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The Ombudsman Column

'Let's Blame the Readers'

I'm not sure what this column has to do, precisely, with PBS, except perhaps in one way: to help, somehow, to engage more young people in the news of our time and in the duty of citizens in a democracy. That sounds a bit corny as a theme, and of course there are millions of young people out there who are engaged in both. But it may be that there are not nearly enough and that the percentage is in steady decline, especially when it comes to the news.

The headline on this column is in quotes because it first appeared on an article in the Columbia Journalism Review in January 2005, by the magazine's publisher, Evan Cornog. The sub-headline asked: "Is it possible to do great journalism if the public does not care?"

I clipped it at the time and saved it because it seemed to me to go right at an important factor that wasn't being discussed much as newspapers began to grapple with what, even three years ago, was a clear continuing decline in circulation, advertising, profits and prestige. The migration to the Internet — of younger readers, in particular, and classified advertisers — was among the main reasons cited by experts, and the declines were not limited to newspapers. The three major nightly network newscasts were also declining in viewership and ratings. The news organizations probably brought some of this on themselves with too many breaches of journalistic ethics, and a reaction to new ideas, technology and platforms that was too slow. But what about the public; is it part of the problem, too, and, if it is, how can one blame the public?

By now, this decline among major newspapers — which still provide the great bulk of national and international news and drive the nation's news-gathering capacities — is no longer news. It is well known. Aside from the link above, I've posted some paragraphs from Cornog's 2005 article below. But what brought it to mind again were two other more recent articles on the same theme.

One appeared earlier this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was written by Ted Gup, a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post, who has been teaching journalism to university students for many years now. I've also included some excerpts.

The other article is by Dan Kennedy, who teaches at Northeastern University's School of Journalism and who also posts a lively blog called Media Nation.

To me, these three articles, and excerpts, go well beyond the problems of newspapers and network television news. They go to the question of a population, especially younger people, with what seems to be an increasing lack of engagement with current events and without having had the experience of the public school civics classes of earlier times that fostered such engagement. They frequently come out of homes where the newspaper habit had already been broken years ago and seem far more disconnected to foreign and even national news than did their peers of just a generation ago.

Gup's on First

Staring with the most recent piece, here's some of what Professor Gup wrote:

"In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don't know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.

"Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn't pretty.

"As a journalist, professor, and citizen, I find it profoundly discouraging to encounter such ignorance of critical issues. But it would be both unfair and inaccurate to hold those young people accountable for the moral and legal morass we now find ourselves in as a nation. They are earnest, readily educable, and, when informed, impassioned.

"I make it clear to my students that it is not only their right but their duty to arrive at their own conclusions. They are free to defend rendition, waterboarding, or any other aspect of America's post-9/11 armamentarium. But I challenge their right to tune out the world, and I question any system or society that can produce such students and call them educated. I am concerned for the nation when a cohort of students so talented and bright is oblivious to all such matters. If they are failing us, it is because we have failed them.

"Still, it is hard to reconcile the students' lack of knowledge with the notion that they are a part of the celebrated information age, creatures of the Internet who arguably have at their disposal more information than all the preceding generations combined. Despite their BlackBerrys, cellphones, and Wi-Fi, they are, in their own way, as isolated as the remote tribes of New Guinea. They disprove the notion that technology fosters engagement, that connectivity and community are synonymous. I despair to think that this is the generation brought up under the banner of 'No Child Left Behind.' What I see is the specter of an entire generation left behind and left out . . .

"It is time to once again make current events an essential part of the curriculum. Families and schools must instill in students the habit of following what is happening in the world. A global economy will have little use for a country whose people are so self-absorbed that they know nothing of their own nation's present or past, much less the world's. There is a fundamental difference between shouldering the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship — engagement, participation, debate — and merely inhabiting the land."

Kennedy's on Second

In his article last fall, Kennedy focused on a study, titled "Young People and News," that had been published just a few months earlier by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He talked with Tom Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government at the school.

The study, Kennedy wrote, "asked why most young adults — despite spending as much as six hours a day with media of various kinds — are unable, for example, to identify the secretary of state by name. The answer: Despite being saturated with media, young people, when surveyed, evince a notable aversion to news media. For instance, just 16 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 30) read a newspaper every day, compared with 35 percent of those older than 30. Despite the rise of the Internet, young adults are more likely to watch a national newscast (31 percent) or local newscast (36 percent) every day than to read online news (22 percent) — although, again, they're far less likely to watch television news than are older adults. And a whopping 24 percent of young adults 'paid almost no attention to news, whatever the source.'

"If you suspect it's ever been thus, you're wrong. Because, the study notes, in the late 1950s, some 53 percent of Americans in their 20s read newspaper coverage of national politics, a proportion not much lower than that of older adults during that era. A study of television news in 1967 found roughly the same pattern.

"To Patterson, the culprit is obvious: cable television and a concomitant rise in choices. The typical household news habit of a newspaper on the doorstep every morning and Walter Cronkite on television every evening has given way to all entertainment, all the time. 'I think we've broken the link between adult and child, or parent and child, in the transmission of the news habit,' says Patterson. That broken link represents a threat not just to the news media, which are losing readers, viewers, and listeners, but to civic life, the ideal of an informed citizenry, and our ability to govern ourselves."

Cornog's on Third

Now, finally, back to Evan Cornog and some of what he had to say three years ago:

"A new study of the problem by David T. Z. Mindich, a journalism professor at Saint Michael's College in Vermont, provides a devastating survey of the extent of the problem. Ignorance of current events and indifference to the traditional news media are epidemic. And it is not only traditional news media that young people avoid; even the Internet, which some look to as the solution to the problem of a disengaged younger generation, is not being used as a source of news by most younger Americans. In his new book, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, Mindich cites a survey showing that 'only 11% of young people cite the Internet as a major source of news.' Younger Americans know plenty about the things that interest them — they just don't follow the news very closely.

"This was not always so. In 1966 fully 60 percent of college freshmen believed that following politics was important, according to a survey by the University of California at Los Angeles; by 2003 that had fallen to 34 percent. Given the close correlation researchers have found between newspaper reading and active citizenship, the figures are worrisome for both the industry and the nation . . .

"But what if the problem lies not with the newspapers . . . but with the readers? What if the readers have changed? If so, the solution to the problem will lie beyond the power of journalists alone . . . Why don't readers want to see these things? Why are so many people avoiding the hard task of keeping themselves informed about what is going on in their government and society? . . . Why is ignorance so widespread at a time when higher education is more widely pursued than ever before?

"So much of the thinking about this in the world of journalism (including in the pages of this magazine) is done from the perspective of the flaws of journalism as currently practiced. And so it should be, because such flaws abound, from the cutbacks in foreign bureaus to the commercialization of news to the high-profile crimes of a few journalistic fabricators. But perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the founding fathers' hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts."

So . . .

So, there you have it. There is, of course, a lot fuller exploration of these themes in the full articles. But what, if anything, to do about it?

My attraction to this theme grows out of my own experience. As a youngster going to public school in the Bronx in New York City during World War II, we had a "civics" class and talked about current events. You could buy the New York Times in class for 2 or 3 cents a day and take it home. The war was affecting everyone, and there was, of course, a draft. As a 10-year-old, I'm sure I didn't understand much of what was in that paper, but I can still remember that class and the teacher, and the feel of that newspaper in my hand walking home every day; it was part of growing up. I'm grateful for those things.

Today, the Internet presents access to news and knowledge that is limitless, and more recent studies show that greater numbers of young people are using it to access the "news." Yet it is not at all clear that younger people, generally and more broadly, are using it to reach for news of the country and the world. So much of what is on commercial television is not very illuminating, to put it kindly. But the Web is there and television is there and the Public Broadcasting Service has a big presence on both, with lots of smart readers and viewers. So maybe there is a better idea lurking out there, somewhere between all those great programs for little kids and the good stuff us old fogies like.