Ten years ago, David Buckingham, professor of education and media, wrote that “young people today are postmodern citizens – cynical, distracted, no longer possessed of the civic virtues and responsibilities of older generations.”
This fact is reinforced in conversation with anyone in my demographic, ages 18 to 24. Constituents apathetic without even caring, who willingly admit to grabbing a paper for the sudoku. The thought makes me shudder as a columnist, news addict and an unrelenting hater of anything math-related, but even I can identify with the sentiment of 20-something news apathy. I don’t want to read sports coverage, I don’t know how the United-Continental merger affects me, I don’t want to read about finance, and God help me if I read about Tiger Woods ever again.
In the introduction to his book “The Making of Citizens: Young People, News and Politics,” Buckingham goes on to say that journalism is “the victim of its own conservatism” when it comes to informing young people, for whom “the personal has become political, the private has become the public, entertainment has become education.” Hard to justify, yes, but perhaps not all our own fault: We’re products of our environment and the manic, info-hungry society we live in.
Stories that interest, inform and apply to me are hard to find. Even if I do find them, I am often turned off by news writing itself, which is usually totally dehumanized by the time it is published, a robotic and uninteresting rendition of something that happened.
Journalism school has taught me that the press – defined as print, online and broadcast news media – is supposed to inform citizens, act as a watchdog for the government and other institutions, provide people a voice and a forum in which to use it and connect with others. But everybody doesn’t use the forum as much as they should (as evidenced by the many news stories that go without comment).
The economic crisis was a prime example of how the American press often fails to efficiently inform us. People flocked to the media for information, but the vast majority of news coverage failed to paint a clear picture for the common citizen as it bombarded readers with “credit default swaps” and “mortgage-backed securities.” Americans knew there was an economic crisis, but many didn’t know how it happened or how it would affect them.
Gayle Golden, professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, says the burden is largely on the consumer to stay informed. She says, “The bottom line is, there are tools for smart readers to find news information that is relevant to their lives.” One such tool she mentions is Google Reader, a media aggregator that consolidates frequently visited websites and tracks updates to make news and media searching more organized and enjoyable.
The key, Golden says, is using a variety of sources, not just “letting them all pour in,” and resisting the urge to engage with (and therefore contribute to) “infotainment.” “How smart can you choose to be about what goes viral?” Golden asks. “Lindsay Lohan, or real information?” Golden also notes that person-to-person connection is an important part of news consumption in the effort to find and support meaningful, enlightening reporting.
So the tools are out there for those who seek them. But I’m willing to say that the news itself should be more compelling and informative for the apathetic, casual or, on a good day, the slightly motivated citizen. In a world so full of events and implications, we shouldn’t have to convince ourselves to care.
There are many ways to discuss news and participate in the news forum, including meaningful online commenting (if it doesn’t digress into snarky finger-pointing and bashing). One relevant section of many newspapers is underutilized by readers, and that is the forum itself – the op-ed section. An active one keeps the rest of the news in check, publishing reader’s responses and opinions as well as columns and editorials (which are like blogs, except in print form and with journalistic accountability and convention).
One organization that succeeded to connect with citizens during the crisis was National Public Radio. In October 2008, the creators of popular NPR broadcast “This American Life” put together a show that explained, in plain terms, the complicated economical structures that govern our country and how that structure weakened. Golden says this program, titled “Another Depressing Show about the Economy,” is “absolutely an example of what the media can and should be doing.” The initial broadcast has grown into a frequent podcast called “Planet Money,” which seeks to report about economic matters “in terms the average American starts to understand.”
What about compelling news stories that go unwritten? Spot.Us, a nonprofit media project based in San Francisco, works to solve this problem by involving the public in story pitching and support. The site’s creator, Dave Cohn, is looking at Minneapolis as a possible next expansion point.
But to make news that is captivating and runs the highest chance of snaring an apathetic reader, one needs the inherent ability to tell a story. Golden says that “curiosity, critical thinking, clarity of thinking, taking the time to understand the tough topics” are necessary characteristics of those who wish to cut through modern-day news apathy.
As it turns out, these same qualities define an informed citizen, to a lesser degree. We may not all be journalists, but we all have a need for good and relevant information, and perhaps we all need to do a little reporting.
Jenna Beyer welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.