The lazy per­son’s guide to be­ing an in­formed cit­i­zen

The Hamburg Area Item - - Opinion - Lata Nott Colum­nist

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.

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