I realize that scanning the headlines, as a way of “reading” the newspaper, has a long history. I know I do it all the time. But, for lots of undergraduates, the headlines, the snippets of text they can read on their iPhones, are the news. They read headlines, and they read opinion; I don’t think they read reported stories. I have also got a pet theory, purely impressionistic and altogether cantankerous: Students who are dedicated opinion bloggers (rather than, say, students who write for the school newspaper or who write edited blogs that contain original reporting, and who work with editors) don’t take criticism well. They like to put their views out into the world, offhand, unedited, and unquestioned. They don’t like to be queried; they don’t like to get their papers back marked up; they don’t like to be asked to investigate further, or to revise. They want to stand on top of something, and say what they think about it, instead of digging down to its bottom, to find out what’s true. That, I worry, is what the death of the newspaper has cost them.
This is Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard, talking to The Chronicle of Higher Education about what the decline of traditional news media means for academe. She laments that many students have lost, or never gained, the skill of gaining deep knowledge of an issue, and that their blogging habits reinforce an attitude that their opinion matters no matter how weakly informed it is.
I fear that Lepore’s observations attain to more than just students in today’s digital society that shortsightedly celebrates as revelationary the comment, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” To a certain extent, that remark has always has been true. The real revelation of character, maturity and intelligence comes from what you do after news finds you.