Information, Education, and Deliberation

Pennsylvania Civic Health Index 2011

March 15, 2012
Why is it that Pennsylvania ranks at the bottom of the states in talking about politics with their friends and family? Why is it that the state ranks comparatively high in involvement with non-political groups, like church or recreational organizations, but low in more traditional forms of political participation, like voting? Part of the explanation might involve the news habits of Pennsylvanians, which like other measures of civic health, vary widely across demographic categories such as age, race, income, and education. As a 2007 report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press concluded, “more informed Americans enjoy keeping up with the news, believe they have a personal stake in what goes on in Washington, and are significantly more likely to register to vote than people who know less,...”(24) When trying to explain the political behaviors of Pennsylvanians, it is thus important to ask: Do Pennsylvanians pay attention to political news? And, when they do, where do they get most of their news and political information?

While data on access to information was not collected in 2010 by the U.S. Census Current Population Survey (CPS), data from the 2008 and 2009 Civic Engagement Supplement can help us begin answering these questions. From a pooled estimate combining data on media use from 2008 and 2009, we can get a sense of how Pennsylvanians get their political news and how those news habits vary across demographic categories.(25) In general, the data show that, like most Americans, Pennsylvanians get their news mostly from television, with 87.4% of respondents indicating they watched television news (either on TV or online) “a few times a week or more.” By comparison, 68.4% of Pennsylvanians said they got news frequently from newspapers (again, either in print or online), with only 16.2% identifying blogs, chat rooms, and other Internet sites as news sources they relied upon frequently.

Although the CPS data does not allow us to ascertain whether Pennsylvanians are following the national trend toward getting all sorts of news online rather than through traditional media,(26) it does reveal some interesting facts about the news habits of Pennsylvanians—and how they compare with the rest of the nation. Here are some of the most noteworthy findings:

According to the 2010 Pennsylvania Civic Health Index, based on analysis of 2008 CPS data, Pennsylvania ranked 11th in the nation in the proportion of its citizens who watched television news programs a few times a week or more, but 32nd in the percentage of people who read newspaper stories frequently, 35th in readership of newsmagazines, 39th in listening to radio news, and 43rd in getting their news from political blogs, chat rooms, or other news sources on the Internet.

Suburban and rural Pennsylvanians were significantly more likely to read newspapers (whether in print or online) than those living in urban areas.(27)

Men were much more likely to listen to news on the radio than were women (55.4% versus 46.7%).

Millennials (those born after 1980) were the least likely of all generations to get their news from newspapers or television, but they were more likely than older Pennsylvanians to consult blogs, chat rooms, and other Internet sources.

Wealthier Pennsylvanians ($60,000 and up) consulted all sorts of news sources more frequently than those making less money.

Pennsylvanians over 25 with less than a high school education were far less likely than those with a high school diploma or a college education to consume any sort of news. Those with a college degree were more than four times more likely than those with less than a high school education to read newsmagazines, and they were about seven times more likely to listen to news on the radio or consult a political blog, chat room, or other news source on the Internet.

Among young people (18-24), those with no college experience were more likely than those with at least some college to watch TV news frequently (76.3% compared with 73.5%), but they were less likely to consult every other type of news source.(28)

These findings suggest that Pennsylvanians, while similar to people across the nation in most of their media habits, tend to rely on television, while they are somewhat less inclined to read newspapers and newsmagazines, listen to political news on the radio, or consult non-traditional media on the Internet, such as political blogs or chat rooms. Those who did seek out additional news or political information on the Web tended to be the same people who scored higher on many of our other measures of civic engagement: white, male suburbanites who are wealthier and better educated than the average Pennsylvanian. There was one exception to this rule, of course: Millennials (those born after 1980) were the most likely of any age group to say that they turn to the Internet for political news and information.

In addition to patterns of media usage, Pennsylvania’s relatively low levels of political activity may reflect weaknesses in how its schools educate for citizenship. In recent years, the emphasis across the nation has been on strengthening educational programs in science and math—at the expense, in some cases, of the broad, liberal education that equips young people for engaged citizenship. Beginning in 2017, Pennsylvania will require a 12th grade civics education course for graduation, and a Social Studies proficiency test will be administered to all students.(29) But it is not enough to teach young people about the branches of government or how a bill becomes a law. In order to participate in democratic deliberation and decision-making, students also need substantive knowledge about important political, social, and economic issues, and they need the critical thinking and communicative skills necessary to participate effectively in the democratic process.

Finally, the comparatively low levels of political engagement among Pennsylvanians may reflect a lack of opportunities for deliberation and participation in civic affairs. Historically, as we noted earlier, Pennsylvania has been the site of some of the great debates in US history, and the Commonwealth has a strong tradition of public deliberation in town hall meetings, Grange halls, and other local venues. The Commonwealth also has a strong tradition of participatory democracy and citizen involvement in school board meetings, township and county councils, and other deliberative and decision-making bodies. In recent years, however, some town hall forums have become platforms for angry protestors bent on “sending a message” to Washington,(30) and more and more Pennsylvanians—like Americans everywhere—have become spectators rather than active participants in civic life. As Pennsylvania faces the challenges of the 21st century, it is important that ordinary citizens—not just experts and organized special interest groups—have a say in the decisions made in their name. And it is especially important that younger Pennsylvanians and others who have, in the past, felt alienated or excluded from the political process be given new opportunities to participate.

If we hope to improve Pennsylvania’s civic health, we must invest in education, and we must rebuild the civic infrastructure of the Commonwealth. We need to find new ways to empower those who have been less engaged, especially young people, and we need to do more to foster a culture of public deliberation and civic engagement. In the conclusion to this report, we offer some ideas for improving the civic health of Pennsylvania by teaching young people what it means to be a “good citizen” and by giving Pennsylvanians more opportunities to participate in civic life. Some of our recommendations are already being tried here or in other states, while others are somewhat more experimental. In either case, they represent some of the most promising ideas for sustaining or even improving Pennsylvania’s civic health.
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