KENNEDY: A troubling response

December 14, 2013

Sheila Suess KennedySemester end is hectic for college professors. Research papers and final examinations must be graded, last-minute pleas from students who realize they haven’t performed or who feel entitled to special accommodations must be moderated, committees that haven’t completed their assigned tasks during the preceding months must meet—and of course there’s the added stress of the holidays.

In addition to the usual pressures, I’ve been increasingly exasperated by the lack of interest in government, politics and policy displayed by my undergraduate students this semester. Generally, SPEA students are pretty engaged with policy—they are, after all, enrolled in a school of public affairs.

But with some exceptions, this group was intellectually inert. They were unaware of current events, they clearly didn’t read news media (online or off), and generally displayed a passivity about most of the issues of the day. (The exception was same-sex marriage, for which most of them expressed strong support.)

As the semester went on, I became increasingly frustrated, and as a result I did something I’d never done: I added this optional extra credit question to the take-home examination:

“During the semester, I have noticed—and expressed concern about—the lack of interest in current events, politics and policy displayed by a significant percentage of this class.

“Answering only for yourself, what would it take to make you take an interest in public affairs? What would make you a regular reader of media accounts of current events and policy debates? What would it take to engage you in political discussions and activities? (If you are engaged—why?)”

Most of the students answered the question, and I was struck by the consistency of their responses. The theme that emerged was unequivocal: They don’t follow the news because they don’t trust the news media.

Over and over, students characterized the media environment as polarizing and unreliable. They were skeptical of the accuracy of reporting, going so far as to suggest that politically partisan sources don’t simply engage in spin, but actually “make stuff up.”

And they painted with a broad brush. They didn’t distinguish between the more obviously partisan reporting from Fox News and MSNBC and more trustworthy sources like IBJ.

One student wrote, “Perhaps, if I knew of a credible source that I could rely on to just report facts, I’d be willing to spend the time to know more.”

Although I would argue that disengagement is the worst possible response to this phenomenon, these students aren’t wrong. A great irony of our current media environment is that, while we are awash in information, the credibility of that information has steadily diminished.

These students look at the news media—traditional press, bloggers, television news, the constant messages via twitter and Facebook—and they see an undifferentiated mass of propaganda, “infotainment” and sensationalism.

Those of us who have followed the efforts of traditional newspapers to survive in this new electronic era have bemoaned the loss of much local news coverage, the layoffs of investigative reporters, and the replacement of hard news with soft human interest and how-to features. Fewer and fewer news sources are offering what we used to call “the news of verification.”

The explosion of all-news cable channels and the 24-hour “news hole” have encouraged a rush to be first, and damn the accuracy.

A common advertising trope these days is “news you can use.”

What we need is “news you can trust.”•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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