The knowledge gap hypothesis is a mass communication theory based on how a member in society processes information from mass media differently based on education level and socioeconomic status (SES). The gap in knowledge exists because a member of society with higher socioeconomic status has access to higher education and technology whereas a member of society who has a lower socioeconomic status has less access or none at all. Since there is already pre-existing gap of knowledge between groups in a population, mass media amplifies this gap to another level. For example, television news programming targets a more affluent group who are interested in political and science news. The higher status viewer pays more attention to the serious stories and seeks out more in depth information beyond the news program.[1] This article provides an overview of the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis and includes theoretical concepts, historical background, operationalization, narrative review, meta-analytic support, new communication technologies and competing hypotheses.

Theoretical Concepts

As originally proposed in 1970 by three University of Minnesota researchers, Phillip J. Tichenor, Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, George A. Donohue, Professor of Sociology, and Clarice N. Olien, Instructor in Sociology, the hypothesis predicts that "as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher socioeconomic status 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, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 159–160).[2]

Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien suggest 5 factors why the knowledge gap should exist:

  1. Communication skills: "Persons with more formal education would be expected to have higher reading and comprehension abilities necessary to acquire public affairs or science knowledge." (Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 162)[2] For example, higher socioeconomic status, SES, people generally have more education, which improves their reading, writing, and comprehension skills.
  2. Amount of stored information: "Persons who are already better informed are more likely to be aware of a topic when it appears in mass media and are better prepared to understand it."(Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 162)[2] For example, more informed people are more likely to already know of news stories through previous media exposure or through formal education and can relate new information to past exposure.
  3. Relevant social contact: "Education generally indicates a broader sphere of everyday activity, a greater number of reference groups and more interpersonal contacts, which increase the likelihood of discussing public affairs topics with others." (Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 162)[2] For example, higher socioeconomic status, SES, people generally have a network of friends or colleagues that are more likely to have access to more information on news stories and more skilled to research the topics.
  4. Selective exposure, acceptance, and retention of information: "A persistent theme in mass media research is the apparent tendency to interpret and recall information in ways congruent with existing beliefs and values."(Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 162)[2] For example, a viewer of a news program will pay attention more to story that interests them.
  5. Nature of the mass media system that delivers information. Different media has specific target markets.(Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien 1970, pp. 162)[2] For example, social media platforms like Tik Tok targets a younger audience whereas daytime television targets an older audience. In the 1970, print media was written for an audience with a higher education level.

Historical background

The knowledge gap hypothesis has been implicit throughout the mass communication literature. Research published as early as the 1920s had already begun to examine the influence of individual characteristics on people's media content preferences.

1929 William S. Gray and Ruth Munroe authors of The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults examined the education advantages of adults which influenced their reading habits. The well educated reader grasped the subject matter in newspaper articles more quickly and moved on to other types of reading materials that fit their interests. The less educated reader spent more time with the newspaper article because it took that person longer to comprehend the topic.  [3]

1940 Paul Lazarsfeld, head of the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University, set out to examine whether (1) the total amount of time that people listened to the radio and (2) the type of content they listened to correlated with their socioeconomic status. Not only did Lazarsfeld's data indicate people of lower socioeconomic status tended to listen to more radio programming, but also they were simultaneously less likely to listen to "serious" radio content.[4]

1950 The authors: Shirley A. Star, a professor in the University of Chicago's sociology department and Helen MacGill Hughes, a sociologist of the University of Chicago worte, "Report on an Educational Campaign: The Cincinnati Plan for the United Nations" discovered that while the campaign was successful in reaching better-educated people, those with less education virtually ignored the campaign. Additionally, after realizing that the highly educated people reached by the campaign also tended to be more interested in the topic, Star and Hughes suggested that knowledge, education, and interest may be interdependent.[5]

Hypothesis operationalization

According to the authors, Jack Rosenberry and Lauren A.Vicker, " A hypothesis is basically a research question: the researcher needs to ask questions and answer them in order to formulate theory. The term "hypothesis" also can be used to describe a theory that is still in the development stage or that has not been fully researched and verified. Because of the somewhat contradictory nature of the research findings, the knowledge gap has not yet achieved theory status and is still known as a hypothesis."[6]

Since the 1970s, many policy makers and social scientists have been concerned with how community members acquire information via mass media. Throughout the years, extensive research has been conducted and taken different approaches to researching the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis. The hypothesis operationalization consists of the following:

Narrative review and meta-analytic support

Since the 1970s, many policy makers and social scientists have been concerned with how community members acquire information via mass media. Throughout the years, extensive research has been conducted and taken different approaches to researching the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis.

Cecilie Gaziano, a researcher of Communication and Media, Quantitative Social Research and Social Stratification wrote Forecast 2000: Widening Knowledge Gaps, to update her 1983 analysis of knowledge gap studies.[7] Gaziano discusses the connection between education and income disparities between the "haves" and "have-nots." Gaziano conducted two narrative reviews, one of 58 articles with relevant data in 1983 [8] and the other of 39 additional studies in 1997.[7]

The interconnection between income, education and occupation are factors of the knowledge gap throughout history. Here is a closer look at the economic gaps caused by major economic events:

Hwang and Jeong (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 46 knowledge gap studies. Consistent with Gaziano's results, however, Hwang and Jeong found constant knowledge gaps across time.[9] Gaziano writes, "the most consistent result is the presence of knowledge differentials, regardless of topic, methodological, or theoretical variations, study excellence, or other variables and conditions" (1997, p. 240). Evidence from several decades, Gaziano concludes, underscores the enduring character of knowledge gaps and indicates that they transcend topics and research settings.

Gaziano explains the conceptual framework of the knowledge barriers, the critical conceptual issues are the following measurements:

New Communication Technologies

The internet has changed how people engage media. The internet-based media has to be accessed with digital devices and accessed to the internet. In the United States, there is a concern about the digital divide because not all Americans have access to the internet and devices. With the hope that Internet would close the knowledge gap, it has exposed the following inequities: access, motivation and cognitive ability. The following research displays the link between access to internet and socioeconomic status, SES.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Jan. 25-Feb. 8, 2021, Emily Vogels, a research associate focusing on internet and technology, wrote, "More than 30 years after the debut of the World Wide Web, internet use, broadband adoption and smartphone ownership have grown rapidly for all Americans – including those who are less well-off financially. However, the digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different."[10]

"Americans with higher household incomes are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly six-in-ten adults living in households earning $100,000 or more a year (63%) report having home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 23% of those living in lower-income households."[10]

Emily Vogels, continues, "The digital divide has been a central topic in tech circles for decades, with researchers, advocates and policymakers examining this issue. However, this topic has gained special attention during the coronavirus outbreak as much of daily life (such as work and school) moved online, leaving families with lower incomes more likely to face obstacles in navigating this increasing digital environment. For example, in April 2020, 59% of parents with lower incomes who had children in schools that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork."[10]


  1. ^ Baran, Stanley J.; Davis, Dennis K. (2021). Mass communication theory: foundations, ferment, and future (8th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 291–294. ISBN 978-0-19-094277-9.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Tichenor, P.A.; Donohue, G.A.; Olien, C.N. (1970). "Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge". Public Opinion Quarterly. 34 (2): 159–170. doi:10.1086/267786.
  3. ^ "The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults.William S. Gray , Ruth Munroe". American Journal of Sociology. 35 (3): 521–521. 1929. doi:10.1086/215106. ISSN 0002-9602.
  4. ^ Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix (1971). Radio and the printed page. History of broadcasting (Reprint ed.). New York: Arno P. ISBN 978-0-405-03575-3.
  5. ^ Star, Shirley A.; Hughes, Helen MacGill (1950). "Report on an Educational Campaign: The Cincinnati Plan for the United Nations". American Journal of Sociology. 55 (4): 389–400. doi:10.1086/220562. ISSN 0002-9602.
  6. ^ Rosenberry, Jack; Vicker, Lauren A. (2022). Applied mass communication theory: a guide for media practitioners (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 103–106. ISBN 978-0-367-63036-2.
  7. ^ a b Gaziano, Cecilie (1997). "Forecast 2000: Widening Knowledge Gaps". Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 74 (2): 237–264. doi:10.1177/107769909707400202. ISSN 1077-6990 – via EBSCO.
  8. ^ Gaziano, Cecilie (1983). "THE KNOWLEDGE GAP: An Analytical Review of Media Effects". Communication Research. 10 (4): 447–486. doi:10.1177/009365083010004003. ISSN 0093-6502.
  9. ^ Hwang, Yoori; Jeong, Se-Hoon (2009). "Revisiting the Knowledge Gap Hypothesis: A Meta-Analysis of Thirty-Five Years of Research". Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 86 (3): 513–532. doi:10.1177/107769900908600304. ISSN 1077-6990.
  10. ^ a b c Vogels, Emily A. "Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2023-12-13.