The End of Being Informed

The End of Being Informed November 9, 2023

Newspaper readership has declined dramatically.  People began getting their news online instead.  But now, as we blogged about,  social media and Big Tech platforms like Google are trying to get out of the news business.

But the woes of journalism are not just matters of information technology, economic factors, or website algorithms.  Journalist Charlie Warzel sees a deeper problem. As he says in his Atlantic article The Great Social Media–News Collapse, “It’s not just the platforms: Readers are breaking up with traditional news, too.”

He cites a report from a Pew Center study with the summary title Americans are following the news less closely than they used to.  In 2016, more than half of American adults, 51%, said that they followed the news “all or most of the time.”  In 2022, that percentage fell to 38%.

In 2016, 12% of American adults said they follow the news “only now and then.”  Six years later in 2022, that number rose to 19%.  In 2016, only 5% of adults said that they “hardly ever” follow the news, that number has risen to 9% in 2022.

Among adults 30-49 years of age in 2016, 46% said they followed the news all or most of the time.  In 2022, the percentage is only 27%.  Among Americans 18-29, an already small 27% said they followed the news in 2016, but that has declined as of last year to only 19%.

As the study report comments, “The recent decline in Americans’ attention to the news has occurred across demographic lines, including education, gender, race, ethnicity and political party affiliation.”

Why has this happened?  According to Warzel,

Trust in the media has fallen sharply in the past two decades, and especially the past several years, though much more so among Republicans. Some of this is self-inflicted, the result of news organizations getting stories wrong and the fact that these mistakes are more visible, and therefore subject to both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, than ever before. A great deal of the blame also comes from efforts on the right to delegitimize mainstream media. Local-news outlets have died a slow death at the hands of hedge funds. A generational shift is at play as well: Millions of younger people look to influencers and creators on Instagram and especially TikTok, along with podcast hosts, as trusted sources of news. In these contexts, consumer trust is not necessarily based on the quality of reporting or the prestige and history of the brand, but on strong parasocial relationships.

But I suspect another factor is an increasing number of people who just don’t care anymore!  When they go online, they are preoccupied with games, entertainment, and socializing.  Paying attention to the news is just too depressing.

Now I see the most serious threat to liberal democracy.  It isn’t just intellectuals from both the left and the right questioning it.  Nor is it just the large percentages from both parties that believe that “democracy is no longer viable.”  Freedom and self-government end when “the people”–the ultimate rulers in a democracy–no longer want to bother with it and no longer equip themselves to handle it.

Can a democratic republic exist if the people, who are responsible for their self-government, no longer inform themselves about what is going on in their country?  I don’t see how.  They would rather sub-contract their governance to someone else–like hiring someone to take care of their lawn–so they don’t have to worry about it.


Image from rawpixel, Public Domain

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