Dear American Public,
When I hear my peer group (I’m 21, so think college students) say they don’t care about politics enough to vote or that politics “is bullshit,” I get extremely disappointed, but I also understand. The American government is freaking complex, and the news media hasn’t made a recent attempt to explain it to any of us. There are so many ways that the media enables us to be passive observers of our own government that I get a sinking feeling when I think about it sometimes – and I’m a journalism major!
But, guess what? America is a participatory democracy, and that means participating. It means voting. It means making an effort to understand why your property taxes are going up next year instead of dreading the budget announcement. It means going to city council to ask for a bicycle safety ordinance when you’ve had too many close calls on the road. It means taking some effort, of course. Hasn’t anyone told you that it is better to earn than to receive?
Perhaps most strikingly, it means being media literate so you can separate the issues from their coverage. I’m sure you, the reader, have at least one example of watching, listening to, or reading political news coverage that made you want to pray for the future of society. Remember what I said about bad media practices a minute ago? Here are a couple examples that I’ve observed:
- a tendency to make political coverage more exciting/horrifying/otherwise attractive to the “average person,”
- covering politics as if it is a horse race to be observed – not a matter of public participation. (“ahead in the polls” news, “what does this mean for the polls” news)
- restricting coverage to candidates who have already received enough media attention to be considered popular in the first place!
- a tendency to polarize political issues by interviewing experts who contradict each other and have no moderate stance on the subject at hand,
- using sound bites out of context… or covering the irresponsible publication of said sound bite while using the freaking sound bite!
- When was the last time a candidate had the time to discuss his/her policies for more than 9 seconds during the news? In the 1980s, that’s when.
The media, which now includes print, radio, TV, blogs, Twitter, annoying chain emails, Facebook pages and government press releases… all of which either have something different to say or a different way of saying the same thing. The information is deafening and not always accurate, so check multiple sources and, for the love of God AND science, make sure those sources are actually credible and relevant to the issue. Just because it says “Senior Whitehouse Analyst” beneath the expert’s name does not guarantee you any further understanding of a complex topic. Realistically, if it’s about politics it can’t be covered in the 30 second sound bite they offer him to explain it anyway.
I get why you don’t care. You have questions about society, and you need to make a good opinion of what to do. To get that opinion you need accurate information, and you need to hear it expressed rationally, not in two-minute debate sessions on cable television. There are three sides to every coin; it’s just that no one talks about coin’s edge.
Practice media criticism for me during the election season and let me know whether you’re as frustrated as I am with “2012 Election Coverage” (<– seriously, Google that phrase), will you?