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Updating "why Americans under 40 don't follow the news" -- still true?

At the Stony Brook News Literacy gathering this morning, our opening speaker is David T.Z. Mindich, a former New York-based TV news producer who now teaches journalism at St. Michael's College in Vermont. Some five years ago Mindich wrote book, "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News." He's updating his thinking on this challenge for journalism and democracy. Mindich himself is 45.

Mindich opens by noting how close a political system can be to barbarism, noting how quickly Hitler converted a chancellorship into a dictatorship in 1933.

"Democracy matters . . . all of our actions, including our inactions, matter and speak to us. ... What is our ultimate check on power, we the people?"

He talked about a friend who set up a knitting community via Craig's List. She created a community from a virtual one. Knight Ridder, then owner of the San Jose Mercury News, put itself up for sale. McClatchy was interested in buying. But some account suggested Craig's List had cost San Francisco newspapers up to $65 million in one year.

In researching his book, he spoke to news executives as well as young people. He found young people were more tuned out than we realize. "What I also found out is that not enough media executives talked about democracy." On the other hand, he said people at The New York Times he said uniquely did talk about democracy. "The agenda [for them] is that all good newspapers are in the democracy business -- or the democracy protecting business."

Six points

  • Young people more tuned out that realize. One one in five college-age students reads a newspaper. "Your news habits are codified in your early 20s . . . so if you are a 20-year-old non-reader, you are going to be a 40-year-old non reader . . . there is a point where if you don't pick up the news habit, it is too late." The median viewing age of network news is 60; 10 years ago it was 50. Watch the commercials. "It looks like you're opening up the medicine cabinet for an elderly couple." On the other hand, he said, "The Daily Show's median viewing age is 34."

Media and entertain trump news on the web. News knowledge polls tell this story. He cites some examples.

Why does this matter? "when young people don't follow the news closely, the make decisions against their own interests? They make decisions based on patriotism." He asks how many people are against leaving children behind, against clear skies, against American recovery and reinvestment? "We have to make decisions based on facts not hunches. We are giving Obama and his people $700 billion -- we better hold them accountable."

The irony is he thinks youth are as engaged and interested in their world as he was as a child. He doesn't think either youth or the media are too blame for the problem. "Good, important, citizen empowering media happen in every city in America every day."

  • Entertainment is surely a culprit here. About 17-percent of Americans can name three or more Supreme Court justices. Young people can only name one or two. More people can name the Three Stooges. He talks about the predominance of the three networks and Walter Cronkite editorializing that the United States should withdraw troops from Vietnam. No one has a media platform that powerful anymore, said Mindich.

It took more than 150 years after the birth of the printing press for the first newspaper to arise. Facebook is only a few years old. "And the political impact of that is only beginning to become apparent."

This is now a distraction media environment with few shared media experiences, he says.

In the 2008 election, 18-to-29 year-olds modestly increased their participation. A July poll by the Pew Center for the first time in Mindich's memory shows younger respondents more knowledgeable about political current events than their elders. But does the inspiration of youth and their increased level of interest and involvement mean that they are prepared to hold government more accountable? Mindich says the jury is out on that.

Mindich says there is evidence that when students read examples of accountability journalism they are interested and respond. "My students are really energized by that," he says. "I find my students often shocked by how important journalism can be."

  • Journalism can do a better job of reaching young people. One way is to offer more roadmaps. "The web offers a great opportunity to have explainers as sidebars. .... and we should always be thinking about that guy who is entering the newsstream for the first time." He says students like the fact that Jon Stewart doesn't talk down to people. He says that CNN's decision to remove news program and substitute info-tainment doesn't play with his students. "Students are horrified and they are offended by the tone of these shows."
  • The most important changes don't need to be made in the newsroom, but in the classroom. After Katrina, he met with a school which serves at risk black teen-agers. One of the students talked about Donald Rumsfeld and Mindich learned the student was reading the New York Times online. "I thought, why couldn't we transform all the high schools around the country? Why couldn't we offer a civics portion of the SAT?"

Socially engineering good news habits

He asked Brandeis College students and asked why civic engagement has fallen, but kids are volunteering more. And one kid said, "National Honor Society, that's why we volunteer more." Said Mindich: "We can socially engineer good behavior, we can also socially engineer good news habits if we assign it."

"A subset of media literacy is only interested in showing bias. And when we only show bias and corporate and media bias, first of all we end the discussion with journalists." Chomksy calling journalists government stoodges turns off journalists and sends people away from journalism. "This is the key difference between skepticism and cynicism . . . skepticists do a good job of working in our democracy. Cynics don't believe in anything . . . we need to have citizens who stay informed and who paradoxically develop some sort of trust of the watchdogs . . . recent polls have shown that young people are trusting the government in the last 30 years and the military more and more and the press less and less. And when these two lines cross, we're in danger. When we trust the watchdog less than the government, we are in trouble."

James Cary said the purpose of journalism "was to make sure we don't get screwed." Without that check, "readers will do outrageous things everytime" and young people will cede their power to their elders. And he says that is a point that really resonates with young voters. "That kind of gets them a little bit riled up." He says the Daly Show does a good job of holding politicians to the contraditions in their words and deeds, but the show doesn't uncover original facts.

"There is no greater gift we can give to the children of our country other than nurturing good citizens."

Q-and-A session

Mindich notes in an answer to a question that U.S. media does tend to tread readers/users as consumers rather than citizens. "When we think of ourselves as individual consumers, we have much less interest in the news."

Q: What advice should be given to teachers?

A: The New Orleans less is if you assign it (to students) they will read it. Max Frankel, a great New York Times editor, remembers his civics class. "Everyone has an inspirational moment from the their teacher or parent or elder . . . news is about a conversations -- what media do you want to take to the cafeteria table?" Expectations have to be raised. At schools perhaps 10% or 20% of a student population will be interested in the news -- bring them together, he advices. "Bring people together in clubs, so they know they are not following the news in isolation . . . the importance of news and conversation is important."

Q: What are you thoughts about getting into the media where people live -- on MySpace or YouTube.

A: He says a lot of posts going back and forth within Facebook has really taken off. "Newspapers tend to think of themselves as bounded domains . . . the NY Times and Washington Post are not going to highlight each other's reporting . . . each news organization likes to keep you within their network . . . Newstrust tries to take the best of journalism and then send people back to the newspaper."

An idea: The daily Pulitzer

IDEA: His fantasy is a daily Pulitzer, the story of the day that most holds people accountable. "I would read that one story that people in journalism think is the most important story of the day."

Q: What is the hook to get K-12 kids and school districts supporting news criticism and analysis within the classroom? What is the one hook we should be doing at the developmental levels?

A: Striking the right balance is critical, Mindich says. "Even though we are chearleaders of journalism . . . at the same time we have to remain critical as well . . . if students realize that they can use that information to foster communciations, that is useful . . . a lot of young people are really inspired by Obama -- he's got the national attention. . . . we do have an uphill battle with some teachers and parents because that is the demographic that has moved away form the news -- not their kids . . . we have to be aware there is a whole generation that has moved away from the news."