Is This “Just A Phase”?
Yesterday’s NY Times included an important article on the news habits of young Americans.
Here’s the bottomline for us aging Boomers, and any communicator in a nonprofit …
Voices of authority — in the sense of informed, seasoned media intermediaries who help us discovery what of importance is going on in the world … and its context — are fast disappearing. Or at least becoming totally irrelevant to younger citizens.
No more Uncle Walter. Indeed, would any under-30s even know who Uncle Walter was! Before long, even Jon Stewart will be passe.
As the Times reports, citing data from Pew Research, for those under 30 years old, the old news filters (we’re specifically talking about political news here) like CNN or the Washington Post are inoperative.
Only 25% of this group reports watching local television news for campaign coverage (compared to 50% of those 50+). In contrast, 40% of under-30s have watched candidate speeches, interviews, commercials or debates online.
And how do they find out about hot political news and current events? From their under-30 friends, often through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, or from e-messaging from friends linking them to the latest YouTube posts or other online content.
In other words, they go — or are led — directly to the "raw" source material. No Uncle Walt to suggest what it all means.
Maybe we never needed Uncle Walt — or Elizabeth Drew (to be more memory-challenging) in the first place. Maybe we were smart enough to figure out current events and public policy debates on our own.
Sorry, youngsters, I don’t believe that. History, context, depth are all critical to really understanding what’s going on in the world. Sure, folks who follow current affairs for a living don’t have a monopoly on brains or insight … indeed many are trapped in old paradigms, carry ideological biases, or lag behind the curve on fast-breaking issues.
Nevertheless, experience trumps novelty when gaining perspective is important.
Call me an old fuddyduddy, but as much as I enjoy The Daily Show, I’d still prefer a thoughful analysis by Tom Friedman or Jared Diamond or Elizabeth Kolbert, or a special report in the Economist, to an online political video forwarded by my newest Facebook friend.
I suspect that under-30s will eventually tire of the media clutter in which they are now happy to swim. For things they really need to understand, they will begin to seek more credible "guides" of one sort or another. Plus, they’ll become more time-constrained … less time for trolling.
But maybe this evolution won’t occur in their political and public affairs news consumption. Maybe it isn’t just a phase. Because for most, political engagement just isn’t that important in the scheme of things. Current events are of casual interest. There’s no civics test anyone needs to pass. There’s no need to be "right" or even correct. There’s no need to master complicated issues.
Over the years I’ve read scores of surveys reporting on the abysmally low levels of public knowledge about critical public issues, like energy and the workings of the economy. Somehow I just don’t see this improving as YouTube replaces CNN or the BBC as the video "news" source of choice.
Communicators in nonprofits need to think about this — and adapt to the new realities. Because not only is the importance of traditional news media intermediaries diminishing, so is the importance of advocacy-oriented nonprofits as intermediaries.
For at bottom, what do cause groups do other than interpret current events and package and spin that information to mobilize supporters around the threats and opportunities represented by those events? But just as under-30s don’t seem to need an Uncle Walter anymore, why would they need a "trusted voice" like the Sierra Club or an ACLU to help them understand things … when they have Google and 300 I-messaging buddies to sort things out?
I think this whole matter of where and how citizens — and not just younger Americans — get their public issue information and understanding is immensely important. Direct access to infinite choice does not translate into quality of understanding.
If public interest advocates think that the citizenry — because they don’t know any better — lets the political system get away with crazy stuff now, while ignoring crucial matters, we’d better prepare ourselves, because the worst is yet to come.