How well-informed are citizens, and how are they getting their news?

Two major news stories, the conflict in Syria and actions on the Affordable Care Act, raise two tough questions for news media and citizens:

  • How do journalists engage the public on public policy?
  • Do we, as news consumers, know enough to have meaningful voice in these matters?

The way the public gets news continues to change with digital — and especially mobile
forms — gaining audiences. Some shifts raise questions about the amount and quality of news consumed. All that leads to the crucial question of what people know about major public issues.

Last week’s Pew study on the Affordable Care Act didn’t inspire confidence in the public’s knowledge of news. Pew’s survey found that “44% of Americans are unsure whether ACA remains the law. About three-in-ten (31%) say they don’t know, while 8% think it has been repealed by Congress and 5% believe it was overturned by the Supreme Court.”

Should we cheer because more than half those surveyed (57%) knew that the law is being implemented? Should we allow slack for those who didn’t know, since the Act is complicated and changes have been made and proposed? Is the study evidence of separate and unequal societies, one informed and one uninformed?

To get a better sense of how the public is consuming news, and how journalists can best reach them, it’s helpful to look at some data. Recent studies tracking news consumption could leave the impression we’ve moved from well-rounded civic information meals to fast-food news snacking.

In March, The State of the News Media showed shrinkage in traditional newsroom staffs and audiences. An informed public seemed at risk. But it also reported growth in social media, new digital news providers and sources who directly address the public. Television remains the major source of news.

Several news sites, including Poynter.org, have reported on an increase in mobile users and greater time spent on tablets. This points to greater news consumption. The Newspaper Association of America turned to Nielsen and Scarborough research to show the majority of U.S. adults (69%), including those ages 18-24 (59%), read newspapers during the week in print or on mobile devices.

Mobiles Republic surveyed more than 8,000 of its app users and found a growing trend in news snacking as users return to mobile devices throughout the day.

The Reuters Institute recently looked at news consumption in several countries, including the United Kingdom and the U.S. and found a growing debate about partiality in the news. While the majority preferred news that claimed to have no viewpoint, almost a quarter of respondents longed for news that aligned with their point of view.

What does all this say about the public’s ability to take on tough topics like the Affordable Care Act and intervention in Syria? That, shall we say, bears watching. We know this country began with a news media for the few. Even as mass media developed, a portion of the population remains uninformed. And yet the goal is a sufficiently versed public for a strong civic life.

The People today might recall the words of Thomas Jefferson in 1820: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”

What do news media need to do? Here are a few steps:

1. Find out what people want/need to know and what information they can provide. Help them tell their stories.

2. Give the facts; explain issues; do it repeatedly and dispute misinformation.

3. Use a multiplatform approach with messages geared to medium and audience.

4. Examine the news climate and constantly seek to improve it. Be aware of things that discourage news consumption, including excessive “Breaking News” alerts, a barrage of bad news and poorly produced reports. Focus on accurate, clear and creative reports. Tell the public what’s broken, and surprise them with what works.

5. Be the trusted source for news.

Researcher David Shedden assisted in this report.

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Because reporters are always writing about today’s most important facts, e.g., Anthony Weiner’s qualifications for public service, they are distracting voters from remembering yesterday’s most important facts. And most voters don’t take notes when they read a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast. So no one should be surprised that “44% of Americans are unsure whether ACA remains the laws/” These problem could be largely overcome if every daily newspaper would just publish an annual one week review of the year’s most important facts. Which could be republished as an ebook or print on demand paperback book so voters wouldn’t have to take notes. They could just buy an annual photograhic memory. It would be easy to make the annual review profitable. The product could even be used to make fact checking much more effective. The annual review could also create a permanent increase in demand for newspapers. But my proposal will never be considered by journalists and the Poynter elites because no one in the news media is interested in writing the second draft of history.That would be too boring.

    Ms Dunlap wrote for step 2 that reporters should “Give facts, explain issues, do it repeatedly, and dispute misinformation.” But it will never be done in a format that will be effective because reporters are too narcissistic to change their professional standards.