It seems like a contradiction. People in their late teens and early 20’s have grown up in what amounts to a media marinade. From reality shows to video games, iPods to instant messaging, talk radio to MTV, they are practiced multitaskers. They surf the Web while listening to music downloads and cell phone their friends while thumbing e-mails on their BlackBerries. Yet when it comes to journalism—to the news media—they know very little and are not as savvy about technology as we might think. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to based on seven years teaching an admittedly unscientific sample of undergraduates at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.

Duke doesn’t have a journalism school. What we offer is a journalism certificate, which is the rough equivalent of a minor without the academic discomfort it would cause to actually call it that. I teach the core course for the program—a seminar in media ethics, which all certificate aspirants must take—as well as three electives: one focused on investigative reporting, one on media ownership, and one on journalism’s effect on public policy. The students run the gamut. Some are liberal arts majors hell-bent on pursuing journalism careers. Others are premed, prelaw, or engineering students who are simply curious about the media.

What they have in common, with some exceptions, is a profound lack of knowledge about who journalists are, the conventions under which we operate, and even what constitutes “news.” This doesn’t mean they are lazy or stupid. On the contrary. Most come from the nation’s top public and private high schools; they are whip-smart, hardworking and eager to learn. But they didn’t grow up, as most of us did, in homes where reading newspapers and news magazines, or watching nightly newscasts, was routine. The whole notion of “gatekeeper,” at least as mainstream journalists understand the term, is foreign to them. And why shouldn’t it be? The world they’ve inhabited since the moment they became conscious has always had multiple cable channels, many featuring partisans screaming at each other, and an infinite array of Web sites. Separating fact from opinion and balance from bias in such a swirling stew is daunting even for those of us who are journalists, so I’m sympathetic with young people who have a tough time divining the truth.

That said, it’s been edifying—and occasionally horrifying—to find out where my students get their news, who they think meets the definition of “journalist,” and what the mission of journalism is. Last semester, at the first class meeting, I gave students a questionnaire calculated to tell me what they know, so I could adjust my teaching accordingly. The survey asked them to list their four main sources of news and then gave them an array of names and job descriptions and asked them to check those they considered to be “journalists.” I used the same method to find out what they considered “news” and how they defined the mission of journalism.

Here is some of what I learned from their responses:

  • Virtually all of the students’ news sources were Web sites—cnn.com was the top pick by far, followed by msnbc.com, nytimes.com, and espn.com—with the occasional mention of a print outlet such as Newsweek or The Economist. The good news here is that almost without exception, the students chose a nutritious diet of mainstream sources; they just preferred to get them on the Web.

  • The “Who’s a journalist?” question produced more confounding results. A large percentage of the class said that Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, and the President’s press secretary are journalists, while a few said that Rush Limbaugh and columnists for The New York Times weren’t worthy of the title because “they’re just giving you their opinion.” Several insisted that a network anchor was not a journalist (“Anchors just read the news, they don’t report,” said one), while a startling majority scribbled question marks around the term “blogger.” (Some didn’t know what a blogger was; others knew but had never read one, so didn’t feel qualified to judge.) So much for the blogosphere as province of the young! (They had no idea what RSS or podcasting is, either.)

  • As for what constitutes “news,” the students unanimously agreed that a story about a car bombing in Baghdad would make the cut, but they were less certain about movie reviews, stock tables, and politically liberal or conservative opinion columns. Oddly enough, almost everyone said that an obituary of a locally prominent citizen was not news—a misapprehension I was able to correct the following week when a former Duke president died and the student newspaper carried the obituary on the front page.

  • As for the mission of journalism, the responses were all over the map and often contradictory. Many said our goal is to make money, to please the stockholders of the owning company, to promote that company’s products and services, and to beat the competition. At the same time, most agreed that news organizations should “report truthfully about community, national and world affairs,” “please readers and viewers” rather than advertisers, and challenge people’s views and assumptions rather than reflect them.

What stumped students most was journalism’s public function. They seemed comfortable thinking of the news media as corporate and private, yet surprisingly uncertain about its proper role in a democracy. Many said it wasn’t journalism’s mission to help citizens make informed choices in the voting booth or to spur them to political or social action. And many fewer than I would have liked said it wasn’t the responsibility of journalism to serve as a watchdog or a check on those in power. As it turned out, these views were based not on any conviction about the news media, but almost entirely on ignorance of what the press is, how it works, and what it does.

Students also haven’t figured out how to square the high-minded stuff they learned in high school about the press and the First Amendment (to the extent they were taught it at all) with what they experience in the culture: 24/7 coverage of the latest murder trial or celebrity hookup; high profile cases of journalistic error (Dan Rather and “60 Minutes II”) or malfeasance (Jayson Blair), and an administration that, together with its fellow travelers, some of whom call themselves journalists, has mounted a largely successful effort to portray the mainstream press as politically biased, untrustworthy and—even worse—beside the point.

Discovering Newspapers

In all my courses, I require students to subscribe to and read The New York Times—the ink-on-paper version, although they’re welcome to browse the Web site for updates and breaking news. For many, it is the first time they have read a newspaper on a regular basis. Using the Times as our common text, students learn about journalistic conventions such as the wall between editorial and advertising, objectivity, the difference between editorials and news, and the use of anonymous sources. At the end of the semester, most students say they’ve become addicted to the news and are much more analytical (and skeptical) about what they read and see and hear. Recent grads report, to their shock, that they’ve become faithful newspaper subscribers.

If mere exposure to newspapers could make readers out of every 18- to 34-year old, the market for Maalox at major news organizations would completely dry up, which is not the case. The take-home point is that exposure can make a difference, provided young people also have their hands held as they are walked through it. By comparison, my students were indifferent to blogs. During the fall semester of 2004, in the run-up to the presidential election, I made each student follow a political or journalism blog of his or her choice and post on the class Web site a weekly analysis of what was being said. Some students picked the blogs of the candidates or the candidates’ supporters; others chose high-hit favorites such as the Daily Kos, Wonkette and andrewsullivan.com. They liked the exercise—one said adopting a blog was like adopting a pet rock—but they weren’t impressed with what they found there, which they variously described as invective, bias, hype, spin, gossip and propaganda. (“I just don’t trust them,” said one.)

What kind of news product would young people create if they were given free rein? Last spring I divided my media ownership class into three teams and assigned each to come up with its own “dream newspaper.” What they proposed might hold lessons for print news outlets struggling to retain readers. Each one envisioned a strong Web presence in addition to the print edition. One suggested outfitting subscribers with a “news box,” not unlike AOL’s instant message box, that would stay on users’ computer screens while they were connected to the Internet, providing updated headlines in real time and making the paper a sort of online buddy. Another invited junior high and high school students to contribute blogs to the paper’s Web site as a way of building links to the community and nurturing news interest in the young. Yet another permitted readers to receive the paper in PDF format and to choose the order and composition of the online sections, turning readers into their own personal layout editors.

The students wanted slightly shorter stories, more sidebars, photos and graphics, and slightly more entertainment, but they also rejected the “news lite” model of youth-oriented papers such as the Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye edition. Their message seemed to be: We prefer our news online, interactive, downloadable and e-mailable to an array of hand-held devices. In short, every way that cutting edge technology allows.

But these same students were also surprisingly traditional when it came to the meat-and-potatoes of journalism. They insisted that their dream newspapers aim for objectivity, balance and fairness; avoid conflicts of interest; refuse to pander to advertisers, and support tough investigative reporting. And, of course, make money. (Hey, I said it was a dream, didn’t I?)

Of course, they had to learn about journalism basics to embrace them but, once they were informed, they did—with gusto. Now, that’s news

Susan Tifft, a former Time associate editor, is the Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism & public policy at Duke University.

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