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3 surveys and 3 reasons to worry

Three recent surveys brought me up short, thinking about the future of journalism as we know it. In turn, each of them leads to concerns about the future of our country.

One was a poll by the Endowment for the Arts, which found that reading for pleasure is way down in America. The study found that to be true for every group – by age, gender, education, income level, ethnicity.

Author Andrew Solomon, whose most recent book was about depression, wrote on the op-ed page of the New York Times that the survey demonstrated that “readers are active while nonreaders – more than half the population – have settled into apathy. There is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge, and those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy.”



This is scary, because even though the study focused on books and not news media, this decline in reading surely must have a negative impact on peoples’ engagement with public life, which The Union is in the business of facilitating.

Solomon observed that electronic media, “despite the existence of good television, fine writing on the Internet, and video games that test logic,” tend to be torpid, by and large inviting inert reception.




“Without books, we cannot succeed in our current struggle against absolutism and terrorism,” he wrote. “The retreat from civic to virtual life is a retreat from engaged democracy, from the principles that we want to share with the rest of the world. You are what you read. If you read nothing, then your mind withers, and your ideals lose their vitality and sway.”

In Nevada County, I believe, we are bucking that trend. But Nevada County is not a reflection of the United States, and these results may presage a grim trend for the country.

The second study, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows that American news consumers are increasingly politicized in their choices of media sources. Their party loyalties also tend to dictate their trust in some news sources over others. For example, a plurality of the Fox News audience identifies itself as Republican, while Democrats favor CNN.

This is a trend we struggle with every day at The Union, where – as the only daily newspaper in Nevada County – we strive to be a news medium that reflects the range of political and social views of as many citizens as possible.

Andrew Kohut, director of the center, wrote (also in a New York Times op-ed piece) that despite a decline in news knowledge by Americans, many sociologists and political scientists feel citizens still can “fill in the holes” and make rational decisions. They believe the public uses its values aptly as a prism for interpreting the larger world.

“This process may be threatened, not enhanced, however, by the explosion of shortcuts available,” wrote Kohut. “And this freewheeling bazaar of news choices has generated an audience that is increasingly self-segregating.”

What does this mean for media credibility? Kohut said it’s now “more driven by ideology and partisanship than at any point in nearly 20 years of surveys.”

The long-term danger is that democracy depends on people being exposed to information they would not necessarily have chosen for themselves. Thus, without the public sphere offered by a mass news media, where is the common ground for a democratic civil society to work out its problems?

Finally, the Chicago Tribune surveyed 1,000 adults to measure their attitudes about freedom of speech. Charles Madigan, editor of their Perspective section, wrote about the findings: “What it means is that those who would aggressively move to limit expression, however innocent or offensive, can depend on the support of a substantial audience.”

• Just over half the respondents said the government should impose restrictions on the Internet.

• 55 percent want sex and violence on cable TV to be regulated.

• Two-thirds want “radio personalities who use implicit or explicit sexual expressions” to be banned from the air.

• Half the respondents said there should have been some restraint on coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq; 20 percent would not allow negative reporting on the war, or critical editorials.

My gut reaction is that a fewer people in Nevada County would support limiting freedom speech. But those other two polls raise doubts in my mind . . .

ooo

I always get a chuckle during the Oscars or other big award presentations when winners try to list everyone who is important to their success. You know they’re going to leave some key person out, like their mother or tax accountant.

So it was in my column last week when, in introducing new columnists, I endeavored to give an overview of our current columnists and left out Pam Fortner, who tracks what is happening with Nevada County’s hundreds of non-profit organizations.

You can bet the people she helps out with her column didn’t let me forget the omission – I’ve been hearing from them all week. Sorry, Pam . . .

ooo

The Union receives as many as 100 letters to the editor, kudos, and submissions for Other Voices columns every week. We read every one of them. Most of them are at least lucid, some are clever or even profound, and a few are what could be called “out there.” Now and then we get something that defies categorization.

One of those can be found on the next page. Carl Cicogni of Cedar Ridge intended his piece to be a kudo, but since those are limited to 100 words, we made it an Other Voices column. As a trip down memory lane, it is hard to beat.

ooo

Speaking of letters and such, it was mentioned here a few weeks ago that The Union was thinking of ways to use our Web site (www.TheUnion.com) to increase the speed of publication and perhaps loosen the length restrictions.

This is still in the works, but we are looking to tie this into the redesign of TheUnion.com, expected sometime in August. For those who read us online, you’ll already have noticed some changes since we’ve hired Web Editor Mike Witherow, including more breaking news during the day, improved organization and links, and an afternoon revision of the home page (called “day-parting”) that offers evening entertainment options, and lists what is coming up in The Union the next day.

The plans for the redesign will include lots of new features that we’ll tell you about as the debut draws closer.

ooo

Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.


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