The more people follow the news, through whatever means, the more likely they are to vote. This is a good thing. More than ever, we need informed voters.
So I’m at least a little encouraged that a new survey, commissioned by Northwestern University, of 1,507 American teenagers reveals that 13- to 17-year-olds follow the news more than previously thought. The survey, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, was a scientifically representative sample of teens conducted last spring by the nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center.
Nearly 30% of teens surveyed said they were informed daily through a variety of media and sources, with a slightly higher percentage of 16- and 17-year-olds interested in the news of the day. This higher figure makes sense since many teens this age are preparing to go to college and register to vote. Looking a little deeper, 46% of teens watched local TV news daily or weekly, while 43% watched national network TV news daily or weekly. Double-digit groups of teenagers searched for or came across information on social media platforms.
Importantly, 59% of respondents said they had discussed at school how to determine whether information is reliable.
However, reversing the results, more than half of teenagers do not regularly follow the news even though they are a few years away from voting age. The United States may be the cradle of modern democracy, but for several decades, the turnout rate of those under 30 has hovered around 20%, without ever exceeding 31% of all voters. The culmination of the 2018 midterm elections.
The general impression is that the teaching of civics and keeping up with current affairs was much more central to school curricula in the past than it is today. Northwestern’s survey found that 75% of teens reported discussing current events in class at least once in the past year and 62% followed the news as part of a class assignment. Once a year isn’t a very high bar, so it’s hard to get too encouraged by this question.
An informed public, regardless of the means used to obtain the information, is essential to a healthy democracy. In today’s political environment, billions, yes, billions, are spent during elections on 30-second television spots by candidates and those who want to influence Americans on the critical issues of the day.
I just don’t want more people to vote. I want more people to vote and be informed about the issues of the day or how our local, state and federal governments work. What are we doing right and wrong? Where should we spend more of our tax money?
Without self-education and the development of critical thinking skills, Americans are vulnerable to manipulation by political consultants who use highly sophisticated public opinion research to craft messages that best sell their point of view.
So what more should we do?
Age-appropriate discussions about how democracy works, the U.S. Constitution, and current events need to be intensified in our schools, not just in civics or government classes. Family discussions about what’s happening in the world can take place around the dinner table or families can watch the TV news or discuss a story or two in the newspaper or on social media. The New York Times produces an exceptional monthly current affairs section aimed at tweens and teens.
Last month, Governor Newsom signed a bill requiring all K-12 students to learn media skills. One important program, among many others, is the News Literacy Project. It is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching middle and high school students critical thinking and how to debunk the Internet and other misinformation through newsletters, NewsLitCamps and other means. Since 2008, more than 1.3 million students and 33,000 educators have participated in the program.
We should do everything we can – as early as possible – to engage young people in current events and in what makes democracy work. It may not be an exaggeration to say that our democracy is at stake.
Bob Rawitch was a reporter and editor for the LA Times for 28 years. He is the author of “A Journalist’s Journey: A Good Life.”
California Daily Newspapers