Media as Sources of Information in Latin America

Anthropologists would have us believe that the expected maximum size of human social groups is 150 (or thereabouts).  The original formulation was based upon the ratio of the neocortex to the brain size, which reflects the capacity of the human brain to remember and management human interrelationships.  Whether this formulation is true or not, this magical number has been empirically observed in groups as varied as hunter-gather societies, religious groups and military command units.  This is not to say that human social groups are limited by that number; rather, this says that any larger group must depend on more complex systems of communication, command and control.

Today, the world has more than 6 billion living in about 200 countries or nation states.  Clearly, if we consider a country to be a human group, the size of each country is much larger than the magical number of 150.  What makes it viable for several hundred million people to become a country is due in no small part to the development of mass communication systems, both private and public.  In most countries, television, radio and print media are available to the population, through which the national identity is forged and reinforced everyday.  In fact, the mass media have become the principal means by which people obtain information.

We will now cite some survey data from the 2001 TGI Latina study.  This is a survey of 48,885 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela).  During the survey, the respondents were shown the statement 'I rely on [name of media type] to keep me informed.'  The overall results are as follows:

These results follow what we know about how the overall usage levels of these media.  In terms of total time spent, television is the most heavily used medium, followed by radio, then newspaper and finally magazines.  Given those usage characteristics, it would not be surprising to find that greater contact leads to more information being communicated and utilized.

If the whole story was about how media usage goes with dependency for information, that would be nothing new.  But once we probe further down, this simple relationship breaks down in a surprising fashion.  Generally, it is known that the usage of the major media are different by socio-economic level.  For example, in the article Intermedia Comparisons, we found that the electronic broadcast media (television and radio) have nearly universal reach across all socio-economic levels.   As another example, we found that the print media (newspapers and magazines) has increasing reach as we move up the socio-economic levels (see the article Socio-Economic Characteristics of Newspaper Readers).

If media usage goes with dependency for information, then we would expect that dependency on print media for information would increase with socio-economic level.  The following table shows the actual TGI Latina data broken down by socio-economic level (note: Level A is top 10%, Level B is next 20%, Level C is next 30% and Level D is the bottom 40%).  For each of the four major media, the percent of those who rely on it to keep informed DECREASES with socio-economic level.  Thus, it is the lowest socio-economic level (Level D) that says that it relies most on each major medium to keep informed and the highest socio-economic level (Level A) that relies least on each major medium.

On further thought, this outcome may not be as surprising as it first seems.  In the article Confidence in Newspaper Reporting in Latin America, we saw that newspapers were trusted least by the rich, powerful and educated.  The affluent people are most likely to have access to private channels of communication (such as family, friends, social networks, etc) that are more accurate and trustworthy than the mass media, and when those sources are seen to differ often enough from the mass media, they are apt to rely less on the mass media.  Such private channels would not be available to the lower classes.

(posted by Roland Soong, 6/22/2002)

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