The Young and The Ignorant

February 18, 2006

Reading or receiving any news is in sharp decline among people under the age of 30, according to an article in Salon.

And it shows: Disturbingly, today’s 18-to-29-year-old segment knows less about what’s happening in the world than their counterparts did in the 1950s and 1960s — that, despite the proliferation of information on television, radio and the Internet. Newspapers, which have been on a pink slip binge due to shrinking profits, are responding with smaller tabloids focused on entertainment, sports and local news. More serious news like international, politics and the war in Iraq are relegated to short pieces from the wires.

In essence, newspapers are growing desperate to reclaim their youth.

The primary social symptom of these news habits, Mindich says, is the growing “knowledge gap” between the young and old. Polling data show that in the 1950s and 1960s people under 40 were almost as well informed about the world as their parents. But today, Americans under 40 generally know a lot less than their elders.

Mindich cites a 2000 poll in which only 4 percent of people aged 18 to 24 picked John McCain as the Republican presidential candidate who advocated campaign-finance reform. Twenty-eight percent of those over 65 got it right. Mindich asked dozens of young people similar questions — about local and national leaders, about the countries in the president’s “axis of evil” and the locations of the plane crashes in the 9/11 attacks — and found similar results. If space aliens were to land tomorrow and interrogate our 20-year-olds, they’d have to conclude we are a backward civilization; meanwhile, the 20-year-olds, to judge from Mindich’s data, would likely mistake the aliens for members of Congress.

Mindich says it’s plain why young people aren’t interested in the news. All of us, young and old, are swimming against a powerful tide. We may have more access to news today than we ever did in the past, but the amount of non-news media we face drowns out everything else. As Mindich sees it, kids are bingeing on non-news media: entertainment, sports, video games, the Web, and basically everything on TV, even what’s on the news stations. (See Grace, Nancy.)

I am 28 and I used to be an avid newspaper reader. But I cancelled my San Francisco Chronicle subscription 6 years ago when I realized I could get the same information — and in a more timely fashion — online. Now I peruse multiple newspapers a day, thanks to the Internet.

Rather than scrap real news in favor of entertainment, newspapers should talk in young people’s language — focus on distributing information through technologies like the Web, Palm, iPod and tablet PC. It may even be worth their while to give away these gadgets with the newspaper as its default page. (Sorry to geek out. Can you tell I used to write for Wired??)

As for news, I am a big fan of the “Daily Show” — the fake news show sited in the Salon piece — and the “Colbert Report”. How about personalizing the real, serious, gritty stuff with fun clips, actual blogging from Baghdad or more features on local men and women being sent away to Iraq? The point is we need to get this information to young people, and, most importantly, make them care. We have so much to lose remaining in the dark.