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More sources for news, but less knowledge

It’s like drinking from a fire hose.

There is so much information available from so many sources on a daily basis one hardly knows where to start or end — the printed newspaper, magazines, broadcast television, cable networks, radio, Internet sites for all of the above, as well as bloggers, commenters, aggregators, politicians, government and gossipy individuals.

The latest survey at Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says the digital age has turned news into a social experience. The survey of more than 2,000 American adults found nearly half get news from four to six media sources a day.

The survey found the Internet is now the third-most-cited news source, behind local and national television. (Of course, there is no way to account for the bias in human nature that makes people want to hide their ignorance. Everyone will tell you they keep abreast of the news, and since the TV was on and they were on the Internet, those must be the sources of their news.)

Fully half of those surveyed said they now get news from a social networking site, such as Facebook, while more than a quarter get news updates via Twitter.

Seventy-two percent said they enjoy talking with friends, family and colleagues about what’s happening in the world, and 69 percent said they felt a social or civic obligation to stay informed.

They are a fickle lot, with 65 percent saying they have no favorite online news source, but with 50 percent saying they still read a local printed newspaper.

The question is: With all this 24-hour, instantaneous access to news and information, are Americans really any better informed?

For this we turn again to a Pew poll, this one published in January by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Let’s make it sporting. Score yourself on the following questions. No cheating. Use ink. Then we’ll see how you, as an alert newspaper reader, stack up against your fellow Americans.

1) Do you happen to know if the national unemployment rate is currently closer to: 5 percent, 10 percent, 15 percent or 20 percent?

2) Do you happen to know how many women, if any, sit on the U.S. Supreme Court: zero, one or more than one?

3) As far as you know, which foreign country holds the most U.S. government debt: Japan, China, Saudi Arabia or Canada?

4) How many Republican senators voted to pass the health care reform bill in its vote on the Senate floor: 0, 5, 10 or 20?

5) In the United States Senate, opponents to legislation can delay a vote by filibustering. Do you know how many senators are needed to break a filibuster and bring a bill to the floor: 51, 60, 67 or 75?

6) Do you happen to know the name of the current majority leader of the U.S. Senate: Harry Reid, Al Franken, Mitch McConnell or Hillary Clinton?

7) Can you name the chairperson of the Republican National Committee: Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, Michael Steele or Newt Gingrich?

You may test yourself on all 12 questions online at: http://pewresearch.org/politicalquiz/quiz/

Only 55 percent our fellow Americans knew in January that the jobless rate stood near 10 percent; 56 percent knew there was more than one female justice; 59 percent (the highest percent of any question) knew China held most U.S. debt; 32 percent knew no Republican senator voted for health care; only 26 percent knew it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster; only 39 percent knew Reid’s title (44 percent couldn’t even hazard a guess, but the percent of correct answers was up from 24 percent in 2008; whether that is good news or bad news for Reid is your guess); 32 percent knew Steele chairs the GOP.

Only 2 percent correctly answered all 12 questions. Republicans and independents fared better than Democrats; those older than 50 scored best; college grads were better; and men scored better than women.

Despite all the cable news networks and Internet access, the ability of Americans to answer such simple current events questions has been declining steadily since Pew started giving such quizzes in 1989. Maybe people need to be a bit more sociable — or read the newspaper more closely.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.

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