By Jan Larson, editor, Sentinel-Tribune
Ask some young people who is vice president of the U.S. and you will get a blank stare. But ask who Beyonce is married to, and most can answer Jay-Z faster than he could put a ring on her.
It’s not that newsworthy information isn’t accessible. More than ever before, news saturates every fiber of our lives.
Many of us are drowning in information overload. But in that smorgasbord of information, many of us are filling up on the sugary nonsense and ignoring the meat and potatoes of what matters in the world. It’s much more fun to watch the video of the yodeling dog in lederhosen than try to digest the issues surrounding the new Affordable Care Act. But sometimes we really need to skip the information desserts and load up on the broccoli.
To be fair, it’s not just youth. I think their lack of knowledge just sticks out more because we adults keep asking them questions they can’t answer.
I’ve come face to face with this phenomenon when teaching journalism classes at Bowling Green State University. It’s especially obvious during current events quizzes. I was accused of asking a trick question when I requested the name of the current British prime minister, since I hadn’t warned there would be a question about religion. This past fall when fires were ravaging Yellowstone National Park, I asked the students what natural disaster was threatening the forest. One student answered “bears.”
At their request, I inserted one pop culture topic each week. No one missed any questions that involved Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber.
And it’s not just current events. One class period we were working on a story about a made-up school district that banned the classic “Huck Finn” from curriculum because of its racist language. We discussed how the story should be covered, and who should be interviewed. They had great ideas, until one student proudly proclaimed that a reporter should contact the author for his comments. I had to break it to her that Mark Twain was long deceased, and the reports of his death were not exaggerated – which of course made little sense to the class.
According to a survey conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in 2006, nearly a quarter of Americans could name all five members of the animated Simpson family, while just 1 in 1,000 could name all five First Amendment freedoms.
Other surveys show similarly lackluster knowledge levels. For years, Americans listed Herbert Hoover as the worst president. Now most don’t even know who he was. In one survey, less than half of Americans polled knew that America was the country that dropped the nuclear bomb.
Fearing that I might be contributing to the less than stellar scores, I felt compelled to slyly quiz my 14-year-old about current events. Vice president? Joe Biden. Phew. Russian invasion? Ukraine. Cool. NSA information leaker? Edward Snowden. Bam. But my haughty high didn’t last long. Russian president? Gootin. Oh well.
I hate to sound like my dad, but my generation had to read newspapers or watch network news (often in black and white) to get information. Now people can flip on 24/7 news anytime, or get news snippets on Facebook, Twitter or other immediate sources that spoon-feed information of varying degrees of value.
Maybe it’s that steady onslaught of information that leads us to repel difficult to digest news and instead watch the llama in the straw hat.
I know it’s not always fun. But read a newspaper. Watch some real news.
Despite what some think – especially those in the younger generations – newspapers can tell you what is going on in your community, your state, your nation, your world. We try to make it relevant. But we refuse to run photographs of snuggling kittens. You’ll have to get that sugary snack elsewhere.
But we have plenty of meat and potatoes, served six days a week. Your mom was right. Eat your vegetables. They are good for you.