Where Logic Meets Love

A Closer Look at Newspapers

Thursday, March 22, 2012

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A Closer Look at Newspapers | Faith Permeating Life

On Sunday, I wrote a post titled, "Does It Matter If We Don't Read Newspapers?" I talked about how I didn't think that a survey question about newspaper reading was an accurate or complete measure of recent graduates' civic engagement, and that it was a previous generation trying to measure something about this generation that they didn't fully understand.

Two people commented, one of my generation, agreeing, and one of a previous generation, disagreeing. Since 'Becca had such detailed comments (which you can read here), my reply ended up being so long that I decided to post it here for everyone. I hope it clears up some of the points I was trying to make with my original post. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, of course, but I do want to make sure that my thoughts aren't misunderstood.

There were two main points I was trying to make with this post. The first is that if researchers are trying to get an accurate measure of how civically engaged today's college graduates are, asking about their newspaper reading frequency is an incomplete measure. I completely get that sometimes we need longitudinal data, but 1) this isn't being cited in conjunction with any comparative numbers; people are drawing conclusions from this one year's data alone, and 2) if a question is not a valid representation of the construct one is trying to measure, and I would argue it's not in this case, then it makes sense to replace it with a different question.

The comparison of Person A and Person B was intended to show that someone can read the newspaper and not be at all active in making change in the world, and someone else can not read the newspaper and take action to make change in the world; therefore the newspaper question is not a valid measurement of the extent to which graduates are taking action to make change, yet that is the conclusion being drawn from it.

It doesn't sound like 'Becca and I disagree that this generation is conceptualizing the gathering of news information entirely differently, just that I take a more positive view of this shift. Given the reality of this change, a measurement that might have been appropriate 20 years ago is now outdated.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that the Internet is a better information source than newspapers. But the kinds of information-gathering that have been made possible by the Internet, in my opinion, should not be ignored as an alternative way that people may become involved in working for positive change in their communities or in the world.

People may become involved in fighting for causes that are never picked up by the mainstream media. There is also now an opportunity for people to gather opinions on a topic from a multitude of experts whose viewpoints won't make it into a newspaper. And a repository of information is built up online on topics long after they've become "old news" elsewhere. The fact that not everyone effectively uses the Internet as a resource does not invalidate the positive role it does have for those who are mindful researchers.

The time I spent studying journalism, working on a newspaper, and being quoted in newspapers made me, as someone who considers myself a careful researcher, become more critical of the newspaper as an information source. Here are some of the reasons I don't consider newspapers to be an ideal source of information:
  • Agenda-setting bias is a huge issue for me. Some stories will never make it into a newspaper because they are not interesting enough, not new enough, or very simply no one at the paper is aware of them. You may find a lot of crazy people on the Internet, but you can find information on almost anything you want to know about, not just what a group of editors has decided is important enough to cover.
  • Perspective bias is real and unavoidable. The perspective from which stories are covered is influenced by a multitude of factors. There are perspectives that will never be covered by newspapers, whose revenue is dependent almost entirely on advertising. On the other hand, some perspectives continue to be covered, such as people who say climate change isn't happening, simply because it makes the issue more controversial and interesting to read and presents a "balanced" view, even if it's completely unrepresentative of expert opinion on the topic.
  • Mainstream media can create hype and fear around things that are actually very rare. Conversely, they can ignore things that do affect many, many people simply because they're not interesting or new. This is why plane crashes and shark attacks make the news way more often than people dying of heart disease. On the other hand, if I sought out information about "How am I most likely to die?" I would find data putting the possible causes of death into perspective.
  • Journalists are notoriously bad at understanding and correcting relaying statistics, as well as accurately reporting research findings. Or they just get facts completely wrong. This was probably the biggest pet peeve of my journalism professors who had worked as editors. I remember the day my one media professor nearly had a fit because the local paper had run a headline about someone getting burned by "sodium chloride." What?? If you read the article, you eventually found that it was actually sodium cyanide. Ever read the piece on the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide? According to my editing professor, this occasionally gets picked up and run in all seriousness by newspapers who don't get the joke.
  • The pressure to break news first is at odds with the need for fact-checking. This is something we discussed a lot in my classes. When some random person tweets about an event, most people know to do some more research before believing it's true. But when a newspaper posts breaking news on its website, people trust it because -- it's a newspaper. In the rush to be the first, though, newspapers get facts wrong a lot, which are then corrected later. So the reputation for being a reliable, fact-checked source actually makes it that much worse when they get things wrong. Not least of all because newspapers often pick up stories from each other, which is how you get things like a ton of newspapers reporting on a scientific discovery that's not actually a scientific discovery, which an actual scientist then feels compelled to take to the web to break down and debunk in excruciating detail.

When I worked at Group Workcamps for a summer, at one of our camps the local paper wrote about us and not only got everything they wrote about the organization wrong, but they quoted the camp director when they'd never even interviewed him, supposedly having said things that were completely false. This just adds to my skepticism about placing too much value in the newspaper.

The Internet has, for me, added a layer of value because I can look up something I've read in a paper and find links to original sources, expert critiques of a subject matter, analyses of bias in the original story, and so on. None of this is to completely invalidate the newspaper as an information source. Nor am I trying to say that no one got passionate about things when they only had newspapers and word of mouth as their information sources. Not at all. But am I glad that it's now possible to seek out a variety of viewpoints and information sources rather than just accepting as fact whatever's in the newspaper or on TV? Absolutely.

There is, I think, a clear parallel here to changes that I see happening in education. This message comes up again and again at the conferences and workshops I attend: No longer can we thrive under a model by which the instructor has all of the knowledge and is imparting it to students via a lecture. Because students can now go on the Internet and find the same information and more, the instructor's role is shifting from teaching facts to teaching information-seeking skills: where to find reliable information, how to determine the validity of a source, how to cross-reference multiple sources, how to spot biased language, etc. This means that students are not limited to learning only as much as their instructor can cover in a semester -- they are taught how to teach themselves using the vast universe of information available to them.

So to sum up my first point: In my opinion, it's a mistake to ask only about newspaper reading and consider that an accurate measure of civic engagement.

The next question, then, and what I titled my post with, is whether it's a problem if the newspaper is cut out as an information source altogether. The question is not "Is every person who doesn't read the newspaper an engaged, active citizen who's making a difference in the world?" That's never going to be the case no matter what group you're talking about. The question, in my mind, is, "Is it possible to be an engaged, active citizen who's making a difference in the world and to never read a newspaper?" And I believe the answer is YES.

I mentioned that I am a very infrequent newspaper reader. About a year ago I started listening to NPR's 5-minute daily news summary podcast. Aside from giving me a post idea once, this addition to my routine has honestly had no impact on my daily life except for one thing: It makes me depressed and angry. (If you are ever downtown Chicago and you walk past a woman listening to an iPod who suddenly yells out, "What?!?" that's probably me.)

Because I have limited time, energy, and money, getting daily information about what's happening in Syria or with the Republican primary or whatever almost never has an effect on my behavior. The last time I took action on something related to current events was to write to my elected representatives about SOPA, which I found out about on Facebook well before it was mentioned on my NPR podcast. The only reason it was mentioned on the podcast at all was to discuss the huge backlash that had happened online in response to the bill. Ditto with the Trayvon Martin case, which only finally made it onto the podcast yesterday, regarding the huge outcry happening online.

I probably would have a better state of mind if I didn't get the daily news summary. Really, the main reason I listen to it is so that I can appear "up on things" when talking to others, which isn't even that useful since the things that come up in conversation are almost always things I've learned about via news articles posted on Facebook, not through NPR.

One issue that is important to me? Gay marriage. So I have a Google News feed set up in my Google Reader of all news articles related to gay marriage. This is what I mean by focused information-gathering. I don't go this in-depth on every issue because I physically and mentally can't. But personally, I would rather go deep and be extremely informed about the areas in which I'm committed to taking action than to be slightly informed about a whole ton of areas that I will never do anything about.

In the same way, I trust my Facebook friends to keep me informed on the issues that are most important to them, some of which will become important to me as well, after I have done additional research on them. My web-programming friends told me about SOPA and did their research on what the most effective way to take action against it was. My friends who are active in human rights organizations are way more informed than I will ever be about the problem of human trafficking, and when there's a way for me to easily help them in their work, they let me know. And they know that if their state is going to have a vote on gay marriage, they probably will have heard about it from me posting articles leading up to it.

Does everyone use social media this way? No. Do I hear about every single possible cause and issue and current event this way? No, but I couldn't devote time and energy to them even if I did.

So does my lack of newspaper reading mean that I am 100%, definitely an unengaged, uninterested, dispassionate member of society? Of course not. And thus, to return to the original question, if one's goal is that I be an engaged, active citizen, does it matter if I don't read a newspaper? I don't think so.

Finally, 'Becca mentioned local elections, so for what it's worth, yes, I do vote in every election, and I voted in the local election this week in Illinois. I set aside a few hours last Saturday to pull up my sample ballot on the county clerk's website and read every candidate's narrative. Because we don't watch TV and I don't read the local paper, I was spared all of the mudslinging that happens leading up to elections. Did I miss some information about the candidates? Probably. If I'd read or heard every piece of information out there on every candidate, would I have had a clearer and more accurate picture of each candidate? Probably not. It comes back to the issue of limited resources and balancing my engagement in my community with my quality of life. I believe this system is the best approach for me.

One final thought: Outside of what I learned in my college courses and have heard other people speak about, I can't say what life before I was born was like. So nothing I say on that matter should be taken as a firsthand account. On the other hand, I regularly hear people dismiss the kind of information-sharing that happens on Facebook who don't have firsthand experience maintaining a regular Facebook presence, and that frustrates me. Rather than arguing over whether old or new ways of communicating are better, I think the most important conversation to have is how we can accurately measure and make use of the way that people are communicating right now, to make the world a better place.


  1. I remember that particular class with the dihydrogen monoxide article...

    I think you and Becca also address different aspects/goals of taking in information. To use your distinction from an earlier post, one is to have awareness of a range of issues and educating oneself about current events; the other is concentrated gathering of info for the purpose of action.

    1. Right, and it goes back to this tension that you can't have action without awareness, but awareness without action does not make the world a better place.

      I think there's another underlying question here that I only briefly touched on, which is, "Do we have a moral obligation to be aware of what's going on in the world?"

      If you answer yes, that raises a multitude of other questions. You cannot be aware of everything going on in the world, so what are the important things? Who decides what's important? How do we know what is truth? Can there ever be one true account of events, or only perspectives? Is it better to act on imperfect information or to have "true" information and do nothing with it? And so on.

      Because of these kinds of reflections, I feel comfortable choosing/admitting to be ignorant about some things if I am passionate about and put my time and energy toward other things.

  2. This is awesome!

    I do sometimes read a couple of the broadsheet papers in the UK, but get most of my news from the BBC website, and then explore further on particular issues.

    For local news, it's actually things like the community magazines that provide real information, because I've found the local paper constantly misrepresents data, and clearly hates all forms of local government no matter what they try to do. That really irks me, and I've had to stop reading it because it just gives me rage. They also misuse apostrophe marks all the time, argh!!!

    One of the big papers in the UK, called The Daily Mail (a tabloid masquerading as a broadsheet), spreads hate, panic, discord, and all kinds of ridiculous nonsense - stuff like 'you will die from cancer from everything you touch' through to 'immigrants are taking over the country and we're all doomed.' Unfortunately a lot of people read it and take it to be true. If someone was using it as their main source of news I would have to ask how civically engaged they really are...

    I agree that newspapers are an important and good source of current information, but like finding information on the internet, they shouldn't be taken as standalone material, especially those that have political agendas (which most of them here do). Research is definitely important. Like you say though, you can't go in depth on everything because we would all break down. I think it's important to research that which you care about, whilst keeping abreast of other major headlines so that you are informed.

    Anyway, I'm blabbering, sorry - great post!

    1. I didn't realize so many of the UK papers had clear political agendas. I have a friend who lives in the UK, but he more often posts articles about Fox News' latest craziness than anything over there.

      There was actually a recent Freakonomics podcast about several different studies that have been done on various news sources that are supposedly neutral, showing how biased they actually are, in which direction. I don't necessarily agree with the research findings because I thought the methodologies were really weird, but there was an interesting discussion on the podcast itself about hypotheses on how bias works its way into news stories--is it the reporter's bias? the editor's? the owner's? Or are they all trying to please the reader base they've built up so they can continue to charge high ad prices? How much is conscious/unconscious? Can we ever really measure bias? It's all fascinating to me.

      And boo on misusing apostrophes! That would drive me nuts.


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