Radio stations used to be required by law to present public service content
which, in most cases, took the form of news. My first job out of college
was in the news department at WABC in New York back when it was still a rock
'n' roll powerhouse. Despite the likelihood that our audience resented it,
we interrupted Cousin Brucie and the other D-Js every hour for five minutes
of no-nonsense news. Some listeners switched stations, but most stuck around;
and the news rubbed off.
Today, music stations provide barely a smidgen of information, often limited
to traffic and weather. For millions of listeners to satellite radio, inadvertent
contact with news is even less likely unless they specifically seek a channel
devoted to current events.
The situation was pretty much the same on TV, where almost every broadcast
station stopped for news once or twice each night. Nowadays viewers can watch
cable and satellite 24/7 without ever running the risk of hearing anything
that could even loosely be called news.
Walking down the streets of most cities back in the day, news was always
nearby. It was stacked up at newsstands and even shouted by vendors. People
carried transistor radios whose messages resonated in the pre-earphone era.
And it tended to rub off.
Many would argue that although these old-fashioned formats have largely
disappeared, they've been replaced by faster, omnipresent computer devices
that keep us better informed. But about what?
Vast numbers of young people don't even bother with e-mail anymore. They
skip home pages of Yahoo or AOL, preferring Facebook for messaging and dwell
on Internet pages that skip over news of the outside world almost entirely.
While information buzzes around us more than ever before, it has never been
easier to tune out.
A strong counter argument to this rub off theory would seem to be provided
in a lengthy report just released by the Pew Research Center, headlined: "Americans
Spending More Time Following the News." After surveying 3,006 adults
by telephone, the Pew study concludes, "instead of replacing traditional
news platforms, Americans are increasingly integrating new technologies into
their news consumption habits." As a result, "total minutes with
news" has climbed from 67 per day in 2008 to 70 minutes today.
But very little explanation is offered about what constitutes "news." It
may be that society's definition of news is changing even faster than its
habits about how to get it. The tip-off comes in a footnote from Pew indicating, "The
public struggled with a four-question current events quiz – just 14
percent answered all four correctly."
News need not be like bad tasting medicine, and it shouldn't be forced on
consumers or slipped into their diets. But it helped when a little news rubbed
off on people, and it's another troubling sign of our times that it doesn't
happen much anymore.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was first distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.