What The Public Wants: Britney Vs. Iraq

It seems there is always a report in the news about how little attention Americans pay to what’s in the news. But, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center says the country’s knowledge of political and world events isn’t so bad. The survey (available online as the Pew News IQ Quiz) found 90 percent of adults know which country has been making headlines for exporting dangerous goods and three-quarters can pick the Speaker of the House from a list of four politicians.

But is being able to identify one of the most powerful politicians in Washington really a good measure of political savvy? The authors of the Pew report admit Americans’ knowledge of important news events “varies widely,” but their analysis of the results is generally positive.

“Most of the public Is familiar with key political and Iraq facts,” reads the subhead to the report.

But one needs only to make a visit to Google Trends to cast doubt on such rosy conclusions. The Web site allows users to compare how many people are using Google to search for particular terms. For example, entering the terms “Iraq” and “Britney” produces this handy graph:


The lines at the top show that besides a single spike in 2004, people yearn more for knowledge of the underwear-challenged pop star than of the war on a distant continent. But the lines on the bottom show the news has been full of reports about Iraq while coverage of Britney flatlines in comparison. (This is, of course, where the meaning of journalism and the “public interest” comes into question, but that eternal conundrum will be left for another discussion.)

Coloradans, though, can give one another kudos for doing slightly better than the nation in their Iraq-to-Britney search ratio:

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But, when one looks at the cities driving the blue Iraq line, it becomes clear it’s mainly military folk in Colorado Springs and the information-hungry hippies and intellectuals in the college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins:

Of course, neither the Pew News IQ Quiz nor Google Trends is a definitive measure of Americans’ news interest or knowledge, but they are fun to play around with. You know, instead of reading reports from Iraq.