Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News

Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News

Martin, Vivian B

Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, by David T.Z. Mindich (Oxford University Press, 2005) 172 pages, $20

Many journalism professors will nod in instant recognition as they read David T.Z. Mindich’s anecdotes about students with little or no interest in news or note the passing references to students who use “journalist” to describe talk show hosts such as David Letterman. The lack of interest that college-age people, including journalism students, have for news has received much attention within the industry, and tabloid publications targeting this group, such as the Red Eye and Red Streak in Chicago, have been among the questionable solutions.

Mindich’s contribution synthesizes surveys and other discussions about young people’s disengagement from the news. He does this through highlighting national survey data such as reports by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, news industry and census data, drawing on studies such as political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s work on declining social capital and reporting on interviews he conducted across the country with individuals and groups of people under 40, including some as young as 10, to tease out reasons behind declining news consumption.

Mindich does not ignore that the turn from political news is evident among older people as well, but his immediate concern is with what he describes as a “generational shift.” In doing so, he attempts to make more explicit the link between the withdrawal from news, particularly political news, and the erosion of democracy the country faces.

While the connection between an informed citizenry and democracy is one of the assumptions guiding journalism, as Mindich notes, the decline in newspaper circulation and news viewership is often framed as a problem of losing consumers rather than citizens. To build the case for what is at stake if younger people continue the trend away from news, Mindich makes heavy use of Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities,” which is the only recourse for people in large communities where face-to-face is impossible. News helps the citizenry imagine the differences and commonalities of their community. Mind ich writes:

When people tune in together they can-as they did in the 1960s-react together to marines burning a Vietnamese village. They can recoil in horror, together, at the fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham. There were counterarguments to what journalism presented to the country (the Marines were provoked, the South has a right to segregation) and independent journalism, at its best, tried not to take sides. No, in these kinds of stories, journalists don’t take sides, they give sides. In the Miltonian marketplace of ideas, journalism provides readers and viewers with different perspectives. In the 1960s, many of these readers and viewers acted like citizens and leaders and the nation decided to end Vietnam and segregation (p. 209).

Mindich’s concern is that young people’s withdrawal from news, media organizations’ decreased emphasis on political news, along with the ability of Internet users to customize news to their tastes (the so-called “Daily Me” effect) will result in a society in which people are more tuned to private rather than public interests. Yet, although his passion for the topic is evident, the book doesn’t break new ground. Most of Mindich’s remedies, such as a call for the public to take back its airwaves, are in circulation.

One would not want to underestimate the value of a book that synthesizes data and discussions around this issue. However, the book has some conceptual weaknesses that keep it from pushing the discussion into new areas. The title of the book signals some of the problem. Tuned Out immediately conveys the image of people pulling back from television; however, Mindich, a former assignment editor for CNN, is speaking about the withdrawal from news across media, whether it is in the newspaper or television. This seems to be a wise strategy-Mindich cites data indicating that young people who are not reading or viewing the news are not getting it on the Internet either, despite earlier speculation-but he does not do enough to separate the different processes surrounding becoming a newspaper reader from turning on the television. Further, the subtitle of the book-why Americans under 40 don’t follow the newsis a bit of bait and switch. In the book, Mindich more typically speaks of 18-24 year-olds, or people under 30, groups more typically treated as cohorts by the surveys he uses. He does very little to analyze 35-40 year-olds as a group at a distinctly different stage of life that might require a little more interaction with news even if it’s just to reach for the newspaper for the sales coupons. The oldest person Mindich interviewed is a 36-year-old banker in Kansas City. Most of those he interviewed were much younger.

Mindich, the author of a much-admired historical analysis of the introduction of objectivity into 19th century journalism, takes on contemporary trends without the attention to some of the related research traditions, notably news reception analysis and political communication studies dealing with young people and citizenship (David Buckingham), that could have strengthened his project. Longitudinal interviews might have given more insight into how news consumption can change, as well as how news media are consumed alongside entertainment media. When Mindich learned that young people whose teachers or parents pushed them toward newspaper reading continued with the habit, he could have explored that and other paths with more sampling and analysis with a method such as grounded theory. Mindich reports he conducted about 100 interviews, but he does not appear to have coded for patterns and analyzed in a systematic way. More attention to methodology beyond a journalistic/ anecdotal approach could have produced greater insight for any future intervention.

Mindich is understandably attempting to reach a more general reader with his thesis of a generational shift in news consumption that threatens democracy. The book is a good investment for journalism professionals and educators in need of a handy, reliable reference on this issue. Reservations about the research design aside, I plan to assign this book for discussion and projects in one of my journalism classes-alongside the requisite New York Times.

Martin is an assistant professor in the Department of English’s Journalism Program at Central Connecticut State University.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2005

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