Winter 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA6

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Putting Extension Information Where People Will Find It

Where do people look for and find information?

Diana Pounds
Communications Specialist
Extension Information
Iowa Stae University - Ames

When people need to find information, where do they go? In some cases, the answer seems obvious. If they want to know what to do about a sore throat, they ask a doctor. If they want to know where the snarls are in the rush hour traffic, they listen to the radio. If they want to know their horoscopes for the day, they read the newspaper.

However, it's not always so obvious where people seek information. Where do homeowners go to find out how to insulate their homes? Where do parents go for advice on living with teenagers? Where do families seek help in setting up budgets? Answers to these kinds of questions could help Extension communicators do a better job of getting Extension information to the people who need it.

For example, if Extension communicators discover most people take their child-raising questions to doctors, they might try getting free Extension publications about child raising into doctors' waiting rooms. If they find most parents look to magazines for child-rearing advice, they might try writing more magazine articles.

Knowing where people look for information is only half the battle for Extension communicators. Knowing where people find information is the other half. Often, Extension communicators want to get information to those who aren't necessarily looking for it. It may not have occurred to some homeowners that their homes need insulation. And many parents may not feel the need for help in handling their teenagers.

Yet, if homeowners happen on a newspaper story that tells the benefits of insulating their houses, they may read with interest. And if parents turning the TV dial discover a talk show on communicating with teens, they may stay tuned. Extension communicators face two audiences-those actively looking for information and those who would be interested in information even though they aren't really looking for it.

Research indicates people use different sources, depending on the kind of information they're seeking.1 For example, in a 1965 Extension-sponsored survey in Michigan, people identified bankers, brokers, and finance companies as their most important sources of financial information; books and pamphlets as their most important sources of occupational or professional information; and the mass media as their most important sources of consumer information.2

Also, people actively seeking information will use different sources than those who simply discover information.3 Homeowners seeking insulation information probably will get that information from a different source than homeowners who simply stumble on information about insulating.

Iowa Study

In a survey sponsored by Iowa State University Extension and an Iowa State graduate journalism class, Iowans were asked where they would go if they needed certain kinds of information. The Iowans also were asked whether they'd recently found those same kinds of information in various media.

Questionnaires were mailed to 600 Iowans, selected in a two-stage, stratified, random sample. In the first stage, all 99 counties were stratified into 3 groups-urban, rural, and rural/urban mixed counties. Two counties were drawn from each group in a random sample.4

A total of 100 residents were chosen from each county in a systematic random sample of telephone books. Questionnaires and business reply envelopes were mailed to the 600 in the sample in March, 1984. Of the 600 mailings, 339 usable questionnaires were returned-57% of the sample.

The survey focused on these five kinds of information: family nutrition, personal and family relationships, home energy conservation, managing family and personal finances, and child raising.

First, respondents were asked to select two sources they'd use if they needed to solve a problem about each of the five topics. Next, respondents were asked if they'd recently discovered information on the five topics in various media. No mention was made of Extension in these questions. The intent of the survey was to discover where people find any kind of information relating to the five topics-not simply Extension information.


Table 1 shows how people responded to the questions about where they'd seek different types of information. "Professionals or businesses" were the most popular sources for all five types of information. Professionals or business sources received 29% for nutrition information, 29% for personal relations, 42% for energy conservation, 44% for family finances, and 37% for child raising.

Table 1. Where people seek information.
Nutrition   Personal

Pros/businesses 29%   Pros/businesses 29%   Pros/businesses 42%
Extension 17   Friends 28   Extension 18
Friends 13   Other 10   Magazines 10
Magazines 13   Magazines 9   Library 9
Library 12   Library 8   Friends 7
Leaflets 5   Television 4   Leaflets 5
Television 4   Newspapers 4   Newspapers 4
Newspapers 4   Extension 3   Television 3
Radio 2   Leaflets 3   Radio 1
Other 1   Radio 2   Other 1
Responsesa 658   Responsesa 550   Responsesa 674

Pros/businesses 44%   Pros/businesses 37%  
Friends 18   Friends 26  
Magazines 7   Magazines 11  
Library 7   Library 10  
Extension 6   Extension 5  
Newspapers 5   Other 3  
Leaflets 5   Television 3  
Other 4   Leaflets 2  
Television 3   Newspapers 2  
Radio 1   Radio 1  
aThese are total responses - not responents. Each respondent was asked to select two sources for each kind of information.

The county Extension office was the secondmost-popular source for information about nutrition or energy conservation. The second-most-popular source for the other three types of information was friends, while Extension ranked low.

The mass media weren't popular sources for those seeking information about any topics. However, when people were asked if they'd found any of the five kinds of information in mass media, results were different. Table 2 shows the percentage of respondents reporting finding different types of information in various media.

Table 2. Where people found information within the past month.
  Nutrition Personal

Newspapers   81% 66% 75% 68% 64%
Magazines   76 63 64 54 66
Radio   48 33 49 38 27
Television   67 57 66 55 59
Leaflets   37 22 37 28 20
Respondents   272 267 285 267 222

Newspapers were the most impressive source. The percentage of respondents who reported finding information in newspapers within the past month included 81 % nutrition information, 66% personal relations, 75% energy conservation, 68% family finances, and 64% child raising.

High percentages of respondents also reported finding information in magazines and on television. Even radio and leaflets, the least-used sources, still proved useful for disseminating information on the five topics. Nearly 50% of respondents reported hearing nutrition and energy conservation information on the radio within the past month. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had found nutrition information and energy conservation information in leaflets during the past month.


The popularity of professionals and businesses as sources suggests the need for Extension people to continue to seek ways to get Extension information to professionals. Examples of recent Iowa Extension efforts to distribute information through professionals include:

  • A "Nutrition Concerns and Controversies" home study course used by such professionals as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists.
  • A "Getting Organized: Personal and Financial Records" booklet promoted through displays in local banks throughout the state.
  • Energy-efficient home building workshops for home builders, designers, and architects.
  • A "Family Daycare Exchange" newsletter series sent to family daycare home providers.
  • A "Pregnancy Countdown" newsletter series promoted through doctors' offices.

The poor showing of mass media sources for people seeking information might be expected. Respondents were asked where they'd go if they needed to solve a particular problem. The chances of finding a specific bit of information in a newspaper or magazine, or on television or radio, on a given day are slim. However, even if they aren't necessarily looking to the mass media for specific information, that doesn't mean people aren't finding information about nutrition, personal relations, energy conservation, finances, and child raising in the media.

Results show people do pick up considerable amounts of information on these topics from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, newsletters, and leaflets. People are accustomed to finding information in these media. That makes these media valuable outlets for Extension information.


  1. Peter Clarke and Lee Ruggels, "Preferences Among News Media for Coverage of Public Affairs," Journalism Quarterly, XLVII (Autumn, 1970), 464-71.
  2. Jon H. Rieger and Robert C. Anderson, "Information Source and Need Hierarchies of an Adult Population in Five Michigan Counties," Adult Education Journal, XVIII (1968), 155-75.
  3. Peter Clarke and F. Gerald Kline, "Media Effects Reconsidered: Some New Strategies for Communication Research," Communication Research, I (1974), 222-40.
  4. Urban counties were defined as those in which at least 50% of the residents live in urban areas. Rural counties were those in which 25% or less of the residents live in urban areas. Rural/urban counties were those in which 26% to 49% of the residents IN in urban areas. The six counties selected were Chick asaw, Adams, Ida, Marion, Linn, and Kossuth.