The lazy person’s guide to being an informed citizen
You sometimes suspect that you’re not as well- informed as you should be. When you read about that study that found that middle school kids were unable to distinguish paid advertisements from news stories, you shook your head sadly — then secretly wondered if you would do much better. You’ve heard that most people are so entrenched in their own beliefs that even indisputable facts can’t change their minds, and would really like to believe you’re different from most people. ( But doesn’t everyone think that?) You have, on at least a couple of occasions, pretended that you were familiar with a subject you actually barely understood.
You are, in other words, a person living in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans say that fabricated news stories have caused them a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events. A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that the majority of Americans are poorly informed about the basic structures of their own government. And this year’s “State of the First Amendment” survey revealed that the majority of Americans prefer news that aligns with their own point of view, demonstrating their firm commitment to their own filter bubbles. Unsurprisingly, none of this is good for democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
But enough hand wringing! You don’t want to let the ghost of Thomas Jefferson down. You want to be media literate and fair- minded and well- informed.
It’s not that you’re lazy. It’s just that you have a job, and loved ones, and a very limited amount of free time.
Or maybe you are just lazy. That’s OK too.
Regardless — what are you to do? Let’s be realistic: You don’t need a list of best practices for media literacy and civic engagement. You need a list of goodenough practices. You need the equivalent of those individual floss picks.
Get ( re) acquainted with civics. Most of us either took civics a long time ago, or didn’t take it at all. If you no longer remember what the branches of the government are, know that you’re not alone and that you need not waste time wallowing in shame. There are resources out there for fully- fledged adults! “Civics 101” is a great podcast if you like listening to things. Khan Academy has an “American Civics” YouTube series if you’d rather watch something.
Think about where your news comes from.
You probably have your own way of staying up to date with current events, whether it’s a newspaper, a TV show, a favorite podcast, or your Twitter feed. There’s no shortage of information in today’s world. The challenge is being able to separate the real from the fake, the facts from the opinions, and the Facebook posts from your crazy uncle from the Facebook posts paid for by the Russian government.
Form your own opinion. Forming your own opinions takes a good amount of your time and mental energy. The only way a lazy person can manage it is by being generally informed about current events, but selective about the things they really stand for.
Stop sharing links to news stories you haven’t read.
According to a 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media are never actually clicked. Resist the urge. If you’re too lazy to read it, then please be too lazy to share it. Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@ newseum. org, or follow her on Twitter at @ LataNott.