As Press Dies, Say R.I.P. to an Informed Citizenry

Originally posted: March 5, 2009

DePauw University Prof. Jeff McCall

DePauw University Prof. Jeff McCall

Constitutional framer James Madison knew the importance of an informed citizenry. He and his close ally, Thomas Jefferson, also knew it would take a free press to ensure citizens’ access to the information needed for self-governance. The First Amendment provided the framework for that free flow of information. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” Madison said.

Madison would surely be disappointed by what is happening across the press landscape today. News organizations, print and broadcast, are paring back services and laying off reporters. The citizenry is not holding up its end, either. Newspaper readership is down, along with viewership numbers for network television news broadcasts. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed disappointing results about Americans’ awareness of current news. None of this is good for a nation that needs informed citizens to govern themselves.

The Pew study asked citizens 10 multiple-choice questions about recent public affairs matters. The questions were simple. Which party has a majority in Congress? What is Hillary Clinton’s Cabinet position? The average American got only six out of 10 answers correct. Adults 18-29 averaged fewer than five correct.

Young adults today are generally not news consumers, a change from young adults a generation ago. The concern is that non-news consumers today will stay that way. France is addressing this problem by providing a free daily newspaper to each 18-year-old. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier this year, “The habit of reading the press takes hold at a very young age.”

A Pew Research Center study shows television is still the public’s main source for national and international news, but the Internet is now in second place, surpassing newspapers. For young adults, however, the study shows the Internet and television are even.

The Internet, however, for all of its potential as a democratizing source of news, is apparently not fulfilling its promise. The issue, of course, is the content that Internet users actually read and view once they are on the Internet. Internet users might well think they are being enlightened simply because they are on the Net. However, if they are getting their “news” from blogs, social sites or highly partisan outlets, they are not being well-informed.

McCall Book Taking Control-212x321Internet news consumers serve essentially as their own editors, often going only to those sites that serve narrow content or partisan interests. Obviously, people can check out whatever they want, but they need to know they might be engaging in what media theorists call information segregation. It is likely that many people who rely on the Internet for news actually become expertly informed on celebrity gossip, NBA statistics, funny animal videos or conservative/liberal spin.

President Barack Obama helped legitimize the Internet information world by calling on a Huffington Post reporter at his recent news conference, bypassing reporters from many traditional outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

Poor press performance could be contributing to the public’s disinterest in news. A Zogby poll at the end of 2008 reported 73 percent of Americans think news coverage is biased. Three-fourths of Americans think media coverage influenced the presidential election results, a figure that naturally includes many Obama voters. A Harris poll last year reported that two-thirds of Americans think journalism is out of touch with the citizenry.

The television coverage of the financial stimulus plan left Americans grossly underserved. A study by the left-leaning Media Matters watchdog showed only 6 percent of all guests analyzing the stimulus plan on cable and network news interview programs were economists, leaving the debate to partisan hacks and mouthpieces who yelled about the politics of the matter and not the economics.

The right-leaning Media Research Center found the same inept coverage pattern in its analysis of network evening news programs. Only 13 percent of the people interviewed about the economic recovery were economists. Americans deserve more information and less political emotion about a story as important as this. Emotion is easy for television to generate. Informed reporting is more difficult.

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