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Original interviews

David T. Z. Mindich: 'It's Now Possible to Spend Your Life Consuming Lots of Entertainment with No News at All'
The former CNN assignment editor and journalism professor argues in a new book that today's glut of entertainment options is leading young Americans to "tune out" the news.

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 09/16/04


David T. Z. Mindich is the chair of the Journalism Department at Saint Michael's College in Vermont and a former assignment editor for CNN. He is the author of a new book, "Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News," in which he warns that news illiteracy is spreading rapidly among an entire generation of young Americans.

"Colorless and dispassionate" CNN is a turn-off to young viewers, according to Mindich. Also, he says, some young people have come to regard David Letterman as a journalist, fans of Maxim and Cosmopolitan magazines have difficultly naming political figures, and the Internet "is a great way of avoiding the news."

I Want Media: What inspired you to write "Tuned Out"?

David Mindich: I was teaching a media law and ethics class in 2001 and wanted to test students' knowledge of the law and current events. So I gave them a quiz about recent events and asked them to identify the U.S. attorney general and as many Supreme Court justices they could name. At that time, the hearings to confirm Attorney General Ashcroft were underway and the Supreme Court had just halted the 2000 election.

Despite this, only one student of 23 could name Ashcroft. And only five could name a Supreme Court justice. Later I learned that my students were at least as informed as other young people I met with in my travels around the country.

IWM: How are today's young news consumers different from their predecessors?

Mindich: Well, I do want to say that some things haven't changed. They are still just as thoughtful, intelligent -- and I would argue -- literate as ever before. What has changed is that young people no longer see a need to keep up with the news.

IWM: Why not?

Mindich: Following the news is time consuming; we need a reason to do it. If none of your friends or colleagues talks about it, if none of your teachers demands that you follow it, and if you yourself don't see your role as an informed citizen as an essential part of democracy, you won't follow the news.

IWM: Won't young people start following the news as they grow older?

Mindich: Historically, young people either pick up the habit by their mid-twenties or they never do. What we've seen since the 1970s is that twentysomethings, as they turn into thirtysomethings, still haven't picked up the habit.

So the answer is, no, they might not ever pick up the habit. In 1972, 74 percent of 35-year-olds read the newspaper every day. Today, only 35 percent do so. And the median viewer age of network news is about 60. That statistic blows me away.

IWM: Aren't young people getting their news from the Internet?

Mindich: A minority of young people are getting a lot of news from the Internet. Some are developing a deep understanding of current events, even a expert's depth about a subfield. The Internet is the best medium ever for quickly getting a ton of material about a specific topic.

However, while the Internet is a great source of news for some, 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 and check out what's flickering on the screens. A recent poll showed that only 11 percent of young people listed the Internet as a major source of their news.

IWM: If young people aren't spending their time with the news, where are they spending their time?

Mindich: Many young people told me that they simply don't have time to follow the news. But many of them appear to watch the standard four hours of mostly entertainment television a day that is the norm in America.

Of course, most people have jobs, friends, and other passions that take up their time, too. But given their entertainment habits, those who are tuning out do so for reasons beyond simple time pressures.

IWM: You mention in your book that one of your students once began a sentence: "Journalists like David Letterman ..." How could someone come to have such a perception?

Mindich: The student didn't understand the special role of journalists in a democracy. Unlike Letterman, journalists are charged with investigating wrongdoing; observing ethical standards of fairness, nonpartisanship, and balance; and serving as a check on governmental power. The student probably didn't watch much news. But it's not entirely his fault: the news and entertainment industries have been blurring the lines themselves.

IWM: Is today's glut of media choices -- hundreds of channels, video games, niche magazines, the Internet -- taking young people away from the news?

Mindich: Yes. That's the big change over the last 20 years. Although there is more news than ever before -- think CNN, Fox, and MSNBC -- news as a percentage of the media universe has gotten a lot smaller. It's now possible to spend your life consuming lots of entertainment with no news at all.

IWM: You write that most young people who select Cosmopolitan or Maxim as their favorite magazines have a difficult time naming political figures. Why is that?

Mindich: First of all, Maxim and Cosmo have almost no news that you could use to help inform your vote. Also, a lot of research has indicated that people either gravitate towards entertainment models such as "Friends," Cosmo, and Maxim, or informational sources such as the news. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but broadly speaking, these trends tend to hold true.

IWM: Do journalism controversies -- like the questionable Dan Rather-CBS News report on President Bush's National Guard service -- make young people more cynical about the news?

Mindich: No, I don't think so. I say this because at its heart, this and other controversies are about journalistic integrity, upholding the notion that facts matter. No one would ever raise issues about the veracity of the so-called reality shows or professional wrestling, simply because those shows are not held to a high standard. We care deeply about whether Rather has this story right because we care about journalism.

Some of the cynicism comes, legitimately, from people who perceive a left-wing or right-wing bias in the news. However, of the scores of people I spoke with for my book, the most cynical people were generally the most tuned out. They criticized the news for not covering politics, international events, and a multiplicity of perspectives. However, a half hour with the New York Times or Wall Street Journal disproves this perspective. Good journalism is out there if you want it.

IWM: Not all young people are tuning out the news. What factors make them want to tune in?

Mindich: The principal factor for making people want to tune in to the news seems to be that they feel it's necessary for work, school, conversation, or citizenship.

IWM: In your discussion with young people around the country, few young people said they valued their local news. Why?

Mindich: Part of this is surely the lack of quality news outlets at the local level. In my book I write a lot about local television news, which is too often driven by crime-, celebrity- and infomercial-news. Local newspapers tend to be somewhat better, but many are succumbing to these influences, too.

IWM: Will ventures such as Chicago's RedEye and Red Streak newspapers, which are intended to attract young readers, be a steppingstone to greater news involvement?

Mindich: No, I believe that RedEye and Red Streak are not a step forward. They tend to emphasize consumerism at the expense of meaningful political debate.

IWM: Why are young people turning to outlets like Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for their news?

Mindich: First of all, people watch Jon Stewart because he's very, very funny. While he's the first to admit that he's not a real journalist, we can take a lot from his show. Journalism needn't be as colorless as the dispassionate reporters and anchors on CNN.

Part of the appeal of the "Daily Show," Fox, Bill Moyers and others is that they seem to care about what they cover, revealing an emotional investment in the world. This doesn't mean that we should embrace partisanship -- we need a voice separate from the political parties -- but we should care.

IWM: You suggest in your book that another cable news channel as "passionate" as Fox News could attract young people. Do we need another Fox News?

Mindich: Let's borrow some of Fox's passion, but we need to firmly reject Fox's partisanship. A recent study suggests that Fox viewers are considerably less informed than consumers of CNN, network television, NPR, PBS, and newspapers.

People were asked about three widely held misperceptions of the Iraq war -- that Iraq was directly involved in September 11, that world opinion favored the war, and that weapons of mass destruction had been found. A full 80 percent of Fox viewers believed one or more of these misperceptions, compared to 47 percent and 23 percent of newspaper readers and NPR/PBS listeners and viewers, respectively. This study indicated that Fox may be harming intelligent discourse, which any news outlet should be embarrassed about.

IWM: You also suggest that the U.S. government should require computer manufacturers to make an Internet news portal be prominent on the desktop with links to news outlets. But would such force-feeding be effective at attracting young people to the news?

Mindich: I believe it would be. In addition to the standard icon for the Web, why not push all computer manufacturers to have a "News" icon? Consumers could throw it away -- it's a free country -- but at least it might inspire some people to tune in.

IWM: Will most young people eventually tune in to the news?

Mindich: I believe that solutions exist, and I offer a lot in my book. But we'll only look for solutions if we understand what's at stake: When a majority of multiple generations tunes out, turning away from informed citizenship, what suffers is democracy itself. And that's what this is all about. It's about democracy. Without an informed citizenry as a check on power, leaders will do outrageous things. Every time.




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