I never thought I would say this, but people need to watch more TV news.
Not all people. Certainly not the folks who stay home all day ranting about what they’ve seen on Fox News and MSNBC. They should go out and get some exercise. But people who think they’re pretty smart because they read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and maybe The Financial Times could profitably spend more time trying to understand where the other half derive its opinions.
I don’t trust telephone surveys about behavior because I think respondents lie to themselves and, consequently, to pollsters, but if the Gallup poll on where people get their news is anywhere near accurate, TV still remains the place where most Americans go for news and information. More than twice as many people (55%) say they get their news from television as from the Internet (21%), the runner-up.
But disparities start to emerge when other factors such as education are introduced. Only 43% of Americans with graduate degrees get their news from television, compared to 61% who have a high school diploma or less. In other words, the people who are most likely to set public policy, run the economy, and opine on the future of the country are operating from an entirely different knowledge base than the people they aspire to rule over.
This is not to say that that the highly educated are better informed because they get their news from the Internet or newspaper. On the contrary. Anyone who tries to keep up-to-date only through print is missing a big part of the story. It’s a completely different thing to understand the news intellectually by reading about it than it is to experience it viscerally by seeing it.
This was demonstrated most recently in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots and the Charlestown church murders. In both cases I was originally keeping current via newspapers and blogs, and it was only after I tuned in to TV that I started to understand in a profound way what was happening. The video from the riots was shocking; the reactions to the murders were anguishing. You just don’t get that from the printed word, either on paper or in pixels.
I am not saying that TV provides a full picture on the most important issues of the day. Hardly. Even in the glory days of Walter Cronkite a 30-minute newscast only produced as many spoken words as the front page of a newspaper. Now, with shorter news segments and more “news you can use,” the content in a network news broadcast is shallower than ever before. Last Sunday, for example, I tuned into the NBC nightly news to learn the results of the Greek referendum on the EC bailout offer and the lead story was about a house porch that collapsed in North Carolina, injuring two dozen people (but no deaths). The second story was about a small plane that crashed on a beach, injuring no one. So the actual seriousness of the news has never been lower.
“TV news” is, of course, not a monolithic entity. There’s the high-end, blow-your-brains-out-in-boredom “PBS NewsHour.” There are the bland mainstream nightly newscasts from the networks and CNN, which try to be neutral but can’t help but lean left. And then there are the populist, overtly partisan offerings of Fox News, MSNBC and Comedy Central. The information derived from these channels could not be more different.
All of these news platforms – from high-end to low-brow – function best and seem most necessary when there’s a crisis – a bombing, riot, war, natural disaster, etc. But when you really need to watch the news is when there’s NOT a crisis. When the news shows have to go out and find stories to fill a vacuum, that’s when the national id is revealed. You can be reading your newspaper and listening to NPR without even knowing there’s a huge national debate going on about people or issues you’ve never heard of. These manufactured outrages, and the outrage about the outrages on rival cable networks, can tell us more than a Gallup poll about the issues and anxieties that are really on people’s minds. And no, seeing news snippets on your Facebook feed is not really keeping up any more than watching football highlights helps you understand how a particular game was played.
I definitely wouldn’t advise restricting your news intake just to television, but if you want to be a well-informed person you need a variety of news sources that includes TV. This can be exhausting and, frankly, hard on your blood pressure given the high level of ill-temper that permeates all news platforms these days. Yet the truth is, you cannot brag to your friends that you never watch the news and claim to be a knowledgeable citizen. Consider a couple of hours of TV news-watching per week akin to jury duty. It’s your civic duty.