Home > Uncategorized > Grown-up Consumers with Little Kid Tastes

Grown-up Consumers with Little Kid Tastes

-first posted at RTDNA.org on October 6, 2009

I’m always on the lookout for new apps for my iPhone, especially those that will deliver news. As far as national and international news goes, one of my favorites has got to be the Associated Press app. That only do I like the depth of stories in the app, but I like the way it gives me quick news alerts on breaking stories.

The other day an alert went off and I went to the AP app to see what was. After I read the breaking news I started looking around the rest of the stories on the phone at that time. I stumbled into the “Most Shared” stories section of the app, and found a very interesting list.  Here it is as it appeared while I was writing this:

  1. FTC: Bloggers, testimonials need better disclosure
  2. Vampires vow until death do us part at Ohio wedding
  3. Jumpy clerk tosses money at man before he demands it
  4. Ala. woman lets daughter ride in box on top of van
  5. SEC say Georgia got raw deal on celebration call
  6. 3 Americans share Nobel medicine prize
  7. Another use for your phone: ‘augmented reality’
  8. Vonage releases calling app for iPhone, Blackberry
  9. SD town finally rid of rotten meat: bills linger
  10. 8 US troops killed in fierce Afghan fighting

That’s a pretty varied list.   I’m not a big reader of “most shared” or “most e-mailed” stories as a rule, though I’ll read the occasional odd story that pops up when I’m going through sites.  Looking at this list, you can see four or five stories that are fall into that odd category. I would rate three of them is fairly important international stories, and the other two as decent news stories in general.

Curious about what I saw on the AP app, I took a look at CNN.com online.  Here is its list of top ten most shared stories at the time of writing:

  1. ‘Horrorcore’ singer suspected in Virginia killings
  2. Tyler Perry reveals sexual abuse
  3. Letterman apologizes to wife on Monday night’s show
  4. I had a secret office affair that ended badly
  5. Worked to death: When going to work kills
  6. Key health care vote to be delayed, sources say
  7. Bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan back in U.S.
  8. Soledad O’Brien explores Latino experience, mixed-race heritage
  9. Odd facts about Nobel Prize winners
  10. Recycling facts that may surprise you

The website list is a little different than the phone app list, though there still are a lot of oddball stories there. In this case, I would rank three of these stories as hard news stories, with the rest being either CNN promos or celebrity news or strange stories again.

Wanting to make this as scientific as possible, I went over to check out FoxNews.com as well.  Here’s a look at what its readers are e-mailing most:

  1. CDC: 28 Pregnant Women Dead From H1N1
  2. Texas Boy, 5, Shoots Down 800-Pound Alligator
  3. Even as Layoffs Persist, Some Good Jobs Hard to Fill
  4. Woman, 74, Hospitalized After Being Mauled by Pack of Raccoons
  5. Egyptian Lawmakers to Ban Kit That Helps Women Fake Virginity
  6. Wooly Mammoth World Tour: First Stop, America
  7. Sole Video Footage of Anne Frank Posted Online
  8. Study: Tetris Is Good for Your Brain
  9. Gulf States Deny Secret Plan to Dump Dollar
  10. The Importance of Foreplay

Though the number one story here is a fairly significant news story, this one probably has the biggest group of news of the weird of all the sites I looked at. I would say seven of these stories fall into what I would call the “unimportant” news of the day.

So what do these lists tell us? They tell us that the time that our viewers and readers spend on our mobile and websites checking out stories and sending them to their friends and relatives is focused pretty much on stories to engage and entertain, but not necessarily important stories that affect us all. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not on the surface. But I think these on-line and on-phone habits point to a bigger problem we face. You see, they show an immature taste in news that we could probably fix if we put our minds to it early enough.

Here’s the analogy I’ve been giving to anyone willing to listen to my point on this. When we were all five years old, if someone had given us all the money we ever needed to buy our own food, what would we have bought? A five-year-old with the power of the purse in the grocery store would buy a lot of ice cream, cookies, and candy. In fact, that’s pretty much all he would ever buy. Luckily for us as five-year-olds, we all had adults who bought our food for us, making sure we got a somewhat balanced diet – or least one that was not made up completely of sweets.

But when it comes to our news consumption habits rather than our food consumption habits, we’re sort of stuck at that five-year-old level. The stories we see listed on the most shared and most e-mailed lists are the cookies and ice cream and candy in our grocery stores of news. There’s nothing wrong with sweets–everyone likes them a little bit. They have a place in our news menu. But they shouldn’t be the only thing on the menu.  And for too many people, they are. The reason?  I think we can stick with the analogy of buying food. The reason that, as adults, we don’t buy the same food we would have bought as five-year-olds is that we get educated along the way about what healthy food choices are. It happens in school, it happens at home, and ironically, it happens in mass media. Messages bombard us all through childhood and adolescence about what it is we should eat. So that by the time most of us become young adults living on our own, we come out of the grocery store with a fairly well-balanced cart of food.

But no one’s ever training us about how to consume our media. Our juvenile diet of celebrity gossip and news of the weird never really matures for many of us. The teachers don’t tell us what we should watch to balance our viewing. Our parents often have bad habits themselves and don’t pass on any words of advice. And even we in the mass media ourselves don’t do a good job of telling our consumers how to use our product in a healthy and balanced manner. So we have an awful lot of grown-up people walking around with little kid news consumption habits.

Why should we care? Many of you may think that, as long as people are watching or reading or listening, everything is fine. We’re pumping the content out there and people are consuming it. That makes us happy and makes our advertisers happy. But that’s a shortsighted view. Because just as an all junk food diet leads to a fat, unhealthy citizenry, an all junk news diet leads to a dumb, uninformed citizenry. And that’s bad for democracy.

So what do we do about this? We can use the food education model that we know works already and apply it to the news education. The country needs early media consumption education that begins in elementary school and runs all the way through college. Teachers need to spend the time teaching their students what news is, where to find it, and most importantly, how to become critical consumers.

RTNDA is working, as are other groups, to make this idea of early media literacy education a reality. It’s something for which I have personal passion, and I know I will continue to work on this issue even beyond my years as RTNDA chairman. I hope everyone reading this will think about what they could do to help educate our children to be smart, informed media users. There’s no reason we can’t look at a story about the woman in Los Angeles arrested for biting her boyfriend’s tongue during an argument. But just as we do with the sweets we buy in the grocery store, let’s make that the dessert.  Too often those stories are becoming the main course.

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