1961: Are We the Best Informed Nation?
[This article originally appeared in the July 1961 issue of Nieman Reports.]
“Communications specialists” and working newspapermen sometimes glibly assert without a shred of proof that the American people are the best informed people in the world. This is a broad statement and one that requires support, because if true, it offers some assurance that the mass media of this country are doing a reasonably fair job. If this thesis is not true, it is time to rid ourselves of the false sense of complacency it engenders and begin to work harder to make it true.…
But at the very least one can confidently assert that the mass media are available in overwhelming proportions to the people of this republic. Never before in any other country have so many been subjected to so great a flow of words and pictures so rapidly and (in a physical sense) so efficiently. Moreover, if one is to judge by the apparent confidence with which advertising spends billions of dollars a year in the media, he must conclude that people in considerable numbers are exposed to media content.
If we admit that the media are available in unequaled volume and that the people are exposed to vast quantities, does it necessarily follow that we become best informed, or for that matter, even well informed? Elementary school teachers know that availability and exposure do not necessarily insure reception and understanding.…
During the more recent McCarthy uproar a poll showed that at least one-fourth didn’t know who he was. A good many people couldn’t identify Christian Herter, then the newly appointed Secretary of State. An equally large number either didn’t know where Formosa is, or had forgotten. The evidence seems to be ample and convincing of the sometimes appalling inability of the public to assimilate information from the media.…
The reasons why we don’t get through to the people are diverse and complex. They are to be found at the heart of the communications process. Some theories blame the media; others blame the public. Still others find both media and public at fault. Some causes are as yet undiscovered: We suspect them but can only speculate about them.
One theory (or perhaps it is no more than an educated guess) suggests that we are on the verge of becoming “newsdrunk.” Many of us, in the scramble to keep up, expose ourselves to more news than we can really hold. We become surfeited with excess verbalizations about mundane affairs. Like Wordsworth, we find the world is too much with us. Indeed, it is suspected that there may exist a saturation point in the human-news absorptive capacity beyond which we may even begin to build up resistance. At this point we engage in the practice of selective attention. We stop listening or focus attention elsewhere. Usually we seek more diverting fare. We turn slothfully to the comics and sports.
A Chicago editor one day in 1937—in a rare moment of skeptical insight—conceived an experiment which revealed the fickleness of reader habits. He scrapped his customary page one column of $3-a-word Sino-Japanese War news. The sudden disappearance of the usual war news from the Orient evoked not a single peep of protest from his half-million readers. Next day, by way of diabolical emphasis, our editor consigned “Little Orphan Annie” to the wastebasket. He was deluged by more than 1,000 complaints in letters and phone calls.
Another theory, a logical outgrowth of the first, relates also to our communications participation behavior. This view holds that because so much of the news has a disturbing effect on us, a part of what seems to be public apathy may be a deliberate self-protective mechanism. We have come to associate our news participation with feelings of anxiety and insecurity. To shield ourselves we tend, perhaps subconsciously, to resist or avoid the news and the meaning behind it.
A third rationale has to do with the way information is presented in the media and its effect on audience habits. The average person’s stock of information about foreign affairs, according to Erich Fromm in “Escape From Freedom,” consists of fragmented, newsreel- quality snippets of knowledge without context. The same indictment could be made, though to a lesser degree, of the average person’s knowledge of domestic and local affairs.
This disjointed, segmented, kaleidoscopic impression may be due to two crucial weaknesses in traditional news presentation methods: the evanescent, isolated, one-dimensional quality of much of the news stream; and the way it is written and displayed (or broadcast in short flashes). This kind of surface-of-the-news presentation, designed to save the busy audience time and effort, provides piecemeal exposure to mass-produced raw factual messages and has brought up a generation of dilettante scanners and page thumbers. Information served in this fashion has not only cultivated careless reading and listening habits, but it has also failed largely to provide a framework to give it significance, at least for the mass audiences.
Furthermore, people with limited education (but not necessarily limited intelligence), as David Riesman has pointed out, seldom have a framework to locate such data as the media provide—especially that which does not appear directly relevant to their lives. Without such meaningful context, the facts don’t come through; or if they do, they are soon forgotten. The Commission on Freedom of the Press 13 years ago declared that our society needs “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” By the term “society,” the Commission meant “every member” of the society—not just the better educated.
But what about the more educated person who can provide his own framework? A steady diet of sterile news (a notable exception must be made in the case of that provided by a few newspapers and broadcasters) has come near to alienating him entirely. Despairingly he turns from public affairs to other interests, after reluctantly concluding that keeping well informed isn’t worth the effort of filtering out much of the “noise” from the channels of communication.
The media are faced with the unprecedented and overwhelmingly difficult task of relating isolated facts, of providing the framework of understanding, of making sense for the average reader out of the maddeningly complex, chaotic confusion of universal events. The processes of public education are extremely slow; it takes a long time to raise the information level of the masses.
The media might have more success in such an endeavor if they stopped aiming at the great apathetic amorphous mass public at large, quit feeding it with the lowest-common-denominator- quality information, and started readjusting their sights gradually toward the more educated segments of the population. There are indications that if more of this were done, the average person would catch up faster. The mass media and their apologists should stop comforting themselves with the worn rationalization that the public is well informed and realize how far short of this desirable goal they are falling. The challenge is great. To communicate understanding, as Bingham says, is an infinitely more difficult job than to communicate assorted facts, but a nobler one.
If this seems like an unrealistic adjustment to require of our media, how much greater is the adjustment that must be made by the people? The public is probably no more equal to the responsibilities of the jet age than are the media. At about the same time the communications revolution brought the world into our living room, we found ourselves thrown suddenly into a position of world leadership. Less than 50 years ago we were still thinking of ourselves as a nation apart from European entanglements.
The new position of world leadership, coming with rapid social and economic change at home, required a terrific adjustment in our conception of the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. It was too much for the citizen with a public conscience, who was expected to be cognizant of and concerned about affairs in far-away Korea or in remote points in Laos, a country his grandfather never heard of. He is called upon to have opinions about the struggle for power in the Congo when he comprehends few of the subtler ramifications of a tax issue before his local township board.
The times demand a greater degree of participation in the media and in public-opinion processes than ever before. To be concerned we must learn to care about the course of affairs. It would seem that more people would interest themselves in what is going on out of selfish motives of survival and the desire to help make a better world. But it may be more comforting to one’s faith in democracy and popular government “to believe that people care and are misinformed than to realize how little they care,” Riesman concludes. On the other hand, Dean Theodore Peterson puts it squarely up to the people: “...does the citizen in a democratic society have the right to be misinformed, ill-informed, or uninformed? While the press has begun to see its own responsibilities,” he adds, “it has done precious little to make readers see theirs.”
Whatever the extent of public apathy and indifference, the media are obliged to care. They cannot default in taking the initiative in the difficult task of making the average person want to be better informed.
James W. Markham is professor of journalism at Pennsylvania State University.