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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Why Don't Kids Know the News?

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

At times I'm alternately discouraged and/or appalled when I realize how little news some of my students get. From time to time, after reading an interesting piece in the newspaper or seeing something on TV that I'd like to discuss with them, I ask in class the next day, "Did anyone see the story in the Globe (or Herald or Sun or whatever) about such-and-such?" Or "Who saw `60 Minutes' last night?"

It's not that there are so few positive responses; it's that there aren't ANY.

And as a result, I (and perhaps others, as well) find that many students are blissfully unaware of even the most basic current events. Try this: Ask a student you know an easy current events question - like who is running for President or what the big deal is about gas prices or what's going on in Bosnia. It's a rare kid who can tell you.

I am not making fun of them. The students I see are neither stupid nor lazy nor especially self-centered. There is something else going on here, and I'm just trying to figure out what it is.

First, I suspect that there is simply more news out there. Back when I was a kid, there were essentially three TV stations and a couple of major newspapers. These days, of course, there are literally hundreds. While on the surface that might argue for BETTER current events knowledge, it also might explain why so few of us are watching (or reading, or hearing) the same coverage, the same news. With so much alleged "news" flooding our society these days, it's easy to get what you need to know without reading a paper or watching a TV newscast.

Yes, I know that another reason for this "disconnect" between students and the news is the life of a teenager. Like I said, I see them in class every day. Between school (7 hours a day), work (some work as much as 30 to 40 hours per week), sports or extra-curricular activities, homework (for those who actually spend a few hours a night on it), social life (certainly necessary), and family responsibilities, I really do sympathize with the fact that many teens just don't have a lot of time to spend with a newspaper or TV. It may not be an excuse, but it's certainly a reason.

And whenever I start bemoaning the fact that our kids aren't as current on current events as we were when we were in high school, I remind myself of a few things:

First, I could simply be wrong. Were we really that much more news conscious back then, or does it only seem so in retrospect, through rose-colored glasses of time? Maybe it is just a characteristic of teenagers to be concerned about other stuff more than what adults call the news.

It certainly was a different time back then when we were younger. If we did follow the news more closely, perhaps it was because we still thought that the individual mattered, that government was participatory, or that we could make a difference. Years of scandal and a still-growing sense of malaise in our culture may have something to do with the change in that.

Then, too, there was a war going on. As teenagers watching the body count in Vietnam rise, we certainly understood that the war had a direct and potentially fatal consequence to us and out friends personally. Were we more interested in news only because it had the potential to immediately impact our lives? Were we more civic-minded back then or merely wondering what would happen to us?

Of course, members of the Baby Boom generation (myself included) need to realize that the demographics for our very large and affluent group have always been important to broadcasters, publishers, and advertisers. No doubt the news was (in the past) and is (even now) targeted to us, our interests and concerns. We are, after all - even aging - not only a very powerful and vocal entity, but also an eagerly-sought-after consumer group.

Ten years ago, Channel One was introduced into thousands of American classrooms partially in an effort to address this need for a common, professionally-produced newscast for America's students. The ensuing battles over commercials in the classroom, the fact that there is only 10 minutes of content per day, and the requests for in-depth coverage of a few teen issues rather than a broad reporting of the news in general have all helped make it clear that Channel One isn't the answer. It may or may not be helpful and instructive, but it's certainly not in itself the answer to any current events gap in our nation's schools.

As with many thorny and difficult issues, I don't have the answer myself; I'm just appreciating the problem.

How to make news important, compelling, relevant, and easy-to-access (especially for our youth) is one of the continuing issues which our society and our media need to address.