By Jeffrey M. McCall
Audiences for both print and broadcast news have been decreasing for a number of years, and the trends suggest further shrinkage in the years ahead. This lack of civic information is dangerous for a nation founded on the notion that power rests within the citizenry. People who don’t follow current events are less informed at election time. They are also less able to provide the societal dialogue and political pressure that needs to happen between election cycles.
Assessing why audiences are increasingly unwilling to stay informed is a challenge. Perhaps the news is so dismal that people just don’t want to hear it. News of terrorism, international strife, Congressional bickering and police actions hardly make news consumption an enjoyable pursuit. Other portions of the “news” are so dumbed down that perhaps viewers just won’t waste their time on it. Puffy morning network news broadcasts have breaking reports about their prime-time entertainment shows. Local television news often features YouTube videos, furry animal stories and celebrity Twitter posts. Whatever the reasons, Americans consume less news and are less informed about current events than they should be in a self-governing society.
The lack of interest in news today is most pronounced in younger Americans. A recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that Millennials (ages 18-31) consume only about half as much news as persons aged 48 and over. Gen Xers (ages 33-47) do better, but still lag behind older news consumers. Most disturbing, however, is the finding that Millennials and Gen Xers are not consuming more news as they age, thus destroying the theory that simply growing up would help those generations become more news literate. The typical news-consuming American qualifies for Social Security. The median age of the major network 6:30 p.m. newscasts is now 63.
The lack of news consumption, as you’d expect, results in less awareness of current news events. The Pew News IQ surveys consistently show that younger demographics can answer fewer questions about current happenings. It hasn’t always been like that. Studies from the 1960s and ’70s show that baby boomers followed news as closely as did older Americans at that time.
Young adults are awash in mobile, digital technology that gives them instant access to the world’s database, yet they fail to use it to inform themselves about news reports that will affect their lives now and for years to come. Only 8 percent of Millennials report using their iPhones or iPads to access newspapers.
Millennials spend countless hours on social networking sites such as Facebook, but those sites do little to enhance news awareness. A recent study by the Pew Journalism Project showed less than half of Facebook users ever get news during their time on the site, and most of that is by accident when they are online for other purposes. Worse yet, the most common “news” absorbed while on Facebook is news of the entertainment industry.
A serious danger is that many young adults may think they are in the know simply because they spend so much time in the digital universe. But being connected online hardly guarantees news literacy. Social networking, trolling for YouTube videos and checking out NFL Fantasy team stats hardly prepares a person to engage in today’s political, economic and cultural dialogues.
This generational news gap just can’t be good for our nation. Author David Mindich raised his concerns about an uninformed young adult population in his book, “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.” He wrote, “As young people begin to assume leadership roles in society, their stewardship may be uninformed by news.” He went on to say, “If this trend continues, the very potency of our democracy will be in jeopardy.”
Indeed, the American system of self-governance relies on a citizenry that is aware of the day’s important issues. That’s why the Constitutional framers created a free press system that would allow for the free flow of information.
News literacy must become a priority at the nation’s high schools and colleges. Every educational institution should ensure that students understand the role of news in their lives. Schools must prioritize news literacy as a vital curricular component, just like science, math and English. An uninformed nation becomes a threat to itself.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall.