The crisis facing journalism, though we often affix the word “financial” to it, is best understood in the context of an even more expansive problem: the broad decline of civic engagement. Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s 2000 study of the dissolution of civic life in America, owes much of its instant-icon status to the fact that the data it aggregated proved what many Americans already sensed: that we’re increasingly isolated from one another, and increasingly disillusioned about politics and other features of civic life. The downward trends are so familiar, at this point, they hardly need detailing: declining participation in civic events, declining newspaper readership, declining knowledge about American democracy and the current events that inform it. And those declines are particularly precipitous among young people. The average newspaper reader is fifty-five years old; less than a fifth of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim to read—or even look at—a daily paper. As Evan Cornog put it in a 2005 essay in CJR, “When only 41 percent of teenagers polled can name the three branches of government while 59 percent can name the Three Stooges, something is seriously amiss.”
Yet there’s reason for optimism amid all the statistical gloom. Some brighter stats, courtesy of a December 2008 Pew study: during the 2008 presidential campaign, 33 percent of Millennials (the generation born between 1977 and 1996) interacted with a 2008 presidential campaign—by visiting a candidate’s Web site, trying to convince family or friends to vote for a candidate, or visiting a candidate’s page on a social-networking site—while only 29 percent of Baby Boomers, and 26 percent of Gen Xers, did so. CNN’s viewership among the eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic shot up from 60,000 a night in February 2007 to 218,000 a night in February 2008—a jump likely fueled by the historic nature of the presidential campaign.
And it’s not merely the excitement of politics that engages young people: volunteerism, a classic measure of civic sensibility, is also on the rise. “New evidence from multiple sources confirms that those Americans who were caught by the flash of September 11 in their impressionable adolescent years are now significantly more involved in public affairs and community life than their older brothers and sisters,” Robert Putnam and Thomas Sandler wrote in a 2005 Washington Post op-ed. Young people also consume news in a more broadly “civic” setting than their parents and grandparents did. Millennials are more likely to get their news indirectly, via e-mail forwards, Twitter links, and the like, than they are from news outlets themselves. Ubiquity, though, has a way of compromising responsibility. Thus, the resonance of the quote, from a college student participating in a 2008 focus group: “If the news is that important, it will find me.”
We have, then, something of a paradox when it comes to young people’s civic engagement: they are reasonably engaged socially and politically, yet they too often lack the information necessary to translate their interest into a deeper, more substantive form of civic engagement. Young people are more socially connected, and have at their disposal more news and information than their parents could have imagined during their own youth. Lacking, however, is their knowledge of—and appreciation for—the kind of civic-minded news and information that a democracy requires, and that journalists produce. “Two out of ten times, I’m blown away by how well the kids articulate something they know,” says Audrey Harris, a social studies teacher at Williamsburg Collegiate who has been using Alan Miller’s curriculum with her seventh-graders. “And eight out of ten times, I’m horrified at what they don’t know.”
What’s to be done? The news-literacy programs that are currently in their gestational phases are certainly a start. But such projects are limited in their reach. The numbers in question—the approximately 650 students reached by Alan Miller’s four-month pilot program, Howard Schneider’s three thousand students—are admirable; set against the vast backdrop of young Americans, though, their impact is negligible. To call the programs’ effect on young people’s civic sensibilities a drop in the bucket would be to overstate the matter.