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Are Newspapers Making Us Stupid?

March 7, 2010

A large part of chapter six in Inside Reporting by Tim Harrower conveys the importance of design in a newspaper, especially in respect to feature stories. An entire section is dedicated to laying out a Valentine’s Day story and incorporating fast-facts boxes, lists, maps, timelines and other visually appealing graphics into feature stories. In addition to aesthetics, this design also enables readers to consume information quickly.  According to Harrower “tomorrow’s readers will have shorter attention spans than any previous generation,” (132) forcing editors and reporters to devise new ways to effectively convey information.

Harrower’s advice brings to mind Nicholas Carr‘s article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which argues that the Internet is decreasing individuals’ capacity to consume long in-depth stories. Although Harrower writes in response to print journalists, his advice is no less pertinent.  The emergence of more and more fast-fact boxes demonstrate that readers do not want to sit with a 20-inch story and contemplate the implications of the current events or question the expertise of the reporter.

While I do not completely agree with Carr’s argument, and Janna Anderson‘s Imagining the Internet provides contrasting evidence to Carr’s prediction, the changing news industry reflects consumers’ decreasing desire, or inability, to read entire articles. In contrast to Carr’s belief that the Internet is making us stupid, perhaps it is the newspaper industry’s willingness to conform to the audiences’ demands that contributes to the decline in readers’ attention span. If readers had to read text in order to get news, rather than looking at a graphic, readers would have no other option than to develop a longer attention span.

While I understand that the news industry needs to appeal to its audience, I do not think that the public is the cause of industry’s change. Instead, I view it as more of a two-way street where causes bounce between the two sides, provoking a change in both.

The fact that textbooks teach reporters how to decrease the amount of text and paragraphs on a page proves that the print news industry must assume some responsibility for the decline in in-depth reading and an increase in a fast-pace lifestyle.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2010 3:51 am

    A short attention span need not be a major problem—and is certainly not to be equated with stupidity. I see greater problems elsewhere, notably with dumbing down of content, lack of critical thinking (among journalists and readers alike), poor research for articles, and so on.

    Speaking for myself, I spend a considerable part of my reading time in a “short attention span” mode, e.g. on WordPress; however, I also spend considerable time doing more in-depth reading in other contexts (notably books and some Wikipedia articles; other Wikipedia articles are read more superficially).


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