Apathetic Citizens–Unite!

People might be spending more time with social networks and entertainment programs, but they still manage to unite for a common interest.

According to the theories of selective exposure, perception and retention, people either avoid information that is incongruent with their own beliefs, or if they do view this information, they consume it through biased eyes or remember only the parts that adhere to their beliefs. Earlier in the year, we also talked about how people seem to be paying less attention to hard news, and a new genre of infotainment is becoming more prevalent. People are actively choosing to watch the Daily Show, for example, because they agree with John Stewart’s more negative criticisms of politicians and governmental practices, or at least find him entertaining. If this is the only “news” people view, we would say that they are only exposing themselves to the ideas that already fit with their beliefs. It is widely known that conservatives watch FOX news and liberals watch CNN and MSNBC. Even on these generally hard news sources, we can see some evidence of infotainment. One of CNN’s recent tweets today was “Do allergies actually benefit your health?” One of the stories on the U.S. news page of MSNBC was “Teen banned from prom over Confederate dress.” On the ABC News home page, “Katherine Heigl adopts second baby.” And even on the home page of FOXNews, “Does the G-spot exist? New study fuels debate.”

We can speculate, then, that even though these are traditionally hard news sources, they are finding that people like infotainment. People like to be entertained and with so many other outlets to find entertaining information, games, and social media, the hard news sites are just trying to keep up and compete. Remember, news is a business.

So scholars argue—are people becoming apathetic? Are people becoming less involved in the governmental process and less knowledgeable about important issues? According to Facebook’s newsroom, there were 845 million active users at the end of December 2011. According to a Time Magazine articlein September 2011, there were 100 million active Twitter accounts, with an average of 230 million tweets per day. According to Wikipedia, television ratings showed that in 2008, The Daily Show had 1.45 to 1.6 million viewers daily.

With these statistics, it would certainly seem like people are turning more and more to media that can entertain, especially media that is available on mobile devices, and has quick and easy access. So are these scholars right? Do people care less about what’s going on in the world and more about what’s going on in their world?

I would argue that while so many people are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and entertainment TV shows, the media still has the power to move people to action. Even those who selectively choose the media that they watch decide what is important to them and they are moved to act on it. People who may appear so apathetic in their TV show choice and entertainment value still do care about the world around them.

For example, the MSNBC website prominently displays a headline reading “Autistic boy wired up to show teacher bullying” with a video next to it. In this video, a father is outraged by the abuse his son endured at school, which he secretly recorded, and he posts a YouTube video displaying his feelings and several of the recordings. This video post led to the school firing this boy’s teacher. The video has about 1.5 million views. On the page, there is a petition that sympathetic viewers may sign to show their support for the father and his son and to try to change New Jersey legislature so that teacher who bully students are immediately fired. This petition has been signed by over 85,000 people.

Another example of people stepping up as active participants comes from a story on FOXNews this morning about the Arizona immigration law Senate Bill 1070. Immigrants and pro-immigration activist groups are taking a stand today and protesting what they believe is a discriminatory law, a continuation of their protests two years ago when the bill was signed.

And finally, we see millions of people step up and rally behind Presidents, rally behind Presidential candidates, rally for low interest rates for students and the death of Osama bin Laden. Even recently on the University of Delaware’s campus, where a few years ago, the students here were known notoriously as apathetic, the students have become more involved; they left their houses in the middle of the night to march to Memorial Hall. The students here rallied for justice in the Trayvon Martin case. People may enjoy connecting with their friends on Facebook and they may like to see what their roommate has to say about her exam on Twitter. People might find John Stewart humorous and they might not want to look for every angle of every story every day. But when they find something they care about, many people in this country find a way to become active members of the community. Whether they are signing an online petition against teacher bullying or passing along the message about KONY2012, many people are still finding ways to be informed and be engaged. And while, their selective exposure, perception and retention might skew their information and might make them slightly biased, I think the most important part is that they found something. 

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