The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated October 8, 2004


Dude, Where's Your Newspaper?


It's early fall, and the cycle has begun anew. We professors have wrapped up our research projects or have put them away half-wrapped. We've updated our syllabi and bought dry-erase markers and corduroy. And we have received the annual "Mind-Set List" from Beloit College about how young our students are -- the one reminding us that, because they were born in 1986 or thereabouts, our incoming freshmen can't remember Reagan or typewriters or vinyl records. In fact, they probably don't remember a president before Clinton.

This fact of their youth may be amusing, much in the same way some of my professors must have marveled that I couldn't remember a president before Lyndon B. Johnson. But a more pertinent message would not address their youth or their optimism or how they continue to keep us young with their breathless idealism. Rather, it would explain how the political contract of today's college students -- the idea that with their political rights comes the responsibility to stay informed and engaged -- has so radically changed.

In 1972, half of all college-age eligible voters participated in the presidential election; in 2000, only 32 percent did so. The decline in voting in midterm elections is equally frightening: In 1974, 24 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted; in 2002, that turnout was only 17 percent. Put another way, the 2002 figure means that for every young person who voted, five stayed home.

Significantly, the declines in voting parallel the declines in news readership, and the two may very well be mutually reinforcing. In 1972, 46 percent of college-age Americans read a newspaper every day. Today it's only 21 percent, according to research by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research's General Social Survey. Meanwhile, during the past 10 years, the median viewer age of CNN and network-TV news has risen from about 50 to about 60 years.

While many point to new media as the best hope for rekindling interest in news, only 11 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds list news as a major reason for logging on. The Internet is a great source of news for some, but for most it is a great way of avoiding the news, to be used for e-mail, instant messages, and other personal information. If you don't believe me, wander into a computer lab on the campus and check out what's flickering on the screens.

However, statistics show that the trouble often begins at home. Many of your students are unlikely to have discussed politics and current events with their families. Indeed, today's young people are not the first generation to tune out -- that honor belongs to their parents, as family dinners in the 1940s became TV dinners in the '70s. And increasingly, the many TV screens in the home encourage isolation: In 1970, 6 percent of all sixth graders had TV's in their rooms; today, 77 percent do, according to Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. And what they're watching alone in their rooms is not CNN.

So how are young people learning basic political facts? In many cases they are not. During the presidential primaries, a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked Americans, "Do you happen to know which of the presidential candidates served as an Army general?" While 42.3 percent of respondents 50 and older were able to answer correctly (Wesley K. Clark), only 12.6 percent of the under-30 crowd could do so.

Inspired by those trends, I embarked on a yearlong series of trips around the country to interview people under 40 about their news habits. In an attempt to find out what makes some tune out while others tune in, I met with college students in Boston, Los Angeles, and Burlington, Vt.; 20- and 30-something bankers in Kansas City, Mo.; 20-ish actors in LA; and junior-high and high-school students in New Orleans and Colchester, Vt.

I learned several lessons, chief among them that entertainment has almost completely eclipsed news on television. In the 1960s, because of the Federal Communications Commission's expectations about television's "public interest" role, a greater percentage of news and public affairs was broadcast. True, the birth of 24-hour news in the 1980s widened our options, but with hundreds of channels now devoted to entertainment, news is a smaller star in the media universe. One of my interviewees, a thoughtful student at Brandeis University, talked about the "sense of emotional investment and ... instant gratification" of the sitcom Friends, which he compared favorably with the "detachment" of campaign-finance reform, CNN, and Peter Jennings.

Once we begin to judge news on its entertainment value alone, we lose. Yes, the news is less entertaining than Friends, so we need other reasons to watch. But those reasons -- including voter participation, party affiliation, and educational expectations about following the news -- have weakened in the past three decades. We need to turn the tide. But what can we do?

Plenty. First, we must raise our expectations for high-school students. To offer a model of how this might be done, consider the fact that while political participation and news consumption have declined, volunteerism is on the rise. When I posed that anomaly to Brandeis students, one offered what is probably the most plausible explanation: Volunteerism is a requirement for the National Honor Society and an expectation at many colleges. Why not make civic knowledge a requirement for college admissions?

Along with the SAT, colleges could ask for a C-SAT, a civics portion of the admissions test. In addition to being able to answer questions about the composition of the U.S. government and general world knowledge (a global map test, for example), incoming freshmen might be asked to identify the U.S. Speaker of the House, which of the Koreas is Communist, the nature of the Human Genome Project, which political party controls the U.S. Senate, and whether the United States ran a deficit in the past fiscal year. It wouldn't take much effort: 10 civics-and-news questions appended to the standard SAT, coupled with colleges' commitment to notice them, could transform the news habits of young people.

Two of the SAT II Subject Tests, on world history and American history, do have civics-and-government questions, but they were taken by only a small subset of the 1.4 million students who took the SAT in 2004. And while future incremental changes in the test might be effective -- such as changing some of the reading-comprehension questions to concern news and politics -- they wouldn't have the same impact as a stand-alone test on civics and news. So while the intellectual diversity and political currency that are the staples of any democracy could not be fully measured by a C-SAT, they could be promoted by one. High schools emphasize subjects that appear in college-admissions tests; last year, after the announcement of the SAT's new writing test (to be given beginning in March 2005), many high schools immediately changed their writing curricula, according to the College Board. We demand a civics test of every immigrant who wants to become a U.S. citizen; it seems more than fitting to have American high-school students take one, too.

The College Board's SAT Committee serves its 4,500 institutional members, including high schools, colleges, universities, and other educational organizations. As employees of the member institutions, we have the right to petition the SAT Committee for a C-SAT -- and we should. Altering the SAT instrument to include a C-SAT could make a profound statement that we feel that democracy needs engaged citizens, and that this engagement should be a prerequiste for college admission.

As I learned on my trips around the country, there is also plenty we can do with students of even younger ages. I met with a group of students at a middle school in New Orleans; those boys, all African-Americans whose families live below the poverty line, were for the most part closely engaged in news and politics when I met them in 2002. That may be because of the many endeavors of the school, including "Focus Afghanistan," a program that required students to present projects on terrorism, Islam, the Taliban, and other issues relating to the war in Afghanistan. Such projects can have lasting effects: At one point a student mentioned that he read the The New York Times online, and I tried to hide my surprise (remember, this was a poor eighth grader from New Orleans). He'd started reading it in sixth grade for a class project and had continued to do so, as did all four of his classmates also involved in the project. High-school teachers and administrators should follow their example and require that their school libraries subscribe to the local newspapers, and that all students follow the news in depth.

Perhaps, also, we educators can lobby the FCC to request that networks offer more news for kids. We certainly won't get the networks to join us in this fight, but we must remind ourselves that the airwaves belong to the United States and not to the programmers. The networks simply lease the airwaves from the government, and we can insist, as the FCC did until the deregulation era of the 1980s, that broadcasters operate in "the public interest," mitigating the muck and mire with public-affairs programming and news. When I was growing up, my own appetite for news and politics was whetted by a show on CBS called In the News, which was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons. And we can certainly talk more about politics in our own classes, particularly journalism, political science, sociology, and history.

Yes, college students are young -- but they will grow up, just as we did. If the past is any guide, following the news and politics is a habit that we must help them develop when they're young, or they will never have it at all. Students who don't pay attention to politics cede their political power to their elders and their more-involved peers. And without political power they are screwed. An e-mail message about that would be a scary one indeed.

David T. Z. Mindich is chair of the journalism and mass-communication department at Saint Michael's College and the author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, just published by Oxford University Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 7, Page B5

Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education and David T. Z. Mindich


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