News You Can Use?

I was pretty exasperated by my undergraduate class this semester: their lack of interest in government, politics and policy was matched only by their inability to write a grammatical sentence. (This is most definitely not typical. Generally, SPEA students are pretty engaged with policy—they are, after all, enrolled in a school of public affairs.)

Although there were exceptions, this semester, my undergraduates were intellectually inert–unaware of current events, unfamiliar with news media (online or off), and generally passive about most of the issues of the day. (The exception, interestingly, was same-sex marriage, for which most of them expressed strong support.)

As the semester went on, I became increasingly frustrated, and as a result I did something I’d never previously done: I added an entirely optional “extra credit” question to the take-home examination.

 During the semester, I have noticed—and expressed concern about—the lack of interest in current events, politics and policy displayed by a significant percentage of this class. Answering only for yourself, what would it take to make you take an interest in public affairs? What would make you a regular reader of media accounts of current events and policy debates? What would it take to engage you in political discussions and activities? (If you are engaged—why?)

Most of the students chose to answer the question (they needed the extra points!), and I was struck by the consistency of their responses. They claimed that they don’t follow the news because they don’t trust the news media.

Over and over, students characterized the current media environment as polarizing and unreliable. They were skeptical of the accuracy of reporting, going so far as to suggest that politically partisan sources don’t simply engage in spin, but actually “make stuff up.”

And they painted with a broad brush—they didn’t distinguish between the more obviously partisan reporting from Fox News and MSNBC and more trustworthy sources like the New York Times or (locally) the IBJ.

One student wrote, “Perhaps, if I knew of a credible source that I could rely on to just report facts, I’d be willing to spend the time to know more.”

Although I would argue that disengagement is the worst possible response to this phenomenon–if, indeed, distrust was what was motivating their indifference– these students aren’t entirely wrong.

Those of us who have followed the efforts of traditional newspapers to survive in an electronic era have bemoaned the loss of much local news coverage, the layoffs of investigative reporters and the replacement of hard news with “soft” human interest and “how-to” features. Fewer and fewer news sources are offering what we used to call “the news of verification.” The explosion of all-news cable channels and the twenty-four-hour “news hole” have encouraged a rush to be first, and damn the accuracy.

A great irony of our current media environment is that while we are awash in information, the credibility of that information has steadily diminished. Students look at the news media—traditional press, bloggers, television news, the constant messages via twitter and Facebook—and they see an undifferentiated mass of propaganda, “infotainment” and sensationalism.

A common advertising come-on for newspapers these days is “news you can use.”

Apparently, what we really need is “news you can trust.”


  1. I see the same thing in my students at the Art Institute. Actually, the fact that I’m over 60, is the only reason I read/listen/watch the news is I still believe I can make a difference, but my sarcasm and distrust run rampant. I take the time to dig into things that hit home. The days of trust in the news anchor do seem to be a thing of the past and we’re up sh_t creek if we have to rely on young people to vote and change things. But even as I write that, I know their are still a few who will make a difference in this world as we pass the torch.

  2. Sheila; I have noticed a couple of friends who strongly supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012, have backed off and are blaming him for all problems by being a weak president. Myself, I am discouraged at the past year especially, due to these media reports which seem to be their views of action or inaction on the part of this administration. He is not all-powerful and is dealing with total obstructionism; he still has my full support and my “audacity of hope” for a showing of bipartisanism. It is a continuation of what I saw during the 2008 and the 2012 presidential campaigns with Democrats being forced into the postion of repeatedly defending what was actually said versus what the GOP reported as truth. It continues unabated today so it is discouraging, especially to the younger generation who make up your students. I do not watch or read political news as faithfully as I have done in the past; no real news being reported and in this current situation that old adage, “no news is good news” is bullshit. “Talking Heads” are abundant on the airwaves and in print. A primary example was in the Star this morning; Pence trying to find a way to do away with personal property taxes on businesses as he prepares for the new pro hockey team, Indianapolis Fuel, to make an appearance and continues his search for the pro cricket team to use the newly constructed cricket field and waste more tax dollars seeking a second Super Bowl here which lost money the first time. Tax payers have no say in any of this till election day rolls around and then they seem to forget the problems caused by the current administration and reelect them. How do we know who to believe? On the national level, look at the problems regarding the ACA. Now Democrats in the Senate may balk at signing the budget agreement passed by the House which has done nothing for two years but vote “NO” on everything of importance that came before them. I’m sure that, as a teacher, it is frustrating trying to get students to think outside the box and to look for more than the obvious placed before them in the media. With the younger generation losing hope for our future; where is our future headed if they do not know who to believe?

  3. Two points. First, while the students may be correct in their observation of the news media, that does not absolve them of the responsibility, as voting-age citizens, to seek out truth and to know and take an interest in what is happening in their country. Their willful ignorance, and that of so many others who gullibly accept what is spoon-fed them by people willing to lie, is a large part of what has brought us to this very distressing period in our country’s history. The students cannot and must not blame others for their lack of motivation.

    Second, your points, Sheila, about the news media are right on. My experience with reporters – as one and as a flack dealing with them – was that, in the old days, most of them wanted to get it right. Only a few were lazy, biased or uninterested in getting as many facts as possible. Then corporate journalism took over and, in its pursuit of profit, fired reporters left and right and, with few exceptions, burdened those who were left with covering so many different kinds of stories that they never sink their teeth into any one beat and had little time to pursue any one story. That led to reporters no longer asking questions that would take more than 15 seconds or words to answer. Perhaps most to your point today, in pursuit of “fair and balanced” stories, reporters allow each side to say what it wants to say and ignore even the most bald-faced lies; they don’t have the time and, perhaps, the institutional knowledge, to challenge. The newspapers or stations may justify it by saying they got both sides, but they have failed their viewers/readers and our country.

  4. Excellent. I will have a discussion about your question with my younger college-aged daughters. Thanks Sheila.

  5. Mary; you are on target about the vast majority of today’s journalists. If you are local and subscribe to the Indianapolis Star you are aware of corporate journalism at it’s worst. Section 1 of the Star (which is sometimes in two sections with consecutive numbering) is a collection of once easy to find and read news issues we must now seek and find. They are mixed in with classified ads and obituaries. On weekends the obituaraies seem to be in the “Things To Do” section which is at least better than months ago when I found them in the Sports Section. If I wanted to subscribe to USA Today, I would certainly do so. I do not consider this a beneficial addition to my local newspaper. Being 76, deaf and disabled I do watch a lot of TV so I pay that extra 25 cents per week for TV News which contains numerous incorrect listings which may or may not be due to their incompetence. For a few months there were no staples in this TV magazine; their reason was that their staple machine was broken. I do clip a few articles – and obituaries being at the age where I read obits daily – so haven’t weaned myself from my addiction to a daily newspaper. We now receive the dregs of journalism in what was once a quality newspaper – locally owned and operated. This is the print media version of those “big box stores” often referred to by many.

  6. Rather than showing apathetic disinterest, I think your students are rationally responding to the commodification of news. “News” is just another widget being marketed and sold, not a vital source of information — and since the product isn’t reliable, they’re not buying it. Seems like a rational consumer response to me.

    Even the “trustworthy” sources you mention — specifically, the New York Times — are mostly getting by on their past reputation, rather than the quality of their recent work. Since 2000, the NYT is the paper of Jayson Blair, Judith Miller’s Iraqi WMDs, and made-up ACORN stories. They closed their environment desk this year, and instead printed more press release quotes from climate change deniers. The NYT, like most of the media, publishes very little about actual policy, instead focusing on political posturing, he said-she said nonsense, and horserace polls.

    This is the reality of the reliable, “trustworthy” NYT for your students, and it’s never been any different for them.

  7. Equating MSNBC with FOX makes absolutely NO sense.
    Fox lives in an alternate universe where up is down and black is white.
    Where our President is not really our president because (fill in the blank)
    to compare that with MSNBC seems odd.
    MSNBS does come from a left leaning point of view
    I recently heard one of the night show hosts say
    (After someone told a nose growing lie)
    “That is demonstrably false”
    On Fox they Foam at the mouth and cheer for lies and falsehoods
    What kind of false equilvalence puts them in the same camp?
    Good lord

  8. “…they didn’t distinguish between the more obviously partisan reporting from Fox News and MSNBC …”

    Patmcc; I read this comment as equating Fox and MSNBC being equal in opposite ends of the spectrum, the far right vs the far left, not that they are the same level or quality news reporting. Neither publishes a middle-ground but go to the extreme in their views.

  9. I am a Baby Boomer. Newspapers back then had their own bias, but I do believe you could depend on them to at least present facts. I have since I first moved here from Chicago in the 70’s felt The Star slanted their reporting to fit their editorial view point. Many times it seemed the Star was simply re-wording Press Releases from the Mayor’s Office or some other source. The Star has been a non-stop cheerleader for Building Stadiums for Billionaires. The Crony-Capitalism that exists in our City is carefully avoided by the reporters.

    Thus I can understand why your Students have lost trust in the Mega-Media. Obama promised Hope and Change, but he was and always has been Corporatist. Even if the Media was straight-up, how do you change the political landscape??? Gerrymandering and the system of Campaign Donations we have had in the past and today all but guarantees a victory for the most well funded candidates. Who has bigger voice Bill Gates, the Waltons, or some other billionaire, or John and Jane Doe??

  10. This is in some ways sad, but also a bit encouraging to know that there’s a level of media literacy that may not have existed a decade or two ago.

  11. I have read newspapers and news magazines all of my life. The older I get, the more cynical I have become. I use Factcheck and other sources a lot. Even when the story is credible, I take the time to verify the facts. Perhaps the most telling TV event that underscores my cynicism was on the last national election night on Fox News when Carl Rove went ballistic when he was told that the data did not support his contentions.
    The local news is so much mush. Real reporting would look into initiatives like the recent move by the Mayor to privatize Indy Parks, to say nothing of the proposal to build a new correctional facility. Just who will be the next political patron of the Mayor to reap the financial benefits of these proposals (all couched in terms of how much they will benefit the taxpayers). Phooey!

  12. I have taught middle school social studies/history for many years and it seems that teaching current events is more difficult today than it was early on in the 1960’s
    I have often thought that the more avenues of news and opinion, the more difficult it is to sort out the differences between the two.
    One hundred years ago, and certainly a half century ago there were far fewer outlets of information; I would posit that today’s students know less about the world — even w/ the Internet, TV, etc. — that the aforementioned students did. There are so many more distractions.
    The one positive is that I have only recently found CNN Student News, a daily ten minute news show that includes hard news and not just on a single program. For example, the Obama Care and Hurricane in the Philippines stories were followed frequently. The information is fast paced and the proof in the pudding is that the kids look forward to watching the news. That’s news!

Comments are closed.