Citizens Aren’t In the Know for Self-Government

Originally posted: March 3, 2012

by Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.

American patriot James Madison helped frame our Constitution in a way that would empower the citizenry with a flow of information from a free press. He well knew the importance of an informed electorate. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” Madison wrote.

Results from a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, however, would make Madison cringe. The survey shows a disturbing lack of citizen interest in political affairs and an overall decline in the public’s information-gathering efforts. In short, the people are essentially disempowering themselves by failing to acquire the knowledge needed for self-governance. This comes at a particularly bad time, given the 2012 election year, a continuing sluggish economy, impending precedent-setting cases by the Supreme Court, and international instability in places such as Iran and Greece. All of these matters affect Americans’ lives.

The Pew Center results show that the percentage of citizens getting campaign news from traditional sources such as newspapers, network and local television is down significantly. The percentage of people regularly getting campaign news from newspapers is down to 20 percent, an 11-point drop from 2008 and a 20-point drop from 2000. The percentage of people getting election news from evening network television also has dropped, standing at 26 percent, a 19-point decline since 2000. Local television news is also way down as a source for campaign coverage. Cable news also is down, but only two percentage points from four years ago. At 36 percent, cable news is now the top source for campaign coverage.

It has always been assumed that citizens abandoning traditional news sources were instead getting news from the Internet. That was true from 2000 through 2008, but in the last four years, the percentage of people getting political news online has grown only one point to 25 percent, not nearly enough to cover the declines in traditional media. Social networking tools are insignificant as sources for campaign news. The Pew study reports that Facebook and Twitter users “hardly ever or never learn about the campaign or candidates through those sources.”

Young voters are particularly disengaged with news of the political season. Only 20 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 are closely following this election cycle. Just 11 percent of young people are getting campaign information from newspapers, and 12 percent from network news. That’s less than the 15 percent of young adults who report getting their campaign news from late-night comedy shows. For a generation that has grown up with the Internet, surprisingly few young people are getting campaign news online, either. Only 29 percent of 18 to 29 years olds regularly get election news from the Internet, a figure that is less than for Americans ages 30 to 49 and only eight points higher than for citizens 50 to 64.

While it is easy to be disappointed with a citizenry not engaging its news responsibilities, some blame must also go to the news media in charge of providing the knowledge needed for self-governance. The public clearly places little confidence in the media’s ability to fairly and fully present the news. The Pew study found that 37 percent of Americans see a “great deal” of political bias in news coverage, the highest ever in the 23 years of this polling. Another 30 percent say there is “a fair amount” of political bias in the coverage. It is little wonder that Americans find it increasingly hard to consume news coverage they believe is unfair.

There will be an election in November, and the results will stand, whether or not the votes have been cast by knowledgeable citizens. Between now and then, let’s hope the news agenda provided by the journalism industry is one that can help engage and empower citizens to be their own governors. Over-the-top news coverage of singer Whitney Houston and NBA player Jeremy Lin might be easy to execute, but it is not what James Madison had in mind when he wanted a free press to connect citizens with the knowledge needed for self-government.

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