Don’t know, don’t read or view, don’t care – and not all that worried about it

journalism / Article

Gene Policinski is president of the Freedom Forum Institute and has directed its “State of the First Amendment” annual survey for more than 20 years.

A new Knight Foundation study of U.S. high school students and their views on the First Amendment seems to have found a generation of news consumers who aren’t consuming news – a chilling situation in itself for those who support a free press as necessary for a vigorous democracy.

Amid lower levels of news interest generally, the sharpest drops in the survey were in consumption of local news and cable TV: just 14 percent watch local news, compared to 30 percent in 2016; and just 12 percent now watch cable news often compared to 30 percent two years ago.  Even getting news over social media dipped, from 51 percent to 46 percent.

The “bad news about news” continues: The survey finds low levels of trust in news, with 49 percent saying they have “not much” or “not any” trust in the news media to report fairly and accurately.  And just 21 percent were concerned over “fake news” as a threat to democracy though only 20 percent said they are confident they could identify misleading or false information.

The role of journalism as a watchdog on government also took a hit: A growing minority of students (28 percent compared to 21 percent in 2016) believes “journalism keeps leaders from doing their jobs," while the number of people who see journalism as  “keeping leaders from doing things they shouldn’t be doing” dropped from 79 percent to 72 percent. 

I’d stop short of calling this next generation of citizens “news slackers” – in part because the survey findings may not document enough decision-making on the part of the respondents to justify even that term. When only a tiny fraction of a group bothers to view local news, that’s not so much a decision as it is benign neglect of the value of news and information. And to be fair, it’s likely not just their fault – they may be following the habits and views of older friends and family.

The Freedom Forum Institute’s annual “State of the First Amendment” surveys, conducted of adult respondents since 1997, also show eroding confidence that the news media can report without bias. That confidence rating in 2018 went up slightly, but with indications that it was more due to consumers using mainly those media outlets that appeal to their own points of view (conservatives to Fox, progressives to MSNBC) than a general restoration of trust in news media overall.

Dislike of the news media by political figures and others is nothing new, but the unrelenting 24/7 attacks of recent years on journalists as well as journalism would seem most likely to raise doubts among those with the least exposure to the news media – whether by choice or simply by virtue of age.

The response to the Knight findings must be varied and immediate:

  • More education about the role of a free press in a democracy.
  • Better instruction on how to identify and reject false and misleading news.
  • A concerted social effort to reintroduce to younger citizens the concept that news consumption is vital to an engaged citizen, particularly as they prepare to take on the role of self-governance.

A terrible irony in the findings in the Knight results is that previous surveys show that respect and trust in the news media goes up with regular contact and exposure.  Yet, even in an era when potential exposure to more news is possible ever in the history of humanity, this younger group is consuming less.

We were guaranteed a free press by our nation’s founders in the hope that it would be there in future years to speak and question and educate on behalf of all of us. We cannot let that incredible guarantee slip away and become meaningless because a future generation simply wasn’t taught, or care enough to learn, why to preserve and value it.

Image (top): Courtesy of rawpixel.com

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