Knowledge gap theory states that wealthier and more educated people acquire information from mass media faster than lower socioeconomic classes. They have greater access to media information and benefit more from it. Therefore, as mass media grows, so too does the gap in knowledge between the higher and lower social classes.
The theory is also known as the knowledge gap hypothesis.
Overview of the Theory
The knowledge gap theory argues:
- Knowledge is distributed unevenly throughout society.
- Information is more accessible to wealthier and more educated people than poorer people. This causes a ‘knowledge gap’.
- More educated people tend to be more interested in and open minded about learning, further widening the gap.
- As mass media grew in the 20th Century, so too did the gap in knowledge between rich and poor.
Origins of the Theory
The theory was first proposed in 1970 by three scholars:
- Phillip Tichenor (Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota)
- George Donohue (Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota)
- Clarice Olien (Instructor in Sociology, University of Minnesota)
The authors explained the theory in their 1970 journal article Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge:
“as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease”. (Tichenor, Donohue & Olien, 1970, pp. 159-160)
5 Key Elements of the Knowledge Gap
Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970) argue that the gap in knowledge between rich and poor occurs because higher socioeconomic classes have advantages in the following areas:
1. Communication Skills
People from higher socioeconomic classes tend to be better educated in communication skills than people from lower socioeconomic classes.
Better educated people statistically would have better:
- Reading and writing skills
- Learned thinking skills
- Speaking skills
- Comprehension skills
They therefore are more capable of understanding the information presented to them in mass media. This highlights the importance of reading and studying throughout your life!
Direct Quote from the Theory
In their own words, Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970, p. 161) explain this concept:
“Persons with more formal education would be expected to have the higher reading and com- prehension abilities necessary to acquire public affairs or science knowledge.”
2. Stored Information
Tichenor, Donohue and Olien define stored information as “existing knowledge resulting from prior exposure to the topic” (1970, p. 162).
According to the theory, people who are more highly educated are likely to have had more exposure to a topic in their past. This prior knowledge helps them understand a topic when they are exposed to it by the media.
Direct Quote from the Theory
The authors explain stored information in this way:
“Persons who are already better informed are more likely to be aware of a topic when it appears in the mass media and are better prepared to understand it.” (Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970, p. 162).
3. Relevant Social Contact
People with a higher socioeconomic status tend to have more social contacts. These social contacts are more likely to share information on topics that are also seen on social media. They are therefore more likely to have some prior experience on a topic. This makes them primed to learn and understand the information they have been exposed to.
With more social contacts to provide relevant background information on a topic, people with higher socioeconomic status are also more likely to be able to identify false or inaccurate information on mass media.
Direct Quote from the Theory
High socioeconomic status people have “a greater number of reference groups, and more interpersonal contacts, which increase the likelihood of discussing public affairs topics with others” (Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970, p. 162).
4. Selective Exposure, Acceptance and Retention
The ‘selective exposure’ argument says that people of different educational levels or socioeconomic backgrounds choose to consume media differently.
- People will pay more attention to news that is relevant to their their hobbies and interests.
- Higher educated people are presumed to be more politically engaged.
- Women tend to gravitate more to soap operas, men toward sports.
Similarly, This selective exposure argument is seen in new media where we appear to be only consuming media from our ‘tribe’. Some people will only watch Fox News, others will only watch MSNBC.
The differences in our media consumption habits will cause gaps in what we know and believe.
Direct Quote from the Theory
Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970, p. 162) argue: “A persistent theme in mass media research is the apparent tendency to interpret and recall information in ways congruent with existing beliefs and values.”
5. Media Target Markets
Different media have different target markets.
- Pinterest: Predominantly women.
- Instagram: Skews toward younger people.
- Print news: Skews toward older and higher educated people.
- Daytime Television: Skews toward older people.
With such a large amount of different media with their own niche target markets, the gap is only going to be growing in the era of new media.
Direct Quote from the Theory
Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970, p. 162) argue: “Print media are geared to the interests and tastes of this higher-status segment”
Evidence of the Gap
Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970) use the theory to propose this hypothesis:
At any point in time, higher people of a higher socioeconomic status will be more informed on issues currently in the mass media than people of a lower socioeconomic status.
To test this hypothesis, they presented a study of the amount of people in the 1950s and 1960s who believed humans will reach the moon.
The study appeared to confirm the hypothesis that higher socioeconomic status people (identified by level of education) are more informed than lower socioeconomic status people on issues in the mass media.
Ways to Reduce the Knowledge Gap
In 1975, Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien tried to find ways to minimize the knowledge gap.
They studied the knowledge of people in communities around Minessota between 1969 and 1975.
From their research, they presented 3 hypotheses on how to reduce the gap:
- Community Impact: Issues that are relevant to the local community and the everyday lives of normal people tend to arouse interest regardless of education levels.
- Level of Conflict: Issues that are ‘hot button issues’ tend to engage more interest of all people regardless of education levels, which may reduce the gap. This only works until the conflict ‘boils over’, after which people turn off out of disgust.
- Community homogeneity: A homogenous community is one where most people in the community are similar to one another (in terms of race, social class and culture). Homogenous communities tended to have less of an information gap than heterogenous communities.
Effects of Web 2.0 New Media on the Theory
The big question about this theory is whether it still works in an era of Web 2.0 technology.
The internet has allowed us to communicate en masse in new ways:
- Anyone can publish information available to anyone else with an internet connection.
- Information online is written in easy-to-read language compared to books and journals.
- People can navigate the web through hyperlinks to find information fast.
- Users can interact with each other online.
With these new features, different hypotheses can emerge:
- The knowledge gap widens, because some people have access to the internet while others don’t (‘the digital divide’).
- The gap in knowledge closes, because access to information and ability to participate in public discussion is easier than ever.
- Less educated people can educate themselves online for free, leading to a closing of the gap.
- The gap continues to remain open because the 5 ‘causes’ of the gap (above) still exist regardless of the internet.
More research is required on this question!
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theory
- The theory explains recent political polarization: As more forms of mass media emerge and people can pick and choose their media, the gap is only going to grow.
- The theory explains the limitations of mass media: The theory provides an apparent explanation for why information cannot be spread to all corners of a society through mass media alone. Different people consume different media! As Tichenor, Donohue and Olien argue, the theory provides “a fundamental explanation for the apparent failure of mass publicity to inform the public at large.” (170, p. 161)
- The theory explains fake news: The theory can explain a supposed link between lower-educated people and belief in fake news. Without access to ‘relevant social contacts’ or ‘stored information’, these people are less capable of identifying and critiquing fake news.
- The theory conflates socioeconomic status and education levels: These terms are used interchangeably by the theory’s founders. The terms correlate, but are not the same thing – so this conflation is problematic.
- It may not be relevant today: A 50 year old theory of media may fail to understand the complexity of the media landscape today. The original article outlining this theory talks about newspapers as the ‘dominant’ media form!
- New media behaves differently: Similarly, new media has less ‘gatekeepers’ than old media. Anyone can start a website and start sharing their information with the world! This theory doesn’t account for the way new media works.
There are three competing theories that disagree with the arguments of Tichenor and colleagues.
- Media Malaise hypothesis: Mass media has a general negative effect on the knowledge and wellbeing of all of society, including the wealthy and poor. It is geared toward sensationalism, conflict and stretching of the truth.
- Virtuous Circle hypothesis: Mass media is good for everyone. It educates the poor and creates a generally more educated society on the whole.
- Differential Effect hypothesis: Newspapers have a positive effect, while television and new media have a negative effect on society.
The knowledge gap theory helps us to start thinking about some of the social reasons we have different beliefs. It also gets us thinking about how mass media is accessed differently by different groups.
However, the theory also has several problematic elements, including the fact that it doesn’t account for new media, and is rather deterministic in claiming poor people are uninformed. Many poorer people would take issue with this! (and, likely, challenge the methods used to study them – see, for example: muted group theory).
Nonetheless, the theory is a good introduction to the topic and could stimulate a great deal of discussion about the potential effects of mass media on society.
Donohue, G. A., Tichenor, P. J., & Olien, C. N. (1975). Mass media and the KG: A hypothesis revisited. Communication Research. 2(1): 3–23. doi: 10.1177/009365027500200101
Fraile, M. (2011). Widening or reducing the KG? Testing the media effects on political knowledge in Spain (2004-2006). International Journal of Press/Politics, 16(2): 163–184. doi: 10.1177/1940161210388413
Gaziano, C. (1983). The KG: An analytical review of media effects. Communication Research, 10(4): 447–486. doi: 10.1177/009365083010004003
Gaziano, C. (1997). Forecast 2000: Widening KGs. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 74(2): 237–264. doi: 10.1177/107769909707400202
Hwang, Y., & Jeong, S-H. (2009). Revisiting the knowledge gap hypothesis: A meta-analysis of thirty-five years of research. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 86(3): 513–532. doi: 10.1177/107769900908600304
Tichenor, P. A., Donohue, G. A., and Olien, C. N. (1970). Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly, 34(2): 159–170.