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Young people abandon news at their peril

When the 'Daily Show' becomes the primary source of news

Jon Stewart, host of the "Daily Show."

So many people --particularly young people -- tell me they now get most of their news from Comedy Central’s "Daily Show," I decided to record it for analysis.

Jon Stewart is a brilliant comic. Watching his show I learned more about national stories like the confirmation hearings for John Bolton, the Bush administration’s proposed United Nations ambassador, than I read on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

But the "Daily Show" makes no pretense of being real news. It skims the events of the day for the comic or ironic. It pokes fun at journalism’s hallowed conventions of accuracy, objectivity and fairness. And while you may learn something about national and international events, it doesn’t cover the Bay Area.

What does it say about journalism when intelligent people claim a program that prides itself as “fake news” is their primary source of information about current events?

Turning away from real news makes no sense. Not for those interested in democracy’s promise of self-government, certainly. Not even for those seeking more entertaining alternatives to news.

It defies economic logic.

John McManus

When a product becomes more useful, more available and cheaper, you would expect its popularity to soar. It happened with automobiles, television, computers and cell phones.

But oddly, not journalism. News has never been so valuable, so accessible and so inexpensive. Yet study after study shows Americans under the age of 40 have never valued it less.

News is about change

The purpose of journalism is to help people make sense of change. Driven by technology, the world around us has never changed so rapidly.

A hundred years ago, if you knew little about the world you got along fine. Then, what labor was paid in China didn’t affect workers in California. Only the most cataclysmic distant events mattered at home.

Today ignorance of world affairs can take food off your table as corporations hire globally and fire locally. What’s being discussed by militants half a world away today may take more than your job tomorrow. The radius of news that matters now spans the planet. Distance is obsolete.

The reach of government has also expanded from 100 years ago, making political news more valuable. Government decisions now affect almost every aspect of life – from the quality of air and water to schools, transportation, job availability, public safety, even spotted owls.

More news available

Technology has also exponentially increased the volume of news available. On cable, satellite, and the Web, a world of news outlets has bloomed – from main stream media to bloggers -- almost all offering information for free.

Yet polls, circulation numbers and Nielsen ratings show unmistakably that Americans under 40 are following current events less than their parents. Even less than their parents and grandparents did when they were young.

Eighteen to 24-year-olds may be the Internet Generation, but a recent poll found only 11 percent use the ‘net to learn of current events. Not surprisingly, other polls show those under 40 know less and care less about politics.

A democracy, more than other forms of government, is a continuous contest for power among many constituencies. Nearly everything not nailed down by the Constitution is up for grabs.

Groups that don’t know what’s going on are sure losers in our system.

Young people at risk

The effects of youthful disengagement from news may already be evident. Arguably, young people are the least likely to benefit from the Bush administration’s policies.

• The burdens of war always fall hardest on the young, who risk life, limb and psyche.

• The proposed privatization of Social Security won’t change the system for those about to retire, but it raises risks for younger workers.

• The Medicare drug benefit is aimed at the elderly. The federal health program helping the most young people is Medicaid. The administration proposes to cut billions from its budget.

• And the growing federal budget deficit is shifting debt from current to future tax-payers.

Madison's warning

When you abandon the news, you don’t lose your vote. But you may lose its effectiveness.

Unaware of their records and policies, you may elect politicians indifferent or hostile to your interests. And when people organize to promote their agenda before school boards, city councils, county supervisors, state legislatures and congress, your place at democracy’s table will be taken by someone else.

Almost 200 years ago, James Madison warned that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

In the information age, Madison’s words ring truer still.

My source for the claim that Americans under 40 are turning away from news comes from a very accessible new book by David T.Z. Mindich, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Prof. Mindich not only documents youthful apathy about news, but addresses what it means to democracy and what might be done about it. I highly recommend it!

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
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Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
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