen by 20%.
Who is the current chair of the US Federal Reserve Board?
Janet Yellen, the post’s incumbent, was picked by less than a quarter of those surveyed.
Who is the current Prime Minister of Israel?
Some 38% chose Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s premier, from the list. Ariel Sharon was chosen by 11%, Hosni Mubarak by 7% and David Cameron by 1%. The largest group of respondents, at 43% were the don’t knows.
Which one of these African countries has recently experienced a major outbreak of the Ebola virus?
Liberia was correctly chosen by 46%.
But some foreign affairs questions did receive majority correct answers. Some 67% were aware that Syria is one of the countries in which Islamic State controls territory.
“Although it’s not a terribly difficult question, you can see the extent to which the threat of IS has been impressed on people,” says Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew.
Similarly, 60% knew that Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union rather than Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or Scandinavia – which likewise may have been influenced by recent coverage of the region, Carroll suggests. Alternatively, it may be a legacy of the Cold War – a time when news from overseas was covered more prominently in the US.
It’s very possible the number of correct answers on what country was at the centre of the Ebola crisis would have been higher had the survey been carried out a day later when a man who had travelled to Liberia was diagnosed with the virus in Texas. .
But while less than a quarter of Americans knew who the chair of the Federal Reserve was, how many Britons could name Mark Carney as governor of the Bank of England?
A YouGov study in July suggested that only 36% of UK adults could identify Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary while only 28% recognised Jeremy Hunt secretary of state for health. A third could not identify the chancellor of the exchequer.
Also, a respondent’s likelihood to get a question right or wrong can be significantly influenced by demographics.
College graduates got an average of 6.8 questions correct, compared with 5.3 for those with some college experience and 3.7 for those with just a high school diploma.
Older adults generally display higher levels of news knowledge than younger Americans. But young adults were more familiar with the federal minimum wage, perhaps because they were more likely to earn it themselves – 82% identified it correctly, compared with smaller majorities among older age groups.
By contrast, just 19% of those under 30 could correctly identify Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, compared with 48% of those 65 and older.
Questions requiring name recall usually tend to prove more difficult, Doherty says.
But Americans are often quite good by international standards at answering this kind of question, according to Dan Cassino, professor of political science at Farleigh Dickinson University. He suggests this may be because the US media is more likely to focus on personalities rather than process.
In general, according to Cassino, citizens of countries like Germany and Switzerland tend to do better at answering questions which depend on knowledge of foreign policy.
“In Europe there’s a lot more coverage of international news,” he says – a British Eurosceptic will be interested in what the European Union does, and have more opportunity to follow EU news in mainstream outlets. But “it’s much easier to ignore international politics if you live in the US”.