Each morning, Bruce Williams, a UVA media studies professor, walks outside to pick up the New York Times lying in his driveway and then reads it over breakfast. “I’m an old guy,” he says. “It’s part of my morning ritual.” But he admits that, truly, he takes in a steady stream of news all day long. “The New York Times is my home page on my computer,” he says. “And if push came to shove, I’m not sure I could tell you where the information I get comes from, whether it was the print edition or online, whether it was the Times or CNN or an article that was reposted on the Huffington Post.”
He may call himself an “old guy,” but he fully participates in the new media environment, one in which Williams says “individual citizens are much more in control of their media diet.”
In Williams’ recent book, After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment, co-written with Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, the authors look closely at media and democratic society, arguing that the retreating journalistic era, what they call the “age of broadcast news,” hasn’t served Americans particularly well.
Williams says that it’s important to not have “an overly nostalgic view” of evening newscasts. Though 80 percent of all Americans with a TV on were watching one of the nightly network news broadcasts from the 1960s through the 1990s, they were actually less involved in civic participation than citizens today. “That period was a time when political participation was declining,” Williams explains. “Voting rates were down, levels of political engagement were down, levels of political knowledge were not improving.”
Contrast this with the 2008 and 2012 elections, where youth, informed by social media, were voting at historic rates. Whether that level of engagement was an anomaly or part of a larger trend, Williams says, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the possibilities of new media are exciting—and the pitfalls dangerous.
Today, individual citizens can curate their news streams, picking and choosing specific news sites, blogs, podcasts or Twitter feeds. “If you’re really interested in almost any political issue, you can, without ever leaving your chair, get more diverse, high-quality information about any subject than has ever been the case,” Williams says. On the other hand, you can ignore politics altogether. “If you’re interested in celebrities, you could drown in gossip about the Kardashians, but never look at what’s going on in Washington, or what’s going on in Egypt today,” he says.
However one of the main points in After Broadcast News is that there isn’t much of a divide between news and entertainment. To the authors, movies, music and scripted television actually convey a lot of political information. “My degree is in political science,” Williams says, “and I used to tell my students that if they really wanted to know about how the government in Washington works, at least the way political scientists say it works, they’re going to learn a lot more about that from watching The West Wing than CBS Evening News.” It’s no surprise, then, that audiences increasingly choose to take their news with a spoonful of entertainment through programs like Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report, or that in a 2009 Time poll, Jon Stewart was voted America’s “most trusted newscaster.”
This raises some obvious concerns. What rules are entertainers bound by? And what does it mean for journalism when CNN’s Headline News rebrands itself as HLN and gossips about “Octomom”? Williams says it’s a question of quality, or what he calls media literacy. “The ability to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information is central,” Williams says. That means critically examining all media, “whether you’re reading a newspaper story or going to see Zero Dark Thirty.”
Williams advises his media studies students to try what he calls “grazing”—exploring many different sources of information when they study any subject. “You’re better served and learn more about both the information you’re trying to acquire and the information environment itself if you’re grazing across a lot of different sources of information,” he says. When Williams has finished reading a story in the New York Times over breakfast, he “might then go look at a conservative blog or a liberal blog” to further study the story. “It’s important to graze widely,” he says. “That’s one of the real advantages of this media environment that we have now.”