When news is not news

The statistic’s even starker for certain age groups: 31 percent of people ages 18-24 get no news on an average day, and 22 percent of 30-34-year-olds get none either.

Nearly one in three people 18-24 years old get no news? That’s a factoid that sends shivers down not only the spines of journalists but also anyone who cares about civic life.

That quote in italics is from Poynter’s report on a slideshow prepared by Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. (It isn’t on the Pew site, and it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from slide from a survey with no attached methodology, but here we go.)

My first thought was that it is just deserts for a news media that identifies the top story of the morning a woman who doesn’t have monkeypox, as the news channels did yesterday. (Hey, I don’t have monkeypox either! Put me on TV!) Or the second big story of the day, a missing child in Tucson. Neither story makes a difference in the lives of more than a few hundred people. These are the empty calories that the national networks call news. A man catches a baseball at a game and doesn’t give it to the crying three-year-old next to him? The 18-24 year-old age group isn’t stupid. They see this stuff and know it’s not news to them.

We’ve turned the definition of news into mush. That said, I don’t believe the statistic.

The 18-24 year-old age group is the “if-the-news-is-that-important-it-will-find-me” generation. Those folks are on Facebook. They get news every time they log on. Their friends tell them the news in their worlds. (And for you not on Facebook, don’t think that they talk about what they had for breakfast.) Ths generation doesn’t immediately call it news the way we old-timers do, but when they watch, say, the president slow jammin’ the news, it is news. When they see the “Trending Articles” foisted upon them by Facebook, that’s news. (Well, some of them are.)

But if you ask them where they get news, the answer is Google and Yahoo and Jon Stewart and Huffington Post. It’s rarely actual, traditional, mainstream news organizations. The news may originate there, but they don’t identify those as the sources. And that’s one of the problems with using the generic term “news” in a survey.

I teach a class of 33 people in that age group. Because they are in college, perhaps they aren’t typical. (For the record, 68% of high school graduates last year went to college.) They are informed. They know what is happening in the world. Many of them say they get their news from friends. Ask them the news source, they say Facebook. But do they call Kony 2012 or Laurelynn Dossett and Friends singing about opposition to Amendment One news? No. But that’s what I call it.

News is being redefined — by news organizations that sensationalize and pander. By aggregation that blurs the original source of information. By a public that has lost trust in traditional news organizations. That’s not bad necessarily, but it is important that we understand what’s going on when we talk about things like this. And to say that nearly a third of the population between 18-24 get no news on any given day? Unbelievable.