When I reflect on the news habits of college students today, my thoughts can best be summed up in three words: shock and awe. On the one hand, it's shocking how uninformed and uninterested students are in news and current events. Whether its domestic policy debates or international relations, students are routinely "out of the loop" on the major issues of the day.
On the other hand, I'm awed by the impressive array of communication technologies college students have at their disposal. From traditional media like newspapers, magazines, radio and television, to the new media of the Internet, cell phones, PDAs and social networking sites, young people have unprecedented access to local, national and international news.
"College students routinely dismiss the news as somehow unimportant or irrelevant to their daily lives. Given the sorry state of journalism these days, who can blame them?"
This condition is one of the central contradictions of the so-called information age. We're inundated by news and information, opinion and analysis -- some of it timely and relevant, much of it trivial and distracting. And a typical college student has an arsenal of communication tools that make news consumption (and production) easier than ever. Nevertheless, college students routinely dismiss the news as somehow unimportant or irrelevant to their daily lives. Given the sorry state of journalism these days, who can blame them?
Of course, I'm generalizing here. There are plenty of students who are not only knowledgeable about current affairs but also deeply engaged with the today's most pressing issues -- from climate change and the anti-war movement, to labor relations, education and immigration reform. But in my experience, students of this sort are few and far between. Without putting too fine a point on it, outside of celebrity news, baseball standings and the buzz over the latest iPhone app, the majority of students I work with on a regular basis seem blissfully unaware of current events.
To be fair, the demands of college-level work take a little getting used to. Far be it from me to suggest that students should forsake their studies for a slavish compulsion to rolling news channels and Twitter feeds. Nevertheless, in my line of work, ignorance of news and current events is an occupational hazard. After all, a good deal of my course work focuses on the press, popular culture and the sociology of media. And if students aren't up on current events, let alone U.S. social history, it makes it that much more difficult to have substantive conversations on contemporary media culture.
Let me be clear. I'm not suggesting today's college students aren't bright. It is a rare privilege to work with smart, articulate young people on a daily basis. And yet, these thoughtful, intelligent students are surprisingly, alarmingly in fact, uninterested in journalism. More to the point, they fail to recognize the relationship between quality journalism, on the one hand, and a functioning democracy on the other. It should go without saying that students are not to blame for this. This is an abject failure of our education system and a stunning indictment of contemporary journalistic culture.
"Democratic theories of the press suggest that democratic self-governance demands high-caliber journalism."
Through formal assignments and informal exercises, I urge students to take an interest in journalism. I don't do this out of some misplaced paternalism -- the "eat your vegetables" approach to higher education. Nor do I have any illusions that the "best and the brightest" of these students will abandon their aspirations to become business people, chemical engineers, lawyers or social scientists for that matter, and pursue a career as a crusading journalist.
My motivation is rooted in the idea(l) of liberal arts education: to develop students' critical thinking skills, cultivate their civic competencies and otherwise prepare them for fruitful and fulfilling participation in public life. To borrow the late media scholar James Carey's useful phrase, I want students to appreciate journalism's role in "the conversation of democracy."
To that end, I work with students on a number of projects that highlight the critical role journalism plays in supporting a self-governing society. In some instances, students engage in media monitoring assignments, like Project Censored: a nationwide program that promotes journalistic accountability through a critical examination of unreported or underreported news stories in the mainstream media. On other occasions, students develop their listening and storytelling skills through the production of locally oriented radio programs. Among other things, this work highlights the fundamental and decisive relationship between communication and community.
Regardless of the particulars of these assignments, I strive to make clear to my students the double-sided nature of journalism.
On the one hand, democratic theories of the press suggest that democratic self-governance demands high-caliber journalism. In the absence of accurate, reliable, and relevant news and information, the public is susceptible to manipulation and control of powerful interests -- private interests that are, more likely than not, incompatible with the public interest.
On the other hand, journalism depends on democracy. In other words, an intelligent and engaged citizenry must support, demand in fact, a rigorous press. In light of the formidable challenges confronting us today, we must struggle to create a more incisive, accountable and relevant journalistic culture.
To put it plainly, no amount of media literacy or technology access is likely to improve the current, woeful state of U.S. journalism. Instead, we should focus, first and foremost, on civic education. To do so would strike a blow against the apathy-inducing infotainment that masquerades as news these days. As is true of our most of our pressing social and political issues, we needn't throw money at the problem of journalism. Instead, we need to muster the political will to craft public policy, and habits of mind, that support a free, independent press.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.