This is a question I am seriously contemplating asking everyone I meet this week. I haven’t found a book store in any town we’ve been in (only 3 days, so far, but yikes). And to top it off, neither of our hotels so far has offered a paper–first time that’s happened all year. What have I learned this early new year? People in Columbus, NE and Jackson, MN don’t like to (can’t?) read.
Obviously, I’m poking a little fun at my neighbors to the north, but I think there is something a little scary going on. A few weeks ago, this literacy study came out. Among the criteria were newspaper readership and library systems. I know, it’s the 21st century and there are other ways to find news and educate yourself. I still think these are valid criteria for evaluating literacy, however.
The internet is a wonderful source for news, entertainment, whatever. But, it is also a huge repository for misinformation and misguided bloviators. If blogs and yahoo! news are your only sources of information, odds are you are not well informed. Same goes with television. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC: all great sources of information, all need to be supplemented by other sources, if only to fact check. This certainly goes for “news” programs such as the Daily Show. Great show, great entertainment, not the news.
Of course, I complain about all of these sources not being the news and what I really mean is that it’s hard to find the news today. Now, more than any other period in my life, it is necessary to discern what is the news from the constant information that is just handed to us without much explanation. News organizations don’t often report “news” anymore, they do “stories”. These are very different things. Stories get ratings (and groans), news gets switched off.
I’m not sure if this is because people really aren’t interested in news or just that the news organizations think that people aren’t interested. Of course, it would be hard to find out which of those two things is really true–no one will take a chance and actually put news on. This, of course, begs the question, “What is news?”
From the American Heritage Dictionary: information about recent events or happenings; new information
If you turn on your local news you’ll probably see something like the following:
1. Teaser for an uptown burglary
2. Teaser for sald bar expose’
3. Teaser for the weather
4. Story about a loud neighborhood dog
5. Blurb about a house that got robbed
6. Teaser about local baseball team
7. 6 minute story on how it eally is safe to eat salad
8. 7 minutes on how it will be foggy in low-lying areas
9. 1 minute on local sports
While most of this fits the definition of news, none of it is important news. Sure, it might be new information, but so is “The traffic light at the top of the hill just turned red.” It is not important.
Thomas Carlyle, speaking of the Fourth Estate:
Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.
With the power to sway the public comes great responsibility, a responsibility that our press is no longer interested in holding. Punditry is not responsible news reporting; at best, it is news making. The public deserves a press that works to find the news and lay it, naked, before us. The public deserves a press that assumes we are literate. The public deserves a press that fulfills its function as branch of government.
When that sort of press is found, it deserves a public that can read, a public that is interested in reading, a public that knows the importance of reading.
Have you ever called your local television’s news desk to complain? Or compliment?
Where is your library?