All news all the time, but no one watching

Peace and prosperity have made Americans less inclined to keep up with current affairs.

On his Web site, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh blares this advice for Americans: "Enjoy your life: Turn off the TV."

Andrew Weil, author and well-known practitioner of alternative medicine, takes it a step further. He recommends the occasional, complete news fast to improve mental health.

Americans, however, already seem to be following this course without much prompting - especially young people. Just five years ago, 50 percent of Americans said they enjoyed keeping up with the news a lot; today 45 percent say they do. Consequently, a recent survey finds, the percentage of news consumers in this country is shrinking.

The trend is long term, and it focuses squarely on young people, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the biennial media survey. This generation does not face the home-shattering events of world wars or economic depression that preoccupied their elders, he explains. Also, there's more competition for young people's time.

Some observers are concerned that more people losing the news habit means fewer people who are connected to the world around them, and less-informed voters.

Indeed, Robert Putnam, who charts a disconnected America in his new book, "Bowling Alone," calls this decline in news interest "really bad." With each passing generation, he says, a slice of an older population that cares about news is replaced by a slice of young people who don't.

It's all "part of the general disengagement in public life," he says.

But not everyone agrees with this view.

John Sommerville, author of "How the News Makes Us Dumb," says Americans aren't missing much by skipping the nightly news or walking past newspaper racks.

Most daily news breaks everything down into meaningless, Chicklet-sized pieces, he says. With this kind of an information diet, it's not possible to really understand our nation or world.

Besides, Professor Sommerville says, the impact of paying less attention to the news "depends on what we're doing instead." He argues that if we're reading less broadly, but more in depth, that's a good thing. So is an interest in local news or custom-tailored news, such as is available on the Internet.

In fact, according to the Pew survey, the Internet is the one place that's actually gaining news consumers - though not enough to make up for the loss everywhere else.

One in 3 Americans go online for news at least once a week, compared with 20 percent in 1998. At the same time, regular viewership of network news has fallen from 38 percent to 30 percent, and local news viewership from 64 percent to 56 percent.

Joshua Dennis, a teenager from Glen Burnie, Md., is typical of today's online users. He and his friends, in Washington for some museum hopping, say the Net is so much easier - they're on it anyway, so why bother to turn on the TV for news? Their servers' home pages have the most important stories, and some services give them news alerts.

They also find the Internet more believable than television news.

"I don't watch the news because they make a whole lot of hoo-ha over everything. They blow everything up," says Mr. Dennis, who just voted in his first presidential primary election.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, says young people's declining interest in current affairs doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of civic connectedness.

"I'm not ready to say young people don't care," he says.

While he calls the drop-off in news interest a "loss for democracy" and a "worrisome" trend, he also argues that today, "you can't divide politics, entertainment, and music." They all relate to one another and are tapped in different ways by young people. "The question is," he says, "Where is politics found these days?"

Additionally, the behavior of the rising generation of Americans is proof of some connectedness, Mr. Rosen points out. He lists interracial friendship as an example. "Who they seek to be friends with is a way to express themselves politically. They've met the divide that's bedeviling their elders."

Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News, sees it more simply. He harks back to his college days in the 1950s, when "we were only interested in ourselves."

Mr. Grossman doesn't think it's much different today, and says that when important issues come along, young people do get involved. Witness the anti-free trade protests in Seattle last year.

His conclusion? "I'm not too alarmed."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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