Can you read?

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?



Filed under Education, musings, Politics

5 responses to “Can you read?

  1. Wyoming

    Is it that people are not interested in the news or is it that they do not trust the news? I would love to watch what I consider news if I could do so knowing that facts were presented as they occured, oration was quoted in rather than out of context, and positions of people were provided as they gave them to the reporter rather than with extracted snippets that provide for the most controversial interpretation. I believe you’re right – so called news shows are after viewers and no longer look upon themselves as a public service. Edward R. Murrow where are you? Reporting has become a lost art.

    Is “news” synonymous with “information”? The connotative meaning of news would seem to be something unknown that has a degree of import to a diverse group of people. The light that has just turned red – if it has import to the drivers of emergency vehicles, then I would classify that as news. If it is thrown out as verbal filler, then maybe it doesn’t even qualify as information. I believe so-called reporters provide filler rather than news in all mediums.

    A final thought. The press requires a public that is literate if it is to be a responsible press. The public is the final authority as to the quality of the news. A lazy public leads to an irresponsible press.

  2. Wyoming says:

    A lazy public leads to an irresponsible press.

    I agree with this absolutely. My gripe may have seemed like it was entirely with the press and I did not mean for it to come across that way–poor writing on my part.

    While I don’t totally exonerate the press, they are doing mostly what the public wants them to do. This situation leads to a circular way of relating news items, however. I believe that to capture the essence of what news should be (Murrow, as stated by Wyoming, is a good example), it is the press that must make the first strides. The public has become innundated by entertainment and no longer seeks news.

    I don’t believe that the public will no longer tolerate news. I think that the public has been “trained” not to look for news. It has become such the norm to watch fluff news that it is hard to know what to look for in real news. If the media will take the first step and show us what important, relevant, consequencial news is, I believe the public will be engaged.

    How can you not be engaged with things that impact your daily life? incidently, I think that this is the definition of news: New information that directly impacts your life.

    A red light does not truly impact the way you live, nor does a shooting in some inner city neighborhood you’ve never been to. Not that a shooting doesn’t impact some people’s lives–it certainly does–but to make it a city-wide story is irresponsible. To devote 3 minutes of a 22 minute newscast to it is irresponsible.

    That said, I ask everyone to take responsibility in taking the news back from the entertainment industry. Tell your local TV stations that what they’re giving you is inadequate. Let them know that you want more substansive news reporting. Let them know that you aren’t stupid.

  3. Also, I would recommend the movie Good Night and Good Luck to any who have not seen it.

    George Clooney has made a very nice film with this one. Like Eastwood, he makes quiet movies that don’t overplay their hands. They just tell a story as best they can, in clear, poignant terms.

  4. Wyoming

    I believe you almost have the definition right. However, I don’t believe the information has to directly impact your life to be called news. By saying information has to directly impact your life in order for it to be news takes away much of the need to think. We, as humans, should be taking in information in the form of news and trying to determine if it has portent. To do otherwise would be coming near to advocacy for ‘live for today for we have no way of impacting tomorrow.” Since I don’t believe this, I think we can take in news items, evaluate their pertinence, and then make decisions that may or may not affect us at a much later date – or not impact us at all because of the decisions we made at the time we heard the “news.”

  5. I believe you are correct. I don’t think that a news item need to be immediately, physically relevant to my life for it to be news. As I said, a shooting is news and certainly could affect the viewer’s lives: where to move, where to shop, and other neighborhood or city issues.

    I think, however, when the local news becomes (as it has) a police blotter, they are doing a disservice to vast number of other things needing to be reported.

    I will still stick to my “must have impact” news definition. By this, I mean that news items should be things that could, might, or will force me to make decisions. Sure, everyone will have different items that are more and less relevant to them, but by focusing almost exclusively on shootings, fires, and fluff ratings pieces, news outlets are significantly diminishing the pool of relevant news items that are reported.

    And we, the public, aren’t asking them to do much else.

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