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The knowledge gap hypothesis attempts to explain “the apparent failure of mass publicity to inform the public at large.” (Tichenor, 1970). It states that “because social power is often based on knowledge, relative dispossession of knowledge may lead to relative deprivation of power,” and “as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status [SES] 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, 1970).


A number of underlying factors account for the effect:

  • 1) Communication skills – more formal education leads to greater reading and comprehension skills enabling higher SES individuals to gain more information through reading and comprehension,

2) Stored information/existing knowledge – prior exposure to a topic and awareness of it enables individuals to develop a better understanding of that given topic, 3) Relevant social contact – higher SES individuals are more likely to discuss public affairs topics with others thus increasing the knowledge gap between high and low SES populations, 4) Selective exposure, acceptance and retention of information – voluntary exposure to public affairs oriented is closely related to education than any other set of variables, thus making high SES individuals more likely to be exposed to information and more likely to accept and retain that information, 5) Uses and gratifications – higher SES individuals are more likely to use media for information seeking and low SES individuals are more likely to use media for entertainment resulting in higher SES individuals gaining more knowledge from media use than their low SES counterparts, (McLeod, 1994) and 6) Nature of mass media – print media is more geared to the interests of high SES individuals and “science and public affairs news ordinarily lacks the constant repetition which facilitates learning and familiarity among lower-status persons.” (Tichenor, 1970).

Competing Hypotheses

There are now three existing competing hypotheses: 1) Media Malaise hypothesis (that predicts a general negative effect), 2) the Virtuous Circle hypothesis (that predicts a general positive effect), and 3) the Differential Effect hypothesis (that predicts a positive effect from newspapers, and a null or negative effect from television)” (Fraile, 2011). Three types of media outlets have been used to examine the media effects on knowledge gap: 1) Television – knowledge gap between lower and higher education groups are greater among light television users compared to heavy television users (Eveland, 2000), 2) Newspaper - the exposure to newspaper can potentially reinforces the knowledge gap in politics for different SES groups since reading newspaper requires literacy ability to effectively understand the information (Jerit et. al, 2006), while other studies suggest that exposure to newspaper actually slightly decreases the knowledge gap rather than increasing it (Eveland, 2000), and 3) Internet - internet exposure increases public’s general knowledge in health issues (Lee, 2008; Shim, 2008).

Other analyses have been done on exploring the gender-based knowledge gap. It has been shown that the knowledge disparity between men and women was significant, and men hold much more political knowledge compared to women. (Kenski and Jamieson, 2000; Hayes, 2001). Mondak and Anderson (2004) said that “Men often have been found to exceed women in political interest, attentiveness to politics, and efficacy” (p.492).

Hypothesis Validation

Meta-analysis of knowledge gap hypothesis studies show that there is indeed a positive relationship between socioeconomic status and level of knowledge for all issues. The relationship between SES and knowledge is moderated by: 1) Topic; the knowledge gap narrows between high socioeconomic and low socioeconomic individuals for health and science knowledge, and widens for political issue knowledge, setting, knowledge measurement and experimental designs, 2) Setting; the knowledge gap widens for international and national setting studies and narrows for personal and local setting studies, 3) Knowledge measurement – studies using awareness, factual or combined measures showed a greater knowledge gap than studies using belief measures, and 4) Experimental design – studies using surveys showed a higher knowledge gap than studies using experimental designs. (Hwang, 2009).

Original knowledge gap research was originally proposed in 1970 by University of Minnesota researchers Phillip J. Tichenor, then Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, George A. Donohue, Professor of Sociology, and Clarice N. Olien, Instructor in Sociology.


Eveland, W. P. & Scheufele D. A. (2000). Connecting News Media Use with Gaps in Knowledge and Participation. Political Communication, 17(3), 215–237.

Fraile M. (2011). Widening or Reducing the Knowledge Gap? Testing the Media Effects on Political Knowledge in Spain (2004-2006). International Journal of Press/Politics, 16(2), 163-184.

Grabe, M. E., Lang, A., Zhou, S., & Bolls, P. D. (2000). Cognitive access to negatively arousing news. Communication Research, 27 (1), 3-26

Hsu, M., & Price, V. (1993). Political expertise and affect: Effects on news processing. Communication Research, 20, 671-695.

Hwang, Y., Jeong, S.H. (2009) Revisiting the knowledge gap hypothesis: A meta=analysis of thirty-five years of research. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly; Autumn 2009: 86, 513-532.

Jerit, J., Jason B. & Toby B. (2006). Citizens, Knowledge, and the Information Environment. American Journal of Political Science, 50(2), 266–282.

McLeod, D., & Perse, E. M. (1994). Direct and indirect effects of socioeconomic status on public affairs knowledge. Journalism Quarterly, 71 (2), 433-442.

Shim, M. (2008). Connecting Internet uses with gaps in cancer knowledge. Health Communication, 23 (6), 448-61.

Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A., Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly (34) Summer 1970: 159-170.

See also

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