Xavier Flory | The educated citizen
The Gadfly | Why we need more than newspapers to keep ourselves truly informed about the world
September 26, 2013, 8:17 pm · Updated September 29, 2013, 11:40 pm·
I’ve never been convinced that newspapers educate us about the state of the world as they should. So I decided to conduct an experiment.
Tuesday, I stopped 25 random passersby on Locust Walk. Of the 25, only six of them do not check The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post daily, and 10 reported checking news sites several times a day.
However, only nine of them could name their local congressman, and even more pathetically, only eight could name the two senators of their state. Since they were avid readers of the news, and Kenya and Syria have dominated the headlines this past week, I asked what the capital of these two countries are. Only four people named Nairobi and Damascus correctly — one Wharton junior asked me why it even mattered.
Knowing the capitals of these two nations might not personally affect him, but what is the point of reading the news if not to become more informed about the world?
Reading an article in The New York Times may tell you about the shooting in the Kenyan mall, but if you don’t then read up on the basic political system and history of Kenya, you haven’t learned anything useful. You’re merely keeping up with the talking points of the day and your opinions are nothing more than shallow regurgitations of whatever news source you read.
Newspapers like to say that journalism is the first rough draft of history, but even for a rough draft, it’s often pretty bad.
First of all, it’s sensationalist. They need to sell copies, and so they try and convince us that monumental events happen every day, when in fact, moments and actions that change the course of history occur at most once a decade on average.
This is exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle, which often drowns out and distracts one from the few important pieces of news and knowledge that everyone should have.
Not only is there sensationalism and misreporting, but the vital issues of the moment are commented on and editorialized, not presented in a deep and comprehensive manner so that readers can form their own opinions.
You could read five articles about Syria without getting an unbiased and complete review of the facts. How many times did we hear about the “imminent” election of Larry Summers as the chairman of the Federal Reserve before he withdrew from the nomination process?
An educated citizen is not someone who reads the newspaper everyday — far from it. We should know about the fiscal fight and the civil war in Syria, but we should learn enough about the situation to form our own opinions rather than religiously following every minute development in the action and debate surrounding the issue. It’s better to be well informed on an issue than to be the first informed.
Journalists would have you believe otherwise, but reading the newspaper is not synonymous with engaging with and knowing about the world.
Many columns and opinions are intelligent, but they are no substitute for our own judgment. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.” It’s easy to see how not reading the newspaper makes us happy — after all, who needs to hear about the misfortunes of the world when we have our own?
Newspaper articles can also distract us from more worthwhile reading. They are short, and the ideas in them are mostly simple to grasp and easy to forget. They don’t require the same concentration that a longer essay does, demand the perseverance that a book does or engage our imagination in the way a good novel does.
It’s not bad to want to be up-to-date on issues — many of us will need to be for our future jobs — but we should remember that being informed and articulate about the issues of today is more about thinking for ourselves than checking nytimes.com every hour.
Xavier Flory is a College senior from Nokesville, Va. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.