Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News

Tuned Out is the title of a book by David Mindich, a former assignment editor for CNN and now an educator at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The book tries to answer the question “Why don’t Americans under 40 follow the news?” and it does come up with a few ideas that we have not heard a million times already.

1. News rates low in conversational value today, especially among most younger people. The top paragraph on page 65 sums this up with a quote from a university student, who related how her friends could talk endlessly about old Simpsons episodes, with everyone adding comments, but let anyone mention a topic from the current news and you’d get maybe one or two comments at most — and then it’s time to drop that whole subject and move on to something else.

2. If you get kids feeling curious about the news at a very young age, they might actually continue to keep tabs on it, at least now and then. On page 68 Mindich relates a conversation with an eighth-grader at a New Orleans school in which the student explains he’s been reading The New York Times Online ever since he was assigned to do so in a sixth-grade class. “[E]ver since then, we get e-mail from The New York Times,” the student said. As a result, this student knew answers to current events questions that most adults couldn’t answer. Note that the class assignment was long ended, but somehow, those e-mails from the newspaper kept this kid connected to a newspaper more than 1,000 miles away.

3. The two dominant answers to a question about whether citizens have a voice in American society today were: (a) No, MY voice doesn’t matter; and (b) Yes, OUR voices do matter. Mindich points out (page 108) that the difference lies in your image of yourself as (a) alone, or (b) a member of a group or community of people. Like a lot of things in Mindich’s book, this idea owes much to Robert Putnam and the whole Bowling Alone concept of what’s wrong with America.

I liked Mindich’s approach to his subject, but I found the book to be less substantial than I had hoped it would be. While Mindich traversed the continental U.S. and talked to people outside traditional focus groups (which I think can be some of the most unrepresentative collections of people you could ever put together in one room!), he only interviewed about 100 people for his study. He got some good comments, and it’s a good start, but it’s really just a small appetizer portion compared with the big entree that seems to be promised.

Still, the book is a pleasant enough read and it got me thinking about some new things.

One idea in particular is related to the story of schoolteacher Jane Elliott’s famous exercise with third-graders in Iowa in 1968, in which she divided the class into those with blue eyes and those without, in an effort to teach them what Martin Luther King Jr. had been trying to change. I read an article in which her original students, 35 years later, described what a huge impression the experience had left on them.

Many people have criticized Elliott for her supposed abuse of such very young pupils, but many of the students themselves have acknowledged that if they had been older, the effect would likely have been lessened. Oh, and the former students said the lasting effects of the exercise on them were good, not bad — because they had learned first-hand what it felt like to be discriminated against, they take care not to discriminate against others who are different from them.

Most 8-year-olds are still very respectful of, and trusting of, their teachers.

What if teachers in third- and fourth-grade classrooms promoted the value of being clued in to current events?

What if it were a competitive activity?

Every kid in the class could subscribe to The New York Times online. Forget those pathetic rags that local daily newspapers have become in most towns and cities across the U.S. Plug the little kids into a real news source and see what they can figure out about the world.

They could learn to feel clever and well informed. They could show off.

If they gained an attitude that it’s GOOD to be informed, SATISFYING to be informed and up-to-date, then maybe they would have a desire to stay informed.

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