Who or What Dumbed Down America?

Was it us or was it the news media?

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When it comes to the dumbing down of America, the finger pointing starts with a frenzy. Some blame the news media for making Americans less likely to be aware of what is happening in the world, less likely to critical think, more likely to believe conspiracy theories, and so on. Others say it’s the fault of the American people for not being interested in anything that is not shallow. Some even blame our education system.

So, how about we explore all these factors, shall we?

Blaming the news media seems to be the go-to when it comes to blaming something that is going wrong in society. Sometimes it is the case, sometimes it is not. In the case of the dumbing down of America, it can be blamed and it can’t. I’ve heard people say the news media in general gives information it thinks the public should know, or wants them to know. Probably, but let’s not forget the business side of the news media - where ratings and clicks hover over the everyday decisions editors and producers make on what goes on air, and what gets published. As someone who’s worked in both broadcast and print/online news, I’ve seen these discussions happen. For example, when it came to discussing what to do about some of the news reports lined for the hourly shows, producers will make decisions to delete some of those reports based on which one would not do much for ratings. What was left behind to air on TV? Reports on celebrities and cute animals. No need for brain activity with those.

But then again, did those reports succeed in bringing in more ratings? Apparently, if those producers made similar decisions again and again. They wouldn’t continue to choose the lighter, shallower news stories if the news station didn’t benefit from the ratings they brought in. In that case, isn’t it the audience’s fault for bringing in those ratings? They’re tuning in, they’re sticking around after the commercial breaks, and they’re not changing the channel once those lighter news stories go on air. Same goes for online news. If the clicks on the stories are high, and the reading length is long enough, then digital producers know they’ve done something right - even if the article is on a shallow topic.

However, let’s not forget that not all news outlets provide lighter news stories. There are plenty - broadcast, print, and online - that provide in-depth news on serious topics. It’s just a matter of looking for them and actually reading or watching them. Now, if enough Americans are not doing that, for whatever reason, then who’s to blame for the existence of light news?

Now honestly, there are some people out there who don’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Maybe in the past year they have, thanks to the pandemic, the 2020 election, the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, and so on. But overall, there are plenty of Americans who do not tune in to watch any news - and if they watch their local evening news, it is more to get the weather forecast and a few events they want to find out about. Back in the mid-90s, I had a friend in junior high who did not know anything about the genocide in Rwanda - let alone the existence of Rwanda - because her parents almost never watched the news. She also did not know the name of Prince Charles’ mistress (Camilla Parker Bowles, but this friend thought it was Sarah Ferguson) which shows how out of the loop she was even when it came to celebrity gossip.

In college, when I was taking my required courses and hadn’t yet begun my communications courses, some professors complained about their students (my classmates) for not knowing anything about world events, world leaders, and so on (this was pre-9/11, by the way. But it didn’t get much better afterwards). Those classmates’ responses?

“It’s too boring!”

“Who cares?”

“Huh?'“

I’m sure even older adults have the same attitudes, though I’m guessing with the advent of social media, that has changed over the years.

Now, what really drives many Americans’ lack of interest in hard news and events that effect their lives? Are we really a shallow country? Or are we simply not encouraged to use our critical thinking skills and apply them to everything around us?

As someone who reports on education, I’m aware of the discussions over how critical thinking is not being taught in schools around the country. It’s a discussion that has been around for a while. This 2015 Newsweek piece by Alexander Nazaryan illustrates pretty well the lament over this problem, and what to do about it. This 2015 HuffPost piece also analyzes the issue quite well.

But even if there’s a lack of critical thinking lessons in our schools, that doesn’t mean many Americans are lacking this skill. When I am not writing, I teach freshmen composition college courses, and I’ve had many discussions with many young people (Gen Z to be exact) about the environment, democracy, what is truth, human rights, and so on. Based on what I’ve seen, critical thinking skills are alive and well. Many are able to strongly analyze and dissect issues, and provide points of view to their classmates. So, I am certain that critical thinking is not dead in our country. Could there be an improvement? Sure! I mean, why else am I doing this newsletter? ;-)

So, the dumbing down of America cannot be entirely blamed on our schools. Maybe some schools, yes, but not all. Also, the dumbing down of America could be blamed on the news media. Some news shows and publications do print unnewsworthy stories. But who is watching or reading those stories, and thus, encouraging the reporting on more lighter news stories? Blame the news media all you want, but you, or someone you know, is consuming all that shallow stuff.

However, there is one more factor to examine - and that is the willingness to practice critical thinking skills and the willingness to practice intellectualism. If many are not willing, then what does that mean for the dumbing down of America?

Tune in next week where I discuss one element that is important when it comes to critical thinking: not being biased, being open-minded, a willing to listen…you get the picture.

Until then, feel free to discuss this week’s topic in the comments section below:


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