An ignorant electorate is a dangerous one. It is ripe for being misled, fooled, and taken advantage of by those in power.
American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson saw a real danger in the general population becoming disengaged from what their leaders were up to and where that could inevitably lead. “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” the nation’s third president wrote about citizens.
Those in power are becoming wolves as Americans disengage from the news.
“Americans are following the news less closely than they were a few years ago,” according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. “This comes amid changes in news consumption habits, declining trust in the media and high levels of news fatigue,” the Center’s Naomi Forman-Katz writes.
“In 2016, 51% of U.S. adults said they followed the news all or most of the time. But that share fell to 38% in 2022, the most recent time we asked this question,” she writes.
Where 12% of American adults said they only paid attention to the news from time to time in 2016, that percentage increased to 19% in 2022. The percentage of those who said they rarely or ever pay attention to the news rose from 5% to 9%.
Not surprisingly, Pew’s research shows older Americans follow the news more often than young people. However, all age groups showed a decline in news consumption.
Following the news fell among all groups surveyed including political affiliation, gender, education, ethnicity, and regions of the country. But the decline is more significant among certain groups. Republicans and those who lean Republican saw a drop from 57% paying attention to the news in 2016 to 37% in 2022. Democrats and those leaning toward the party also saw a drop, but only 7 points, from 49% to 42%.
Could our news fatigue and distrust be the result of so much of our news today being national, sensational, and divisive? It latches onto the latest tragedy, political outrage, or war and plays it hour after hour, day after day. One pundit after another gives his or her take with guest commentators repeating much of what was said the hour before.
When the news is endlessly repetitive and limited to a few topics, people naturally check out, looking for something to break the monotony. When the news is endlessly crafted to raise anxiety and fear, people will seek escape.
“I fear that we’re becoming a land of digital lotus eaters, scrolling and streaming our days away, increasingly unaware of what’s happening beyond our screens,” Brier Dudley, the Seattle Times Free Press editor, writes. “This follows a two-decade decline in local news coverage that’s resulting in civic illiteracy and disengagement and eroding democracy.”
When people ignore the news, they are less likely to know about their community’s challenges. They are also less likely to vote, run for office, serve on a committee, or pitch in to make their community a better place to live. When people don’t follow the news, they become less trusting of those serving in public office, which is a self-inflicted problem.
“I think there are myriad factors behind these numbers — information overload, a trust deficit, and fatigue. But I worry that we may have entered a doom loop,” Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and local news chair at Medill, told Dudley.
“There are fewer local news organizations and fewer journalists, so there’s less original, relevant reporting being produced for the public,” he said via an email to the Times editor.
With people paying more attention to national news than local news, society has become more intolerant. People are more angry and less willing to compromise. They see opponents on issues as enemies and increasingly talk as if violence is warranted when confronting them.
“Half of Americans in a recent survey indicated they believe national news organizations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public to adopt a particular point of view through their reporting,” the Associated Press’s David Bauder reported earlier this year.
Respondents said their reporting not only included bias, but an intentional effort to deceive the public. Half of those responding to the Gallup and the Knight Foundation survey said news organizations intentionally mislead the public.
When the internet was emerging as the new, unfettered news source, it held the promise of a well-informed public and one energized to participate in society. We’ve seen just the opposite happen.
“Instead, an information overload appears to have had the opposite effect,” Bauder reports. “The survey said 61% of Americans believe these factors make it harder to stay informed, while 37% said it’s easier.” Artificial intelligence’s ability to overwhelm the internet with false information, fake videos, and fake audio recordings will lead to even less trust in the internet as a news source.
A Pew Research survey released last week shows how a growing number of American adults say they are getting their news from the social media application TikTok. It is a short-term video-sharing site. The videos range in length from a few seconds to 10 minutes. It is most popular with teens and young adults. It is a Chinese company.
These surveys never say what those being questioned consider to be news. It is highly unlikely it is local news of their community. Rather than news, it is much more likely entertainment or gossip that TikTok fans and those using Facebook and YouTube are getting.
When we don’t pay attention, we are setting ourselves up to be taken advantage of by those who make the laws and define how they will be enforced. If no one seems to care, they can manipulate both to their benefit. It’s easy to distract and mislead those who aren’t paying attention.