Young and uninformed

I’ve often wondered why watching the nightly news requires sitting through commercials that seem preoccupied with arthritis, incontinence and digestive health. It turns out that the average nightly news viewer’s age hovers right around 60; those complaints—and the need for drugs to address them—come with the territory. The statistics are almost as bad for daily newspapers—the youngest age cohort to read the dailies on a regular basis is the 38- to 45-year-olds. And don’t assume that young people are getting news from the Internet, either; the under-30 crowd regularly uses computers, but not to follow the news.

David T.Z. Mindich, a professor of journalism and mass communications at St. Michael’s College, noticed the lack of general news knowledge when he quizzed his students in a “Media Law and Ethics” class during the first week of January 2001. Because of the media coverage of the disputed election of 2000, he expected to find that these journalism students would be exceptionally savvy and that the quiz mostly would serve to prompt discussion. Instead, he found that, of 23 students, 18 could not identify even one justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Only one could name George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general.

This piqued Mindich’s interest, resulting in a book that tells us just how “tuned out” young people are to general news and then examines why this has happened. The conclusions he comes to are not entirely discouraging: Most young people are as bright as they seem to be. However, they pay attention only to the “news” that seems pertinent to them, and increasingly, that’s sports and entertainment.

Mindich documents a 40-year trend of increasing disinterest in the news, with three exceptions: Young people tend to follow news about the minimum wage, young women tend to follow news about abortion rights, and more than a third of young Americans watch ESPN regularly. But when it comes to political news, the under-30 crowd has a very thin knowledge of the people and issues involved at the national level. It gets even worse with local issues: In my own office, neither of the under-30 staffers I asked could name their city-council representative, which echoes Mindich’s findings.

He’s discovered that young people’s interest in news is directly related to two things: Whether it’s perceived as important by those around them, and how relevant they find it to their lives. One young woman who’d never read the newspaper became a devotee of the daily when she discovered that it was the primary source of conversation in the office where she had her first “real” job. The young employees of a bank in Missouri all follow the news closely, because what happens affects their business. And a group of middle-school students from an impoverished New Orleans school district became unusually conversant in politics, both local and national, when newspaper reading was part of their regular curriculum.

Of course, what we end up with is an uninformed and uninvolved public, and Mindich concludes with ideas about how to get young people interested in the news once more. His suggestions, all interesting, include news for kids, diversifying media ownership (one major complaint from young people is that the media can’t be trusted because they’re corporate—a sign of their intelligence, to be sure) and increased emphasis on civics and government in schools. But the most daring suggestion Mindich makes is to “make politics meaningful again,” which is much easier said than done.

There’s always the chance that current events themselves will reignite young people’s interest in the news. Last time, it was an unpopular, mismanaged war … and a draft.