Media Life Interview

By Toni Fitzgerald

Here’s a study that doesn’t mince words: Results of phone surveys on media usage are “largely useless” and responses about as random as throwing darts. That’s the comparison Ball State telecommunications professor Bob Papper used in co-authoring a study about media usage habits among Americans released by the Center for Media Design last week. The study finds very large discrepancies between media usage levels reported by three different methodologies: phone surveys, individual diaries and observation. The most striking came in the area of television. Phone respondents said they watched 121 minutes of TV, diarists recorded 278, and those being observed logged 319 minutes. Other big differences included 29 online minutes per day for phone respondents compared to 57 for diarists and 78 for the observation group. Newspapers recorded the lowest differentials, 15 minutes for the phone, 26 minutes for diaries and 17 minutes for observation. Papper talks to Media Life about research methodology, media multitasking, and why most people would rather claim they read than watch TV.
What surprised you the most about the study?

Three things stand out above others:
1) That phone surveys were as far off the mark as they were.
2) That phone research couldn’t even do an accurate job of determining whether someone used a given medium “yesterday,” much less how much they used it.
3) How extensive media multitasking turned out to be.

Why are people’s perceptions of media usage so far off from their actual usage?

Now you’re asking me my opinion rather than for empirical data. I’m okay doing that – as long as you distinguish between what I know and what I think.
What’s interesting is that people did a far better job at perceiving their use of print media than most other media (although they were far better on newspaper than either magazines or books).
I suspect that part of the greater accuracy is that people read less than their use of other media, so it’s easier to estimate.
But that doesn’t work as the complete answer. If that’s all there was to it, then why do so many people say they didn’t watch TV or listen to the radio or use the computer?
I suspect part of the answer involves social judgments. Reading is perceived as “good,” therefore I did it. TV and radio, and perhaps to a lesser degree computer use, is “bad” (or at least not that good), so I didn’t do it – or if I did, I didn’t do much of it.

Why do people have such a difficult time with simultaneous media usage questions on the phone surveys?

Part of that, I suspect, is that we’re so new at looking at the phenomenon, that we may not even have figured out the best way to ask the question.
Beyond that, we also found that diaries didn’t do a very good job on media multitasking either.
That suggests that the problem goes beyond how we ask.
A lot of media multitasking involves short-duration, in-and-out usage. That’s especially true for email, phone and radio.
In the diaries, a lot of that usage fell through the cracks (along with postal mail).
It’s probably a mixture of not recognizing the routine and not paying that much attention to something done just for a short period.
Ironically, those short periods really start to add up, but we miss much of the activity along the way.
Another problem is that some of the research on multitasking is done online. As we discovered, people who are online multitask in different ways and in different amounts than people engaged in other media activity.
So online research appears to introduce new problems that compound on old ones.

Do you think the variance between perception and actual usage has increased, and will continue to increase, as multi-tasking and different forms of media become more a part of our lives?

I think the answer is yes.
The fact is, there’s a body of research, much of it done years ago, that suggested people were not very good at estimating their time spent in various media behavior.
And much of that research was done in a simpler media time, when the average person received four TV signals, fewer radio stations, and home computers and the internet were only dreams.
If people weren’t very good at estimating behavior then, why would we think a world with infinitely more choices would improve the situation?
It also stands to reason then that as the media world and our own lives become more complicated, that we’re likely to see perception and reality grow farther apart.
As we see more and more younger people grow up with multitasking, I expect the percentage of multitasking to increase. I certainly can’t imagine what could cause it to drop.