Young People Not ‘Unplugged’

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By: Warren Watson

When I grew up in the 1960s in the milltown of Dover, N.H., our home was decorated with daily newspapers — from the Boston Globe, to the Manchester Union Leader, to Foster’s Daily Democrat. Those newspapers went from the doorstep, through the minds of my twin brother and I, and right into the litter box.

Day after day.

Media permeated our home. Nightly, TV news reports from Walter Cronkite became the soundtrack for our dinners of pot-roast and string beans.

We know that today the kind of media saturation in the Watson home doesn’t happen as often in today’s rush-around society. Network TV viewership and newspaper circulation are both down as media is fragmented and more are seeking news online.

With that change, many observers have suggested that the latest generation of young people are not attuned to current events. They’re “unplugged” as one author — David Mindich — says. The University of Georgia is even scheduling a “Youth Indifference to News” conference.

But hold your pixels, everyone. Don’t rush to judgment. This just in.

A 15,000-student study released Sept. 22 by the Knight Foundation and J-Ideas shows today’s young people are not as disconnected as we think, with many getting a steady of diet of news and information, mostly from the Internet. Most are getting news from Internet portals such as Google and Yahoo, but also getting news from newspaper web site. They’re even using shows such as “The Daily Show” in their surveillance.

“I’m not surprised that youth are better users of news media than might have been suspected,” said Jack Dvorak, who studies and teaches student journalism at Indiana University.

Students tended to trust television and newspapers — which some call verification journalism — as the most accurate sources for news, according to the study. Web logs are far down on the credibility list.

“It’s refreshing to see that high school students are consuming news and not wholeheartedly trusting unreliable sources, such as web blogs,” said Joe Dennis, director of the Georgia Scholastic Press Association.

Not everyone is applauding the research findings.

H.L. Hall, past president of the Journalism Education Association, questions whether students are getting enough news in depth from Internet sources: “It’s disappointing they’re not reading newspapers to get their information. If they’re getting most of their news off the Internet, they’re probably not really getting a broad perspective of what’s happening in the nation and the world.”

But we have to start somewhere. Anything that gets students engaged can be a good thing.

“The thought of high school students supplementing their media diets with a helping or two of Jon Stewart makes me smile,” said Wendy Wallace, director of high school programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Next: how do we get them to eat that pot roast and those string beans.

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