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Are you paying attention?

By aphrael in Op-Ed
Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 07:57:06 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

It's a basic assumption prevalant in popular culture that the generation of our parents paid more attention to the news than we do; that somehow news of events political mattered more in their time than it does in ours. Is that true? And what does it mean?

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comments (24)
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It's a subtle implication, never quite completely drawn out, but it's there in the attitudes of the characters of books written in earlier times, and in the collective media memory of those times -- everyone knows who Walter Cronkite was, and there is no analog in today's world. What is more, as the media present it, this is a bad thing: it's as if somehow we as individuals have a responsibility as members of society to be paying attention.

This assumption may or not be a valid assessment of the level of interest in the news that prevailed at that time. If it isn't a valid assessment, then the belief is being deliberately fostered by someone -- whether it's the media seeking to use guilt as a means of salesmanship, or it's a conspiracy on the behalf of benevolent leaders (or evil ones, depending on your political leanings) trying to use guilt to change us into a different society than that of our ancestors. (A really adept conspiracy theorist could work aliens into that scenario, but i'll leave that task to those better suited to conspiracy theories).

I've always assumed that it's a valid assessment, though. Which raises an interesting question: what changed? Why are we less interested, as a group, in the everyday affairs of the outside world? What is the cause of the CNN effect?

The standard answer to this, developed by sociologists in the late 1980s, is "compassion fatigue": the problems of the world are unsolvable, they say, so people have stopped paying attention. That may describe the position of the political elite, but it doesn't describe the position of anyone I know; most people are too optimistic to be operating under that sort of defeated, defeatest view of the world -- and besides which, the detail of information needed to decide that most of the world's problems are unsolvable are missing in the average inhabitant of the modern world. "Compassion fatigue" as an explanation fails because it requires that people stopped paying attention after an avalanche of discouraging information which most people can't be demonstrated to have.

Another potential explanation is that the generation which lived through the depression and WWII was trained by experience to pay attention -- the world as they knew it had been utterly destroyed and reshaped in front of their eyes, and keeping an ear and an eye out, or two if possible, for the next cataclysm which could come their way was merely the instinct of self-preservation snapping in action. There may be some merit to that; but given that the world we live in is just as discontinuous with what might have been imagined thirty years ago as the world of 1959 was from that of 1929, that explanation still leaves something missing.

Five years ago the explanation would have been that only the slacker generation isn't paying attention, and it's some sort of fault of theirs. Thankfully, that explanation has died under the weight of the unveiling of the folly of its own prejudice.

I wonder if the real reason is that instant communication has lost its novelty value -- if the invention of the telegraph, and shortly thereafter, radio, and thence television, and the sudden ability of people living in New York to hear all the intimate goings-on of people in London, were like a drug which intoxicated society; if following THE NEWS was, in the end, like skee-ball or hula hoops: an intense societal passion which swept through the country on a wave of hysteria and is now fading out. In a world where instant communication is ubiquitous and cheap, what's the excitement in knowing things about far-away places that don't appear to be able to affect you? Ultimately, who cares about what happens in the civil war in Congo, unless you

  1. know people there;
  2. have financial interests that are affected by it;
  3. have some sort of curiosity about the evolution of societies, or of warfare tactics?

News addiction may well be a fleeting fad whose time is going.

In ancient times, the only people who knew what was going on in remote districts were the people who traded with them (aside from passing rumor). In medieval times, the same was true. In recent modern times, according to popular belief, that wasn't true, but it's becoming true again -- the overwhelming majority of people, at least in this country, have little to no knowledge of the events that take place elsewhere in the world, save rumor, spread by the rumour-mongers of the day.

This might even be a good thing.


If that's a valid observation, what does it say about the future of our political system? We live in a world where, despite rhetoric about democratic values, the views of the average man only seldom matter to the people making decisions in the halls of government; the scale on which decisions are being made is such that it can be no other way. Trying to get (using the US as an example) 250 million people to reach a consensus on anything would result in the passage of lifespans before important decisions were made; trying to have a smaller body understand the input of every member of that 250 million who has an opinion would take almost as long.

Moreover, if it's true that paying close attention to the news was a passing fancy, then maybe it's a good thing that government is more distant from the passions of the people; when deciding on a potential economic treaty with a random third-world country (for example), only a small handful will be well-enough informed to have anything intelligent to say on the subject. And, while any individual given sufficient information would be able to make intelligent, well-thought out decisions, most won't have the information required... unless they get it after being asked to decide, at which point every source if information is suspect, potentially pushing the information for their own profit, and potentially being less than scrupulous about verifying the accuracy of the information they are presenting.

I wonder whether something similar to this is why the Roman Republic collapsed, and why most of the Italian city-states (which started out, most of them, as republics) evolved into oligarchies. Is it at least in part because, when most people aren't paying attention, the only way for the state to make reasonable decisions is to exclude most people from the decision-making?


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Are you paying attention? | 41 comments (29 topical, 12 editorial, 0 hidden)
Ancient Republics (3.14 / 7) (#3)
by ucblockhead on Sun Feb 25, 2001 at 11:44:11 PM EST

The Roman Republic was never a democracy. The Roman Senate was not an elected body and the methods by which the other elected offices were filled were skewed massively towards a small subset of the citizenry.

And like the Greek Democracies, which were democratic in that every citizen had an equal vote, a large proportion of the population were slaves, and therefore had no vote. But even discounting that, Rome was not particularly democratic ever before the Republic fell.

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

Nor is the United States... (none / 0) (#27)
by nanofish on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 02:49:55 PM EST

a democracy. It is a Federal Republic. However, the citizens are to participate rather than just the elite. It's more like a country of patricians rather than the Roman patrician, plebe, slave way.

[ Parent ]
Yes, but... (4.00 / 2) (#29)
by ucblockhead on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 03:28:47 PM EST

Yes, but my point is that Rome wasn't even a Democracy like the US. The Roman Republican was NOT set up in a nice one man/one vote voting system where most offices were elected. For one, the Senate was not an elected body at all, but instead had its membership based on property and acceptance from the other members of the Senate. Other offices were elected by the general public, but the voting system was bizarre in that people were divided into "tribes" where some tribes had much more voting power than others. The bulk of the population was put in one "low class" tribe while the small elite population was distributed among all of the others. Since each "tribe" had equal weight, the bulk of the population got no vote unless the elites were divided over the issue.

Note that this isn't quite the same as "Patrician" vs. "Plebian" as people of the Plebian class were admitted to the Senate. The "Patrician" thing was a remnant of an earlier situation that had already decade by the time of the late Republic. In many respects, the "Patrician" vs. "Plebian" thing was often a matter of "new money" vs. "old money".

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]

ah hah (none / 0) (#37)
by nanofish on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 09:42:42 AM EST

Interesting! Thanks for the extra detail.

[ Parent ]
Greeks (none / 0) (#41)
by dabadab on Wed Feb 28, 2001 at 06:56:45 AM EST

Well, I think that Greeks had a "real" democracy.
All the free men got an equal vote and they had the chance to vote on important issues.
As for the non-voters: they wanted votes only from those who are inflenced by the outcome, aware of what's happening and being able to make sound decisions. Women, slaves (who were not that many, esp. in Athens) and children were not expected to fulfill the last two requirements, so it was logical to exclude them (and childer are still excluded to this day for the very same reasons).
Real life is overrated.
[ Parent ]
News or not (2.75 / 4) (#4)
by zerth on Sun Feb 25, 2001 at 11:56:26 PM EST

   Hey, I know who Walter Cronkite is ("And that's the way it is" right?), and skee ball is /not/ a fad:}(Although, I will admit, I've never actually seen Cronkite on tv.)

   Seriously, I watch news fairly frequently, but I can not stand how it is all soundbyted, shallow, spoon-fed mush. I rarely watch CNN or any "news channels". If I want to learn about something, I want a good 15 minutes on one topic. Maybe even a whole hour. Of course, that is pretty hard to do with only a handfull of news channels, but...

   I love stuff like Cspan or the "live medical procedures" channel. Hours and hours of what I think of as "real news". Stuff happens, I see it almost first hand, and, more often than not, I learn something interesting and|or useful. Plus, channels like that usually has the good stuff on when I am playing Insomniac.

   Of course, I hardly am anywhere with a few standard deviations of the norm, being something of an information junky(I currently swing between wanting to be a librarian and a computer science prof, preferably both at once somehow), but I would love to live in a society where one was given lots of pertinent data concerning governmental decisions and was able to mull it over with everyone else involved in fora such as this. Supposedly, my community does have some kind of board somewhere, but I strongly suspect it is cleverly disguised as a lavatory marked "Beware Of Carnivorous Marsupial".

Rusty isn't God here, he's the pope; our God is pedantry. -- Subtillus

The generation of Today (2.55 / 9) (#5)
by rebelcool on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 12:00:32 AM EST

People always gripe about "back in my day..." and claim it was the best time ever. Undoubtedly as we all get older, the same thing will happen (those of us that are late teen to 20somethings that is).

The way I see it is, its just our generation perception. Each one does things slightly different. For example, look at the way of societal revolution and change. In the 1960s and early 70's it was through protest movements, burning draft cards and so on.

Today, its in the information age. Rebelling against the corporate-run society that exists, creating the freedom of information. Holding a hand up to corporations and saying "no, we will NOT pay your absurd prices for the information that was created FOR us". The attitude was "give peace a chance", today it is "Information wants to be free, and free it shall" (you can quote me on that) Its the new revolution, and its happening right here right now.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

Yup, and it's kind of scary (4.00 / 1) (#22)
by Zukov on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 12:41:47 PM EST

To see yourself seduced by the dark side, and become like your parents. Remembering how you vowed that it would never happen.

And to see 18 year olds making the same screwups you made more than 18 years ago, and to be absolutely, positively sure that if you give any input, you will be ignored, just like you ignored your parents.

There isn't even any satisfaction when the predicted disaster strikes, because the whole outcome was far too obvious and inevitable.

Life- Pay attention to the trip, not the destination. Old people are the maps, and if you find a good one, you will have a much nicer journey.

ȶ H (^

Yes, I have just bumbled upon Gnome Character Map. Please ! me.
[ Parent ]

Breaking the system (none / 0) (#26)
by rebelcool on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 02:37:43 PM EST

except things were better off after the civil rights movements and anti-war protests. The horrors of the underbelly of society were exposed and eliminated.

The same is happening now. The injustice that a few overly powerful corporations are fostering upon all of us is being overthrown. I'm sure in 30 years, my kids will be doing the same thing.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

Things are better, yes... (none / 0) (#32)
by Zukov on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 06:05:38 PM EST

But the horrors have not been eliminated, even if they have been exposed. New problems have been created, for example the ability to track everyones actions all the time.

What evidence do you see that corps influence is being overthrown? I see corps having more power to influence people due to having much more info about individual consumers... (think your grocery store card, etc)

ȶ H (^

Yes, I have just bumbled upon Gnome Character Map. Please ! me.
[ Parent ]

whats happening... (none / 0) (#33)
by rebelcool on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 06:11:20 PM EST

the fact such things are happening, and the fact we're protesting it. Things such as MP3 swapping, file swapping..why? Because we're greedy? Maybe. Because we dont want to pay absurd prices for art? Yes. its ridiculous how much corporations charge. It's criminal even. The fact that thousands of people are PISSED OFF and actually starting to do things about it, such as creating file transfer networks, shows dissatisfaction. The protests didnt stop the vietnam war, but it did change things later on.

The same is happening now. Whether it will be successful or not, time will tell..but remember: The right and just usually win over the greedy in the end. Look at WWII.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

WWII (none / 0) (#36)
by Pseudonym on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 08:40:04 AM EST

The right and just usually win over the greedy in the end. Look at WWII.

Yes. The right and just ended up in 45-year-long war of words against each other, almost anhiliating humanity in the process.

I have to quote a little bit from the end of A Tale of Two Cities, because that sums my feelings best. To properly understand it, though, you need a little background. WARNING: SPOILER ALERT

The son of a minor French nobleman leaves France just before the revolution. He returns to France after (read the book if you want to know why) and is tried by the "people", as all nobles were. He is acquitted, since he had done lots of nice things like relinquishing his title years before and rescuing a Citizen from the Bastille. Soon later he is re-arrested and tried, this time for a callous act which his father did, resulting in the death of a child.

To make a long story short, he escapes and another man takes his place at the guilotine. The author concludes the book with the thoughts that would have gone through through this other man's mind at the end, had be been prophetic.

I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

I'd like to think it's true. The evils of WWII inevitably led to the cold war, which inevitably led to the modern corporatist state. I'd love to be prophetic and know that a beautiful world will rise from the abyss and that evil will wear itself out.

I fear that whatever replaces the corporate state will be just as evil, and it will be my generation, Generation X, which will be responsible.

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
Too much information (4.16 / 6) (#12)
by bjrubble on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 02:39:06 AM EST

I think one aspect of the problem is something like information overload. Information itself is not useful; you need to integrate it into some sort of context for it to take on meaning and import. The world today is awash in information, but few people have the time or interest to weave it into their worldview. Contrast this with a few decades ago, when information was far more scarce and propagandized, but people by and large spent much more time thinking about each tidbit -- probably in part because there was less of it to tackle.

For example, 20 years ago I'd imagine very few people gave even a second thought to Congo. Now I read about war and death on a regular basis, and it's a shame, but then I look at Afghanistan and Myanmar and East Timor and all the other places that used to get passed over entirely but which now provide a steady stream of depressing news, and taken all together it's a lot more to digest, much less propose to solve.

So maybe in the end I'm that compassion fatigue that was mentioned. But I don't think it's so much about the difficulty of the problems as the frequency and shallowness of their presentation. We see 30-second sound bites of starving people and war orphans and hospital wings full of dying AIDS victims, and it's like eating a diet of raw sugar -- each bite is chock full of impact, but ultimately there's no substance; it might get you all riled up for 20 minutes, but in the end it's just tiring.

What is "the" news? (4.00 / 3) (#16)
by DesiredUsername on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 09:21:37 AM EST

When Walter Cronkite was doing the news, there wasn't all that much news being done. (Some) war coverage (if the US was involved), elections--and that's about it. Since then the industry has grown and specialties have been created. MTV has Music News, PBS has the "Nightly Business Report", Slashdot has "News for Nerds". Etc.

Almost everybody reads news, but nobody reads THE news. Personally I listen to NPR (Morning Edition on the ride in, All Things Considered on the ride home) and read /. and K5 (at work). IMParochialO, EVERYONE should listen to NPR and read some kind of tech news--but that's because I'm biased, just like everyone else. Others may shout "wake up, America!" because I'm not watching Kurt Loder or reading anything by Ziff-Davis. That's why we call it a "free" market.

(I have other opinions regarding this phenom, such as signal to noise ratios, limited time with unlimited "issues", but I'll not ramble on too much--I've been at work for 1.5 hours and I haven't done any work yet!)

Play 囲碁
Blimey! (4.50 / 4) (#17)
by Mr Tom on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 09:32:58 AM EST

There's a lot of content up there - good article. :-)Although I think it would have made easier reading (and threading) as 2 or 3 shorter ones, but.

> the generation of our parents paid more attention to
> the news than we do

I disagree. I think that they paid about as much attention to the news as we do, but their sources were different. And much more limited in both number and scope.

Due to the vast amount of news out there, you have to rationalise, and read what you find important. What's important to a 20 year old will be very different to a 50 year old's priorities. Of course, this means that both generations will think that the other's just missing the point, to a greater or lesser extent. (Note: Yes - I made a huge generalisation. I confess. Please don't tell me that you're 98 and know all the ins and outs of the Napster trial, or that you're 15 and are a world authority on Greenham Common.)

Since news sources have diversified, so has the knowledge base. To use an an analogy: 35 years ago, just about every 20 year old liked the Beatles, or the Stones or both. Nowadays, you try finding a pop group that almost everyone likes - just doesn't happen, because we've diversified so much culturally. Similarily, interests are more diverse. So you get a dilution of 'core' interests, which would lead to an appearance of ignorance in a given demographic.

> Why are we less interested, as a group, in the everyday
> affairs of the outside world?

I'm not sure that I agree with this. I think that my (22yr old) generation is much more interested in the affairs of the whole world than the previous generation.
Although I'd be hard pushed to prove it. I cite the growth of global communications networks and infrastructures as evidence - if there was no demand, they just wouldn't be there....

-- Mr_Tom<at>gmx.co.uk

I am a consultant. My job is to make your job redundant.

Maybe because modern `news' is terrible? (4.00 / 4) (#18)
by _Quinn on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 10:31:29 AM EST

   I gave up watching CNN a while ago and I loathe their website; the local paper is almost as bad, and I'd prefer not to kill trees for something I /ought/ to be able to get online...

   I find that the only paper I can read regularly is the Wall Street Journal, which isn't wide enough in scope for me to consider myself `up to date' in world events. (Incidentally, I loathe the WSJ's website also, though I have to admit to being hard-pressed to come up with a better idea.) I read three `news' sites regularly: Ars Technica, Kuro5hin, and TomPaine.com, but none of them cover quite what a dead-trees paper would. I used to get that kind of coverage from `my' Excite, but they redesigned the page into something I loathed a while back. (Sigh. Maybe I'm just picky?)

   So, could someone recommend a good news site? Even something which just sorted/searched AP news-wire/Reuters well would be a step up.

   Oh, the topical point: the media claims that the average American's attention span has dropped, so they have to do thing quickly. But isn't there going to be a feedback loop there? I mean, if a story is superficial anyway, wouldn't you want them to get it out of the way quickly? So how can you tell who started the `race to the soundbite'?

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
BBC News (3.00 / 2) (#20)
by mwbingham on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 11:11:38 AM EST

I realise that this may not give a very appropriate view of the news for US K5 readers, but I like the BBC news web site. And it is usually pretty well linked to other sites... To be fair, I find US news web sites (CNN, etc.) quite interesting, to see the US slant on certain stories. I wonder what the BBC looks like from outside the UK...

[ Parent ]
BBC news (3.00 / 1) (#21)
by Zukov on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 12:26:05 PM EST

Also is shown on some public television stations. If you have a shortwave radio then you may also be able to get BBC radio.

ȶ H (^

Yes, I have just bumbled upon Gnome Character Map. Please ! me.
[ Parent ]

Alternative News: Yahoo! (4.00 / 2) (#24)
by warpeightbot on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 01:07:24 PM EST

Yahoo, of all places, has a very well laid out news section, with a subscription to Rueters. (The problem with the BBC is that they tend to be Eurocentric, which isn't a problem if you live on that side of the Atlantic, but is rather a pain for us Yanks...) Rueters, while still British press, and subject to the (higher) British standard of reporting, does a very good job of covering news in the New World. And good ol' Yahoo divvies it all up and lays it out there for us, for free-ninety-free. (They also integrate local press for those of us who actually care about what's going on in the city around us.) You also have the choice of using the main news pages and navigating yourself, or you can use My Yahoo and pick and choose just the bits you want, for presentation in a custom format.

I've been using Yahoo for several years now, ever since CNN went south, and have been very satisfied with its output and readability. No, I'm not one of their ad men; there are a few things they do (or don't do) that are quite annoying (like no Voice-over-IP for the Linux and Java clients yet), but overall it's a very nice service, and the price is definitely right.

And now the news, all the news that's New and Improved by the U.S. Army,
the Sweetest Smelling Army In The World.
    -- Adrian Cronauer

[ Parent ]

The Economist (4.00 / 1) (#35)
by Paul Johnson on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 05:56:50 AM EST

I'd recommend The Economist, especially the print edition. Their website will give you a flavour of their style and editorial slant (pro free market capitalism), but for the real depth you need the printed version. They regularly do a survey of a subject or geographic region which goes into incredible depth. A sister company is the Economist Intelligence Unit, which sells detailed (and expensive) briefings aimed at strategic decision makers. You don't get the same depth in The Economist, but you do get articles written by the same people, so its about as authoritative as news gets.

I generally rely on the BBC for daily news and The Economist for weekly backgrounders on a wide range of topics. The first I heard of the Taliban was in the Economist, and the recession and property bust in Japan was no surprise becase the Economist had been saying for months that their banks were looking shaky.

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.
[ Parent ]

Best for the US too (4.00 / 1) (#40)
by bjrubble on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 11:05:43 PM EST

If you're a USian, don't let that guy's .uk domain throw you. The Economist beats the pants off of any domestic service for US news, as well. Even though they endorsed Bush, and laughed at Nader, they had by far the most intelligent, focused, consistent, and meaningful analyses of US politics I saw anywhere during the last election.

[ Parent ]
Where I've Been Going (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by kagaku_ninja on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 06:03:27 PM EST

For general news, I go to Salon.

To get a leftist slant on things, I occasionally check out Independant Media Center

The Register is invaluable, mainly for technical news, but they also give a bit of a foreign perspective on US politics.

Then of course, there is the dreaded Slashdot

I'm not really Libertarian (more Green Party), but I sometimes look at Reason.

I used to have a link to Democracy Now, but given the connection to NPR and the situation with the Pacifica Foundation, decided they weren't trustworthy. Basically, I am attempting to collect links to news sites that are not held accountable to giant corporations (or at least ones controlled by corporations that do not have incentives to alter the news).

[ Parent ]
"This might even be a good thing"???!!! (3.00 / 2) (#19)
by error 404 on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 10:49:54 AM EST

If nobody pays attention, some bozo could get elected President just because his daddy was.

The method by which the big decisions are made requires that a substantial number of people are paying attention on at least a spot-check basis.

If people were paying attention, neither of the candidates would have been taken seriously, much less nominated.

Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

Presidential hoo-ha (5.00 / 2) (#25)
by warpeightbot on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 01:44:08 PM EST

Dubya was elected president for two reasons, neither of them very good:
  • More people were sick and tired of the previous administration's hanky-panky than were devoted to that administration's slavery-of-funding.
  • Way, way too many people were so scared sh*tless of one or the other "major party"'s extremeism that they felt they could not vote their conscience, but instead felt forced to vote for the lesser of two weevils.
It's not that nobody was paying attention. A goodly number of us were. The problem is that there is no mechanism in this country for true proportional representation, and that the media owns the process. You literally have to go out and buy an election, and the cost of entry is so fscking high that it is very difficult to get heard at all, much less make a dent in the platforms of the duopoly. The very high quotient of FUD one party has against another doesn't help either.

The advent of ubiquitous websurfing may help solve this; bandwidth is cheap compared to TV commercials, and it self-targets the very intelligensia your message will make the most sense to. (Convincing the masses to disloge themselves from the teat of government funding is not the battle you want to fight first.) (Ever compare the results of a Gallup poll to the results of an online poll? the differences are VERY interesting...)

Maybe if the Left makes the mistake of nominating the Gentlebeing from New York (yeah, right) (thus assuring that they can't win), a third party could have a fighting chance... maybe.

Elephants and Asses
are scamming the masses
(shameless plug)

[ Parent ]

Are you paying attention? - Not really (3.00 / 1) (#23)
by mami on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 12:54:43 PM EST

too many news with too little analysis of data in context.
too many news reported, which are not news.
misinformation overload.
advertisment noise overload.
analysis requires focussed and detailed research into one problem. Not done in TV news coverage in general.

People get really compassionate only over subjects which have direct influence on their own lives. Despite global connection we (genetically) are able just about to care for ourselves. Very few people try to walk in other people's shoes deliberately. It hurts, so usually you don't despite constant appeals to our moral obligations to care for our neighbors.

I don't think we have "compassion fatigue", we just seem for the first time to discover that our "compassion capabilities" are designed just about to care for our own lives and local neighborhoods. We didn't have the possibility before to understand the breadth of our "compassion potential", because we never had global instant 24h/7d news coverage over TV media before.

To make informed judgement about a problem still requires scholarly research and focus on details of one subject. Impossible to do with any instant interactive media, where discussion and thought exchange has a lifespan of a couple of hours to two days, and the noise level is tremendously high.

I could very well survive with two or three major newspapers and some magazine and radio news coverage, but couldn't survive without scholarly and analytical books.

The only real reason why we might need TV news coverage is to detect the lies of our politicians revealed through their facial expressions and body language they have no complete control over. Just think what pointed index fingers raised spontaneously, unshed tears of a "heartbroken" Ms. Clinton and 'cute and helpless' smiles of Pres. Bush reveal "out of context" something about their capabilities to _solve_ a political problem.

There is another assumption, that "knowing" about a political problem enables people to find solutions to the problem "faster and better". Data so far don't support that. I don't think we haven't solved political crisis any better than we did fifty or sixty years ago. That realization can cause depression in some people. Usually the only way to get over it, is to cut off from constant exposure, be selective, focus and specialize.

This generation is just like all previous ones (4.50 / 2) (#28)
by nanofish on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 03:15:43 PM EST

I am old enough to have watched Cronkite... but rarely did. Late teens and early twenties is not the time most of us pay attention to larger issues like the news. We are too busy getting our lives going. And this is the way is always has been. People in the past didn't pay more attention to the news than people do now.
As we establish ourselves in a career and start to raise a family we begin to pay more attention to the news. We are more concerned with events that affect food prices and property values and taxes and so on.
Later in life we worry about the younger generation and why don't they pay attention to the news (and what is that noise they listen to?)

it's hard to care (4.50 / 2) (#31)
by mckwant on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 04:17:23 PM EST

One idea is that the issues with which this generation has to deal with are incredibly dull. Look at the issues you had in the late 60's - early 70's:
  • Foreign Wars - just about everybody knew (or knew OF) somebody that was actually IN Vietnam. The draft, just by itself, raises the tension-meter.
  • Racial Tension - Wide scale riots.
  • Oil Crisis - Lining up for gas?
  • Fighting the Communists - Always good for a healthy dose of paranoia.
  • The Impeachment - Watergate. Abuse of public office to get re-elected. Good cloak and dagger story, too.
Today, however, we get:
  • Foreign wars - OK, OK, Desert Storm, Grenada, and Kosovo, but I suspect that the volume of affected people isn't nearly that of Vietnam or Korea.
  • Racial Tension - Very few riots (exception: Rodney King). A real sense of unease, but no violence, generally.
  • Oil Crisis - Gone.
  • Fighting the Communists - Gone, replaced by terrorism which, although a little scary, isn't that widespread. If you had to choose between taking on Abu Nidal or the Soviet Union, it wouldn't be a tough choice.
  • The Impeachment - Clinton's impeachment was political as much as anything, probably, and while it was a substantial embarrasment to the nation, it's hard to argue that it wasn't completely overblown ... er, overemphasized. I suspect most other countries had a good laugh at this one.
New issues include:
  • Social Security - A looming disaster as the boomers retire, but GenX and Y lack the political muster (compared to the AARP) to do anything about it. Besides, five minutes of some senator talking about interest rates or how to allocate funds is all most of the population can stand.
  • AIDS - A problem? Of course, but it's percieved (wrongly) as being associated with certian segments of the population. Trying to get anyone to pay attention to the disaster in Africa is futile.
  • Economic meltdown in Asia - Some affect domestically, mostly due to the newly massive public involvement in the stock market.
In short, there just isn't that much that affects any of our lives functionally. As such, it's kind of hard to care, so people stop paying attention. I think there's also a perception that there isn't much we, as individuals, can actually do about it. Correct or not, it exists, and it's not helping.

Marginalization of caring? (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by scruffyMark on Mon Feb 26, 2001 at 06:45:39 PM EST

Here's a possibility. Perhaps someone who has been around longer than I have can comment...

Caring has been marginalized, to the point where those who do care about things beyond their own cozy lives are seen as criminal, possibly dangerous. Distributing information that is counter to what the corporate news distributors want you to hear makes you an extremist. Whenever there is any media coverage of people who care, it focuses on how weird they are, not on what they have to say. There is a sort of denial of controversy, all dissenters being treated as some sort of fringe group as a matter of course.

A telling symptom of all this, I find, is that the corporate news outlets use "activist" almost as a synonym for "criminal". Police arrest, tear gas, strip search, or beat people for being "activists" and this is normal. Any time there is a demonstration, if one idiot breaks one window, he is all over the news, and if there is any mention at all of what the demonstration was about, the organizers should consider themselves lucky. After all, there was a protest, activists were there. Breaking windows is what activism is all about, isn't it?

When the protests against the Vietnam this-is-not-a-war were in the news, how were they covered? Were these just uninformed kids running around with signs, or were they taking a strong stand on an important and controversial issue?

"News" isn't that great (3.00 / 1) (#38)
by bcboy on Tue Feb 27, 2001 at 03:27:11 PM EST

I'm sure you all know the Thomas Jefferson quote: "The man who reads only newspapers is less educated than the man who reads nothing at all."

It's very hard to get a coherent picture from the daily trivia. My experience has been that older generations did (do) spend more time reading or watching "news", but that they also have almost no idea what actually happened in their lives. I've had people get furious at me for recounting some matter of public record (e.g. from Watergate, or Supreme Court decisions), because they didn't remember any such thing from watching it on TV every night.

Trying to paying attention to everything seems to result in knowing nothing. Longer-term and more selective study seems much more useful.

Are you paying attention? | 41 comments (29 topical, 12 editorial, 0 hidden)
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