Politics and the Media   /   Summer 2008   /    Articles

Do the News Media Starve the Civic IQ? Squaring Impressions and Facts

Doris A. Graber

In 1996, James Fallows, an experienced journalist who worked for many years as a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote a book with the provocative title Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. That book was later summarized in an Atlantic Monthly article titled, “Why Americans Hate the Media,” which accused journalists of directing the public’s attention toward “guessing what might or might not happen next month—rather than towards what’s useful, such as extracting lessons of success and failure from events that have already occurred.” Fallows argued: “Competing predictions add almost nothing to our ability to solve public problems or to make sensible choices among complex alternatives. Yet such useless distractions have become a specialty of the political press.”22xJames Fallows, “Why Americans Hate the Media,” The Atlantic Monthly 277.2 (February 1996): 45–64.

In 1996, I thought Fallows’s verdict about dysfunctional media was far too gloomy.33xJames M. Fallows, Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (New York: Random House, 1996). More than ten years have passed, and Fallows’s critique has been joined by a chorus of similar complaints.44xExamples include Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Everything You Think You Know About Politics…and Why You’re Wrong (New York: Basic, 2000); and Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina, eds., Civic Engagement in American Democracy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1999). If the Cassandras are right in their prediction that the failures of the media are undermining American democracy, the United States faces an extremely serious problem. In a democracy, citizens need to be sufficiently well informed to carry out their civic responsibilities. The public’s amply documented, steadily shrinking attention to information-rich newspapers and news broadcasts and the shrinking supply of sophisticated news offerings have raised fears that many citizens are relying on inferior news sources, or possibly abandoning news offerings altogether.55x The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions: What Americans Know: 1989–2007” (15 April 2007):http://people-press.org/report/319. Alternatively, a growing number of Americans may be picking up snippets of political information from various entertainment presentations, including websites like YouTube, gaining little solid knowledge from the process.66xMarkus Prior, “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout,” American Journal of Political Science 49.3 (2005): 577–92. Are these fears realistic?

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