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.”