Mass Media

Knowledge Gap

increasing gap between higher and lower educated people

History and Orientation

The knowledge gap theory was first proposed by Tichenor, Donohue and Olien at the University of Minnesota in the 70s. They believe that the increase of information in society is not evenly acquired by every member of society: people with higher socioeconomic status tend to have better ability to acquire information (Weng, S.C. 2000). This leads to a division of two groups: a group of better-educated people who know more about most things, and those with low education who know less. Lower socio-economic status (SES) people, defined partly by educational level, have little or no knowledge about public affairs issues, are disconnected from news events and important new discoveries, and usually aren’t concerned about their lack of knowledge.

Core Assumptions and Statements

The knowledge gap can result in an increased gap between people of lower and higher socioeconomic status. The attempt to improve people’s life with information via the mass media might not always work the way this is planned. Mass media might have the effect of increasing the difference gap between members of social classes.

Tichenor, Donohue and Olien (1970) present five reasons for justifying the knowledge gap. 1) People of higher socioeconomic status have better communication skills, education, reading, comprehending and remembering information. 2) People of higher socioeconomic status can store information more easily or remember the topic form background knowledge 3) People of higher socioeconomic status might have a more relevant social context. 4) People of higher socioeconomic status are better in selective exposure, acceptance and retention. 5) The nature of the mass media itself is that it is geared toward persons of higher socioeconomic status.

Conceptual Model

Source: Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970.

This example shows that education level or socioeconomic status made a difference in knowledge. The question was whether or not respondents felt astronauts would ever reach the moon. Those with high levels of education (based on three levels: grade school, high school and college) were more likely to agree that man would reach the moon than those with lower levels of education both at a certain point in time and over all four intervals. Most important was that the gap between levels widened over time in that the percentage of respondents in the high education level who agreed rose more than 60 percentage points over 16 years while those in the low level of education category rose less than 25 percentage points.

Favorite Methods

Surveys of mass media and tests of knowledge.

Scope and Application

Media presenting information should realize that people of higher socioeconomic status get their information in a different way than lower educated people. Furthermore, this hypothesis of the knowledge gap might help in understanding the increased gap between people of higher socioeconomic status and people of lower socioeconomic status. It can be used in various circumstances.


The knowledge gap was used in a research for presidential campaigns. The knowledge gap hypothesis holds that when new information enters a social system via a mass media campaign, it is likely to exacerbate underlying inequalities in previously held information. Specifically, while people from all strata may learn new information as a result of a mass media campaign, those with higher levels of education are likely to learn more than those with low levels of education, and the informational gap between the two groups will expand. The results of the analysis show that knowledge gaps do not always grow over the course of presidential campaigns and that some events, such as debates, may actually reduce the level of information inequality in the electorate.

Source: Holbrook (2002)


Key publications

  • Severin, W.J. & Tankard, J.W. (2001). Communication Theories (5th Ed.) Origins, Methods and Uses in the Mass Media. Addison Wesley Longman.
  • Holbrook, T.M. (2002). Presidential campaigns and the Knowledge Gap. Political communication, 19¸ 437-454. Online on the World Wide Web:
  • Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A. and Olien, C.N. (1970). Mass Media Flow and Differential Growth in Knowledge, Public Opinion Quarterly 34: Colombia University Press.
  • Alexander, S. (1999). Year in Review: Computer and Information System. Retrieved March 5, 2001, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online on the World Wide Web:
  • Awade, P. (1999, November 24) Survey – FT Telecoms: Inward Investigation needed to curb knowledge gap: The Internet in Developing Countries. Financial Times. pp.11. Retrieved March 2, 2001, from Lexis-Nexix Academic University on World Wide Web:
  • Bryan, J. (2000, June 29) We are not Making Most of New Economy. The Gazette. Business C1, Retrieved March 2, 2001, from Lexis-Nexix Academic University on World Wide Web:
  • Butler, D. (1999). Internet May Help Bridge the Gap. Nature.379(6714), 10. Retrieved Feb.25, 2001, from EBSCO (Academic Search Elite) on-line database.
  • Castells, M (1996). Information Age, Economy, Society, and Culture v.1. The Raise of the Network Society. MA : Blackwell Publishers.
  • Denny, C. (2000, February 1) Internet Promises Salvation or an Even Bigger Knowledge Gap. The Guardian. pp.18. Retrieved March 2, 2001, from Lexis-Nexix Academic University on World Wide Web:
  • Gill, K.S. (1996). Knowledge and the post-industrial society. In Gill, K.S. (Eds.), Information Society (pp. 5-7). New York: Springer
  • Hafner K. & Lyon Matthew. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster
  • Knowledge is Power. (2000). The Economist. Vol.356. Issue 8189, 27. Retrieved February 29, 2001, EBSCO (Academic Search Elite) on-line database.
  • Levinson, P. (1999). Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millenium. New York : Routledge.
  • Levinson, P. (1997). The Soft Edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Lange, L (1997). Group Lays out fiber plan for 'super-net.' Electronic Engineering Times. Issue 983, pl, 2p. Retrieved Feb.25, 2001, from EBSCO (Academic Search Elite) on-line database.
  • Persaud, A (2001). The Knowledge Gap: A Penny for Your Thoughts? Foreign Affairs.80(7), 107 Retrieved March 1, 2001, from EBSCO (Academic Search Elite) on-line database.
  • Rao, M. (2000) EM-Wire Book Review--Building Wealth by Lester Thurow, 
  • Straubhaar J. & Larose R. (1996). Communications Media in the Information Society. Belmont, Calif. : Wadsorth.
  • Weng, Sho-chi (2000). Mass Communication Theory and Practice. Taipei: San-ming.

See also Mass Media, Media, Culture and Society.