Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is America Clueless?

Well, that is what New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni is suggesting, based on recent research: 

  • Roughly 40% of Americans are unaware that Obamacare is an actual law
  • 65% of us can't name a single Supreme Court justice
  • 30% can't name the vice president of the United States
  • 21% believe that a U.F.O. landed in Roswell, NM, and the federal government hushed it up
  • 14% believe in Bigfoot

Despite the fact that "many Americans would flunk the citizenship test that immigrants must pass, we mostly gloss over our ignorance or deny it," Bruni says.

Why is this happening?  This is tough, but here are my observations.

  • THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE.  On the one hand, the rise of the internet and the proliferation of new social media outlets provide powerful new opportunities for those in business, politics and special interest groups of all kinds to take their messages directly to the public.  (Of course, this also allows people with fringe interests to choose the media that confirm, rather than challenge, their fixed beliefs.)

On the other hand, almost all mainstream media comes from the same six sources — GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS — consolidated from 50 companies, back in 1983, to a tiny, powerful handful.  The Big Six account for 90% of what we read, watch or listen to!  [See this eye-opening-and somewhat scary-infographic for more details.]   Bottom line:  People may not be  getting the full story.

  • DWINDLING OF "MAINSTREAM" MEDIA.  Everyone is well aware of the precipitous cutbacks in the newspaper industry.  TIME magazine, the only remaining major print newsweekly, cut roughly 5% of its staff earlier this year.  In local TV, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts, while story lengths shrink.  According to the Pew Research Center's Study of the Media 2013, "a growing list of media outlets are using technology by a company called Narrative Science to produce content by way of algorithm, no human reporting necessary.  This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands."  It may also increase the boredom factor, and thus fewer people are paying attention to the news.

  • JUST PLAIN BAD REPORTING.  The Pew study also found that, in the last election campaign, reporters were "acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans."  Important news is often just glossed over today.  Is this the reason?  Or is the clueless public among those who are reading little to nothing at all?

  • SOFT NEWS VS. HARD NEWS.  I found an interesting paper published in 2010 that examined the phenomenon of "soft news," which the authors said was becoming an increasingly important ingredient of the information environment.  In a market-based system, like ours in the US, it's possible for consumers with limited political interest to bypass hard news altogether and become "specialists" in soft news.  So, while you're reading The New York Times from cover to cover (including the theater, TV and movie reviews), a soft news addict is watching "Entertainment Tonight," reading People magazine and following Kim Kardashian on Twitter.

What's the solution?  The only one I can think of is education in various forms aided by a reversal in some of the reporting issues cited above.

Late last year, the U.S. was ranked 17th in an assessment of the education systems of 50 countries, behind several Scandinavian and Asian nations, which claimed the top spots.  Finland and South Korea grabbed first and second places, while Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively.  The study, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), combines international test results and data such as literacy rates and graduation rates between 2006 and 2010.  Our rank is disappointing.

The alarm has been sounded.  Now let's figure out solutions that reverse this scary trend — and end our state of denial.

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