Is public 'Teflon-coated' when it comes to news?
Washington — Do you fancy yourself a knowledgeable newspaper reader or TV watcher? Try this test: 1. Who is Edwin Meese?
2. Who is Charles Wick?
3. How often does the President go to church?
If you have the right answers, you are far better informed than most people. In fact, a phone survey conducted by two university scholars and just published in the magazine Public Opinion arrives at an interesting conclusion: Despite the deluge of information in newspapers and television, public memory of news and world affairs is poor enough to qualify as ''mass amnesia.''
Asked by researchers Michael Jay Robinson and Maura Clancey who Ed Meese was, one-quarter of the 366 adult respondents said they had never heard the name. Another quarter said they could not remember anything about him. Ten percent recalled only that Meese has been named US attorney general.
As for Charles Wick, who had received considerable news coverage at the time of the survey in April, three-quarters of the public had never heard of him. Only 2 percent said anything accurate about him (he is director of the United States Information Agency).
The widely held view that the news media have an indelible impact on the public consciousness seems demolished by the findings. Asked which news event over the past 12 months they remembered the best, the largest percentage - 23 percent - said they could not remember anything. Many recalled events more than a year old. Some 20 percent mentioned nonpolitical events - volcano eruptions, accidents, sports news. Such vivid events as the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner held the same attention in the public memory as the year's weather.
''These numbers reflect a public far less political than politicians or journalists usually assume,'' say the authors, ''and a public possessing an astoundingly short memory.''
This does not mean that Americans are unthinking or unconcerned when it comes to voting and making judgments about public policy. It simply says that the public does not focus on details as do the media.
''The press is more specific-oriented,'' says NicolaFurlan, assistant editor of Public Opinion, which is published by the American Enterprise Institute. ''The public is more like Ronald Reagan, who does not have all the facts at his fingertips.''
''One has to recognize that the essence of democratic politics is not necessarily an informed electorate about day-to-day happenings and political events,'' said researcher Robinson in a telephone interview. ''The process goes on without that, and the country is not the worse for it.''
The survey researchers admit that theirs is a small sampling. But the survey is scientifically accurate, as it correctly profiles the US geographically, racially, and by gender. Educational level is the exception: Ironically, all the respondents had some college education.
''They were slightly more educated than the people at large,'' says Robinson, director of the Media Analysis Project at George Washington University, ''and that means the public at large is even less informed.''
Two fundamental messages are conveyed by the survey, says Robinson.
1. The press should not think it is saving democracy by serving the people's ''right to know.'' The public has a basic lack of concern about Washington politics and major events and, as the authors write, ''enthusiastically exhibited its right not to know.''
2. The press does not set the agenda or control what the public learns.
What of the many polls detailing opinion on everything from arms control to candidates? Be wary of polls, says the survey.
Most pollsters provide a lead-in question to get people to respond. Louis Harris got people to volunteer an opinion about Meese even though they may not have known who he was. Harris asked: ''Agree or disagree: Since federal law says that high officials must report all loans they receive, it looks as though Meese violated the law by not reporting a $15,000 loan from a couple who were close friends, both of whom later got federal jobs paying a combined total of close to
''Polls have to be taken with skepticism,'' comments Miss Furlan. ''You can make a poll say anything you want, and even though you talk of 'public opinion,' people do not necessarily know.''
One purpose of the survey, say the authors, was to gauge the thickness of Reagan's ''Teflon coating,'' the phrase used to describe the President's ability to escape a bad press. The survey found Reagan ''does have a nonstick surface.''
After a flurry of press reports about the President's lack of churchgoing, respondents were asked how often Reagan attends church outside the White House: almost every week, two or three times a month, about once a month, less than once a month? One-third knew the answer - that Reagan goes to church less than once a month. In fact, he had not gone to church since last spring. But 70 percent did not know or refused to answer.
''Reagan had a much better churchgoer image than either the facts or his press coverage could possibly justify,'' write the authors.
But the larger truth, the researchers say, is that ''politics is itself Teflon-coated.'' Whether the news is good or bad, they say, political messages ''usually fall out of public consciousness within a few days or week.''
This should not be cause for distress in the press community, says Robinson. The press has an important watchdog role to play, but less because the public is watching than that the government is watching. ''It's important for the press to be free and have the opportunity to report what it sees,'' he says.