Home > Uncategorized > When is a Census Taker like a News Director?

When is a Census Taker like a News Director?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 30, 2010

If you’re a baby boomer like myself, I bet you’ve already sent in your census form.  I got mine about two weeks ago.  I threw it on the kitchen table when I came in after a long day in the newsroom, saying I’d deal with it the next day.  And I did.  The next morning (it was a Saturday), I opened the envelope, found the basic short form, and filled it out on the spot.  Within two minutes of opening the envelope, I had completed the form and was sticking it back in the return envelope.  By later that afternoon, I had already dropped it in a mailbox.

Not so with my son.  He’s 22, a college student, and lives in a duplex across town with his roommate.  I found his census form—still in the envelope in which it arrived—crumpled on the floor of the backseat of my car today.  Alex had used my car over the weekend to avoid putting the roof back on his little Datsun roadster when it was raining.  I was cleaning out his (and my) junk in the warm afternoon sun today and found the envelope.  I brought it in when I got home tonight, expecting Alex for dinner.  I mentioned it to him and pointed it out on the table in the hallway.  It’s still there.  Alex left without taking it with him.

So why did I fill out my form within 24 hours of when I got it and my son probably won’t fill his out at all?  The same reason I’ve missed voting in only one election in the last 30 years.  Presidential, state, municipal—I’ve only missed the one election when I was in Arizona a few days after my father’s death.  I filled out the census form for the same reason I would watch the news every night even if I didn’t make the news.  Because it’s the right thing to do for me, for society, and for this democracy.

Now, if you’re younger than about 35 or 40, that may sound borderline jingoistic.  But I’m not a zealot—I’m just a citizen.  Members of my cohort in school learned that we need to participate in democracy to make it work.  Sure we were indoctrinated, like school children usually are.  But it stuck with us because the package all fit together so well.  It appealed to me that the great American machine only worked if all the cogs were doing their part.  I sure don’t think about myself as a cog now, but to my young mind, there was a mechanical coolness to it.  I know that those of you around 50 or so know what I’m talking about.  And I know a bunch of you filled out your census form right away, too.

Not so with my son.  He voted in the Obama-McCain race because he saw its historic nature.  But I’m pretty sure he’s never voted any other time.  He doesn’t see the point in voting for the races that don’t interest him.  He’s not alone—look at voter turnout if you’re having municipal elections in the next month or so.  The census form doesn’t matter to Alex because he can’t see what’s in it for him.  It seems like a constitutionally-guaranteed inconvenience to him, so he’s skipping it.

So what’s all this got to do with news?  Alex doesn’t watch the news either.  He’s a smart kid, interested in politics and current events, but the news bores him.  He’ll check out “The Daily Show” a couple of times a week.  But local news?  Blah.  Like the elections and the census forms, he just doesn’t see the return on the investment.

As you might guess, I’ve been amused at all the efforts by the Census Bureau, local politicians, and others to get on the news as often as possible to remind people to fill out their forms and send them back.  They have news conference after news conference trying to get us to cover the census story over and over and get people thinking about sending the forms back.  What they don’t get is that the people who are watching the news already ARE the ones who send back their forms each time.  To say they’re preaching to the choir would be an understatement.  The same traits that guarantee news viewing also guarantee census form compliance.  It’s a slam dunk.

With this being the first census in which Millennials are living in their own households, I’m predicting the worst census return rate of the last 220 years.  And the decline over the last three or four censuses should mirror the decline in news viewing habits over the same period.  Neither is a good thing.  So what can we do about it?  I turn to the same thing that made me the super census responder/voter/news consumer I am now—education.  Our schools educated us to know the importance of participation in a democracy, so now we take it seriously.  We need a similar approach to media and news literacy, so that young students will grow into adulthood knowing the importance of staying informed.  I’ve written on news literacy before, so I won’t belabor the point here.  Check out this old blog if you want to know more:


The failures of this census will be obvious in black and white once the numbers come out.  And we’ll spend the next ten years trying to figure out how to get young people to respond better.  The failures of the same group to watch the news won’t be so obvious, but the problems resulting from that failure will be far worse.  And we won’t have ten years to fix them.

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