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Turning off the news

Turning off the news
By Eric Black

Good Monday morning Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth (and appropriate Martin Luther Kingly wishes to all),

There’s a temptation among the news-obsessed (like you and me) to feel a little superior to those who don’t devote much time to keeping up on those topics that newsies follow. And, cynicism and misanthropy aside, I still cling (more sentimentally than rationally) to the old model of the informed electorate as the backbone of democracy. But we’re kidding ourselves.

(Every couple of years I dredge the anecdote of poll story I wrote in 1998 in which the Strib’s Minnesota Poll asked people to name their two U.S. Senators — Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams at the time. Twenty percent of Minnesotans — Minnesotans for criminy sakes — could name them both.)

But there’s a goodly body of evidence that the problem is getting worse, and that fewer Americans know the basic stuff of the news than was true a generation ago. Television, then cable news, and now the internet — all of which have the capability to disseminate news and information more widely than ever before — have all contributed to making it worse.

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All of which is just to introduce an excerpt from the piece by Princeton Prof. Paul Starr In the current Atlantic. Starr, among his specialties, has paid a lot of attention to journalism history and he traces it in this excellent short essay:

“From the founding era to the late 20th century, the news in America enjoyed an expanding public. In the 1800s, postal policies and advances in printing technology cut the price of the printed word and, together with wider access to education, enabled more Americans to read newspapers and become civically literate. In the 20th century, radio, newsreels at the movies, and television extended the reach of the news even farther.

It was only reasonable to assume, then, that the digital revolution would repeat the same pattern, and in some respects it has; online news is plentiful and (mostly) free. But a basic rule of communication is that abundance brings scarcity: an abundance of media creates a scarcity of attention. So although journalists and politicians have new ways to reach the public, the public has acquired even more ways to ignore them. Politics and other news are at our fingertips, but a lot of us don’t want to go there. Between 1998 and 2008, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who say they don’t get the news in any medium on an average day rose from 14 percent to 19 percent—and from 25 percent to 34 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds. And 2008 was a year when interest in the news should have been relatively high.”

The Starr essay, titled “Governing in the Age of Fox News,” is about many things in addition to the gloomy data above, but it was the paragraph that hit me hardest.

Anything you can do to convince a young person to get the lifetime habit of caring about what’s going on in their community, their country and their world, will be much appreciated.