Despite all the media choices available to them in this technology glutted world, is it possible that a significant number of Americans are simply choosing to ignore what we used to call “news”?
Not a large number, mind you, certainly nowhere near a majority, maybe not even a double-digit percentile — but enough to cause concern about the future of a fully informed citizenry and all that implies for good government.
When I wrote about this tune-out possibility for my Oct. 23 Denver Post column, I got more than the usual number of responses.
Most of the correspondents said they’ve given up on the mainstream media because journalists are no longer trustworthy — relentlessly liberal and unpatriotic, said the majority. A couple said the press is no longer ethical or diligent because it’s been taken over by right-wing business conglomerates. And one top-level newspaper executive argued that exposure to information, in fact, has increased overall.
“People are empowering themselves to read what impacts their lives,” he wrote. “Yes, these are micro-audiences, but powerful in the aggregate nonetheless, which is why media companies must have or develop the capabilities for the masses and niche products for target audiences on micro platforms.”
Here’s the column. We opine. You decide.
Newspaper circulation is down. Fewer people are watching network television news. The mainstream media no longer wield the influence they once did.
As the mainstream media fade, one might assume the new media are filling the gap. But as we say in stodgy old mainstream journalism: Never assume.
Let us, instead, speculate. Might it be that more and more people are simply giving up on news altogether?
They don’t read newspapers, they don’t watch TV, they don’t listen to talk radio or read blogs or even get their news from the comic trinity of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart.
They are, in short, leading news-free lives.
Here are some figures, gleaned from various sources online and off, that suggest the new information media aren’t necessarily fully replacing the old. In other words, some people — maybe only a few, possibly quite a few — just drop out of the world of news entirely.
In 1970, four out of five U.S. adults — 78 percent — read a newspaper every day. In 2004, only 54 percent of adults said they read a newspaper during the week, 62 percent on Sunday. Only 40 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds read daily newspapers, 48 percent on Sundays.
And network news? According to an annual report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, ratings for the three nightly newscasts have declined “by 34 percent in the past decade, nearly 44 percent since 1980, and 59 percent from their peak in 1969.”
So then, all those people have shifted their eyeballs to cable, right? Not really. While cable ratings spike when there are big news events, says this report, “the cable audience is really no larger today than it was two years ago.”
And that’s not very big. For most of 2004, the same study found, the cable news audience fluctuated between 2 million and 3 million people — total.
Well, cable by now is old technology. What about all this hot new Internet stuff? Citizen journalists. Edgy Weblogs. Podcasts. Even online versions of newspapers.
Nielsen/NetRatings reported in June that 21 percent of online users had switched their newspaper reading “primarily” from hard copy to computer; 72 percent of Web navigators continued to prefer ink-on-paper, and 7 percent used both. Online users are about 68 percent of the population.
In July, Nielsen reported that only about 6 percent of the general population reads blogs “every day” or “occasionally.” But two-thirds don’t realize that they’re reading a blog.
Those who do know what they’re reading may be reading their own stuff. One of the many Pew research groups did a survey that found 6 percent of the U.S. adult population — 9 percent of computer users — had created blogs, and 16 percent of the population reads them — a significantly larger number than Nielsen’s but still less than a third of newspaper readership.
Pew also said adult blog readers are about 40 percent the size of the talk radio audience. And how big is that? Roughly 13 percent in this same survey said they listen to “news/
talk” on the radio. But there’s a big difference between “news” and “talk,” and the survey didn’t differentiate.
These new media, especially the Web, are touted as the replacement for traditional media. But much of this new stuff is not reliable information. There are no editors, no institutional fact-checking. On the Web, it’s all supposed to be hammered into something approaching reality as other individuals weigh in with their own versions of the truth.
Given all these new choices, consumers of what used to be news don’t have to waste their time on facts that challenge their assumptions. They can seek affirmation instead of information. They don’t trust authority, and they’re not impressed by authoritative reports.
If you add up all these percentages, you get much more than 100 percent accessing some sort of “news.” But it’s safe to say most people rely on several media for information. What’s disturbing is that the figures for each “news” medium are so small.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.