My book, “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News,” published in 2004, opened with a depressing fact: More people watched the 2003 finale of “American Idol” (38 million) than the second Bush vs. Gore presidential debate (37.6 million). Among young viewers, these numbers were even more lopsided. In all, 24 million votes were cast, mainly by young people, for “American Idol” contestants Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. Even though we know that some of these votes were by minors (and they were allowed to vote multiple times), it is sobering to remember that fewer than six million (22 percent) of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2006 midterm elections; this means that for every one of these young people who voted, four of their peers stayed home.

Fast forward to the 2008 elections, in which 66 million watched the second presidential debate, and even more watched the vice presidential one. Millions of young people participated in the primaries and caucuses—in a greater percentage than seen in decades. In the general election, 18 to 29-year-olds increased their share of the electorate from 17 percent in the past two elections to 18 percent this year. Still, little more than half of all eligible voters under 30 cast ballots in the general election, according to an early estimate by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

There is, of course, a minority of young people—always was and always will be—who use whatever the current medium is to gain a deep knowledge of news and politics. But for too many, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other digital media seem to serve as more of a distraction from civic and political news than as a way to inform.But does this modest upsurge in voting among young people mean that the 30-year widening knowledge gap between them and their elders is being narrowed? Some long-term trends are discouraging:

  • Only around 20 percent of today’s 20-somethings and 30 percent of 30-somethings read a newspaper every day, way down from decades past. Why should we care? Because studies show that the news habit needs to be cultivated early. The 30-something non-news reader is likely to one day become a 50-something non-news reader.
  • Television news viewership is no better: The median viewer age of TV news has risen from 50 to around 60 in the past decade. Although CNN, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and “The Colbert Report” have seen recent upticks in young viewers, long-term trends for television news watching are down.
  • An August 2008 report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found that an engaged minority of Americans are “integrators,” people who use both the Internet and traditional sources to get a lot of their news. But while more and more people are logging onto news Web sites—and sharing what they find with one another—until very recently none of this activity had closed the political knowledge gap. There is, of course, a minority of young people—always was and always will be—who use whatever the current medium is to gain a deep knowledge of news and politics. But for too many, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other digital media seem to serve as more of a distraction from civic and political news than as a way to inform.
  • In “The Age of Indifference,” an important study from the summer of 1990, it was revealed that young Americans from the 1940’s to the 1970’s were nearly as informed as their elders about current events; this knowledge gap began widening in the 1970’s. A decade later, Pew asked Americans if they happen to know the presidential candidate who sponsored campaign finance reform. Only about nine percent of 18-34 year olds knew it was John McCain, far fewer than their elders. A question about Wesley Clark in 2004 showed that young Americans were far less likely than their elders to know that he was a general.

The one exception to these dire numbers is a recent Pew poll published in July that asked respondents to identify McCain and Obama’s stances on abortion and withdrawal from Iraq. For the first time in years, 18-to-29 year olds seemed to know slightly more than their elders about the candidates and these issues. But a closer examination must give us pause. The poll asked whether the candidates are “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” a yes or no question. If respondents were totally devoid of knowledge, we could expect a 50 percent accuracy rate. In the poll, only 52 percent and 45 percent of Americans of all ages knew that, respectively, Obama is pro-choice and McCain is pro-life. A flipped coin would do basically as well as the poll respondents. That young people in one poll marginally beat a flipped coin, and the rest of us didn’t, is no cause for celebration.

Two recent books, Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” and Rick Shenkman’s “Just How Stupid Are We?,” seek to plumb the depths of our dumbness. We do, after all, live in a nation in which many of us believed that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks years after the Bush administration had to pull back from that claim. Still, after conducting research during the past five years—studies that involved speaking with hundreds of young people about their news habits (and lack thereof)—I don’t find that today’s young people are “stupid” or “dumb.” Quite the contrary: I find them to be just as idealistic, thoughtful and intelligent as their parents and grandparents were (and are). And while they’re not dumb, most Americans, particularly those under 40, do have what Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter once called a “thin” citizenship; this means they only follow the outlines of democracy and, in many cases, don’t bother to engage at all. Most young people I talked with during my research couldn’t name even one Supreme Court justice or any of the countries in Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”

The News Habit

A thin citizenship is good for no one. When we don’t pay attention, we fall for slogans and get swayed by lofty rhetoric with little regard for policy differences and voting records. Deep citizenship lets us hold leaders accountable by engaging in a deliberative process that goes deeper.

“The role of the press,” said the late James W. Carey, a journalism professor, when he addressed a journalism educators’ conference in 1978, “is simply to make sure that in the short run we don’t get screwed, and it does this best not by treating us as consumers of news, but by encouraging the conditions of public discourse and life.” Carey argued that cultivating a deep citizenship is part of a journalist’s responsibility. If Carey was indicating that the business part of this equation should not be considered as paramount, it’s important for us to recognize that muscular citizens are good for business, too. Not only do citizens benefit from good journalism, but also journalism gets a boost from having engaged, news-hungry citizens.

There are plenty of things that we, as a society, can do to reverse the 30-year trend. I met with poor, black, middle-school students in New Orleans in 2001 who were all reading The New York Times online. Why? Because their sixth grade teacher made them. As eighth graders, these kids were still getting the e-mail alerts from the Times. After speaking with them, I concluded that if you assign it, they will read it. In other words, kids who are asked to follow the news often keep up the habit on their own.

This experience—and others like it—have convinced me of the value there would be in news organizations and media companies connecting more actively with schools and with students. While many of us worry about journalists who take on such a public role, there is nothing partisan or unseemly, and certainly no conflict of interest, when journalists try to get kids to follow the news.

Colleges can do their part, too. Imagine what a news and civics portion of the SAT would do to engage college-bound students. Or the effect of a single question on the Common Application: “What have you done to effect political change in your community?” There is a group—the Student Voices Project, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School—in which educators, politicians and journalists work together to help students change their communities, and it appears to be effective.

Rebuilding Trust

News organizations can do a lot to improve their product, too, yet most are doing nearly everything wrong. At my former employer, CNN, “Nancy Grace” and “Showbiz Tonight” have been added to the Headline News lineup during the past few years—with a concomitant loss of hard news. When I met CNN President Jonathan Klein at a conference a couple of years ago, I shared with him my view that this kind of programming is a mistake.

I used this example: What if I decided to pander to my students by bringing mixed drinks to class? Most students would object for two reasons: they’d rightly be suspicious of my ability to mix drinks well and, although some would enjoy the party atmosphere, most, I believe, regard my class as a refuge from dorm parties. Similarly, CNN is not a good place for entertainment; for starters, its entertainment isn’t as much fun as “Fear Factor” and “Desperate Housewives” but, more importantly, CNN should be a refuge, a place we turn to for elevated conversation, to become politically informed, and to engage in a process that holds the powerful accountable.

Some find The Daily Show to be an example of how entertainment debases news. But watch it and immediately its flashes of intelligence, its analysis, and its ability and willingness to hold leaders accountable are apparent. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of the more serious and politically engaged news junkies watch The Daily Show; it shares many, though certainly not all, of the best values and practices of journalism.

What I’ve come to understand is that part of why young people don’t follow the news is that many of them no longer trust those bringing the news to them, especially commercial outlets. My research shows this is due to four factors, which conspire to make many young people deeply suspicious of corporate media.

  1. Young people are deeply—and rightly—suspicious of the rising sensationalism in the media.
  2. Attacks from the right have labeled, unfairly, I believe, the mainstream press as being left wing.
  3. Because many on the left criticize the press for its failure to ask tough questions in the months leading up to the Iraq War, a lot of young people don’t realize there were a number of hard-hitting reports and editorials.
  4. Well meaning “media literacy” educators have sought to make young people aware of the dangers of media, in general, without helping them to see the benefits of journalism, in particular.

What is the best antidote to their mistrust?

Perhaps it is coverage like that which happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when journalists pushed back against power. Not surprisingly, they also saw their credibility (and ratings) shoot up. After Anderson Cooper’s role in that coverage, CNN tried to make him more touchy-feely, but then wisely abandoned that tack to push the idea that Cooper and CNN are “holding them accountable” and “keeping them honest.” In my journalism and mass communication classes, I assign hard-hitting journalism—Seymour Hersh’s Abu Ghraib story, Dana Priest and Anne Hull’s Walter Reed investigation, and James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s reporting on domestic spying—and I find my students often are shocked by how important journalism can be.

Despite our present economic difficulties, we live in a hopeful time, with the national zeitgeist certainly more political than it has been in years. Some of my students tell me that their lunchtime conversations are becoming more political, and conversation is certainly part of the solution to lack of civic and political engagement. My research and that of others show that young adults—even schoolchildren—seek out political news when they know that their elders and their peers care about politics. With the blossoming of this youthful interest, now is a perfect time for those who see a need to strengthen the connection between journalism and citizenship to act.

David T.Z. Mindich, a former assignment editor for CNN, is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Saint Michael’s College. Mindich is the author, most recently, of “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News,” published by Oxford University Press in 2004. His articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Wilson Quarterly.

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