Members of the public at newspaper stands looking at the front page coverage of the new American President Donald Trump in 2016. Leah Farrell

Larry Donnelly 'Who the f*** reads newspapers?' Society would be better off if young people did

Worrying stats show how little interest young people have in the news, writes Larry Donnelly – but this is bad for all of us.

I APOLOGISE IN advance. This may be the quintessential “yer da” opinion piece which stems in part from anecdotal eavesdropping in a pub. I know. I know. I still had to write it, though.

A few weeks ago, I was in a fine drinking establishment that shall remain nameless when a man nursing a pint of Guinness innocently asked two members of the staff if there was a newspaper behind the bar.

I am not sure if he wanted to peruse the top stories of the day – my suspicion is that he actually wanted to check the horse racing forms, given what he was watching on the television – but either way, it didn’t strike me as an unusual or unreasonable request. 

One of them indicated that the pub did not have any papers. Once the customer was out of earshot, however, the two started a conversation on newspapers and related matters.

A newspaper, like. Who the f**k reads newspapers? My parents don’t even buy them anymore.

His colleague endorsed these sentiments.

I don’t read or watch any news. It’s all the same old rubbish. There is nothing in the news that is relevant to my life. A total waste.

An “I couldn’t care less” retort wrapped up the discussion. They moved on to the myriad difficulties facing them as third level students. 

At a personal level, it was disappointing to hear them say that one is studying law. As I say every year to my own students, law is not something that can be studied in a vacuum; it needs to be read and reflected upon in its broader context with close, considered attention paid to political, economic and social happenings that are covered extensively in – you guessed it – the news.

How young people get their information

I suppose that I should not have been surprised by the feelings expressed. It is no secret that in an era in which young people have instant access to virtually anything they want on a small device contained in their pocket or purse, they are paying less heed to the “boring stuff.” Nonetheless, some of the research on this trend is alarming and extraordinary.

In the United States, the American Psychological Association found in 2018 that a mere 2% of teenagers read a print newspaper most days, down from roughly 33% in the early 1990s. Another survey showed that only 5% of US citizens aged 9-24 are regular consumers of news from newspapers or digital publications. A comprehensive investigation by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University into how young people in six countries sought data regarding COVID-19 was also revealing.

In Argentina, South Korea, Spain and the US, they are increasingly prone to rely on social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, as opposed to traditional news sources. In Germany, the United Kingdom and the US, they turn primarily to messaging apps. As one expert observer notes, because these are highly visual spaces, “people share memes that are more about influencing than informing and people need to exercise caution and be aware of who they’re engaging with.” That said, it is doubtful that many interrogate critically what they are seeing and hearing.

There is, of course, a big debate in academic, political and journalistic circles concerning the content of the news. In an unfortunate development that is especially pronounced in the US, yet also being felt in the UK and elsewhere, some traditional media organs are demonstrably biased and dedicated to advancing a right or left wing ideological point of view, not to reporting events in a factual manner or speaking the unvarnished truth to power when that is warranted.

Anyone who has watched how the exact same occurrences on MSNBC and Fox News in the US are handled can attest to an appalling abandonment of objectivity by each major outlet. Accordingly, too many Americans reside unthinkingly in echo chambers.

But there evidently is a separate, and no less troubling, issue with respect to younger citizens. How to address when there is a substantial and growing cohort of individuals who are either resolutely determined not to inform themselves or, as is far more common, simply indifferent to the world around them?

Making the choice

There is no easy answer to the conundrum. And it is fair to say in response that many will take an interest in the news as they get older and become aware of the importance of staying abreast of current affairs. Yet it seems beyond dispute that things are starting from a much lower base than in generations previous on this front.

I don’t have the solution to a worrisome global problem. I do think that it is vital that those raising children and adolescents here in Ireland – where the media landscape, notwithstanding some valid criticisms, has not deteriorated as it has in the neighbours on both sides of the Atlantic we look to most often – endeavour to set an example.

If children see the adults they love and admire monitoring and talking about what transpires in their locality, in their country and on their planet, they are more inclined to follow suit. Additionally, as is definitely the case in plenty of primary and secondary schools already, the forward-thinking practice of basing work to be done in the classroom and at home upon the news cycle should help foster a heightened level of engagement.

Pontificating and haranguing from their elders won’t do this worthy cause any good. As such, I’ll leave the last words to a teenage girl, Shreya Prabhu, who was ridiculed and called a “boomer” by classmates in the US for avidly reading the news.

In a compelling opinion piece, which she was moved to write subsequently and was published widely, Shreya references the sacred right to vote she and her peers will soon have and concludes that “with this freedom comes responsibility; they must ensure that they will make an informed choice by consistently reading the news from unbiased, factual sources.”

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His new book – The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.

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