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The few, the proud, the attentive

As I drove to campus this morning, a news story on the radio about the new passport requirements featured an American couple checking in at a hotel in Toronto who had had no idea that they would be required to display passports on their return. They were indignant. How could they have been expected to know that?

Well, they could have read about it in the newspaper, or they could have watched a broadcast news program, or they could have listened to the news on the radio, because the new passport regulations have been mentioned repeatedly in all those media.

That couple appears to be part of a large population, which my students at Loyola are preparing to join, that lives in willful disregard of much of the external world. You see these people on The Tonight Show when Jay Leno goes Jaywalking and discovers widespread, ludicrous ignorance. You read about them in polls that find citizens who cannot name one of their United States senators, or, for that matter, any senator. You hear about them in reports that yet more people have been gulled in one of those Nigerian get-rich-quick Internet scams that have been widely exposed.

If nothing else, I tell my students, self-interest should lead you to seek out information. It isn’t people my age, after all, who will be sent in uniform to Iraq. Yet when I goad them into reading news stories by administering current-events quizzes, the results are not impressive. 

It is not just that fewer people are reading newspapers. (Though that is bad enough; I would very much like to have the confidence that daily journalism will be a going concern long enough to fund my pension when I finally achieve that rocking chair on the front porch of the Old Editors’ Home.) It is that they are not harvesting information from any source. 

The whole enterprise of editing for journalism — print, broadcast, online — is that we strive to make information accurate and clear for our readers, viewers and listeners so that they can make informed choices about the way they lead their lives. Choices great and small, about their political destinies, about the products they buy, about their choices of amusement. The prospect of living in a world increasingly populated by people who are both uninformed and incurious is not one to contemplate with relish.   

We keep at our questioning on the copy desk. Is that right? Do we know that for sure? Can that be explained more simply? Can we get to the point sooner? What effect will this have on the reader? That is what we do.

All the while we wonder: Is anyone paying attention?

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:42 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

It's too easy to lament that too few people pay attention to current events or news. Yes, there is some duty to be an engaged citizen. But there's also some duty on the part of media -- gasp! even editors! -- to make the news more engaging and trustworthy.

Mr. McIntyre brings up Iraq. How many American newspapers were outraged when GWB & Co., decided that war was a good idea? Not many. Today, though, no one can jump on the pile fast enough.

If people, no matter how young or old, thought they could trust what they hear or read, they might become the engaged citizens Mr. McIntyre laments.

If you don't read, how do you know enough to distrust? All of our culture is disengaging in streams of interests. But the onus is on the citizen to stay informed. So preach it, Brother McIntyre!

Well, you do your best with what you got.

That means both the raw material for the story and the readers who (in theory, at least) are reading it.

What may be worse are engaged citizens armed only with prejudices driven by misinformation.

I blame electronics. It seems to me nowadays everyone's just passing through life in their own little bubble in a state of gadget-induced oblivion. How can anyone compose a coherent thought with the constant blare of an iPod in their ear canals?

Mr. McIntyre is indeed a splendid fellow, although I must admit to having known him when we both were younger and almost as acerbic as we now are. American English would be much improved if 1) it were not taught by anyone with a degree in Educaion and 2)it relied more often upon not only the Latin subjunctive ,but also the future perfect.These last should also be taught by those lacking degrees in Education.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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