In large measure, people don’t like reading real, deeply important news. It’s difficult, it takes time away from other more easily enjoyable activities, and it often makes people feel stupid. The way the news is put forth is innately targeted for an already knowledgeable group. Someone interested in the Ukrainian crisis cannot just jump in with today’s New York Times article. To understand, he or she would have to go back to one of the first articles about the matter and read up until the present. Even beyond that, to truly grasp the situation, he or she would have to read articles on the situation of the region and have a working knowledge of historical trends both in that area of the world and beyond. To be a true news junkie, an individual either has to have grown up in a household privileged enough to be immersed in the news, or he or she has to dedicate a substantial amount of time to getting caught up with the world’s affairs.
The opaque quality of intellectualism has come to the forefront as of late, notably with Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times op-ed, “Professors, We Need You!” Within this article, Kristof highlighted the distance between journalists and academics within the process of the dissemination of information. Academic literature is dense, it’s sometimes pretty painful, and it’s usually obscure. There’s certainly a time and a place for dense scholarly material, as it can convey rich ideas to those that understand it and who can build upon it to further the scholarly work within their field. However, it is also vitally important to connect advanced scholarship and the practicality of everyday life. Great works that have implications for everyday life ought to be shared, discussed, and debated. The public sphere is only advanced through difficult debate and discussion, and those discussions can begin with truly great scholarly works. Academic literature is sometimes made to be intentionally difficult to access by the average individual. The high cost of academic journals keeps them from being widely dispersed, and as Kristof notes in his article, scholars are often discouraged, and sometimes barred from writing blog posts which have the ability to serve as an accessible platform for summarized academic findings. The International Studies Association proposed fairly recently a policy to bar members associated with the ISA from blogging. Blogging was deemed to be unscholarly (otherwise known as accessible), an unacceptable state of being for the ISA. Because academic material is celebrated for being unapproachable by those outside of the field, we see a great disconnect between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, stagnating any true growth in American intellectualism.
Kristof laments the disassociation between academics and journalists able to broadcast the results of new scholarship. But the problem goes one step beyond this. Even if journalists were to disseminate the knowledge created by academics, a substantial portion of Americans wouldn’t pay attention. Pew polling from 2012 shows that 31% of Americans aged 18-24 and 22% of those aged 30-34 get no news daily.
Part of the problem is that dense national and world news isn’t accessible to a large portion of the population, for all of the reasons mentioned above. However, Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, has announced the impending launch of his new project Vox. With the name originating from the Latin for “voice”, the site explains that its mission is simply to “Explain the news.” Based on its pre-launch description, it appears as if the website will seek to make the news accessible by providing context and clearly laying out the issues at hand. Its mission is venerable, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out post-launch.
Hopefully, by providing an outlet for individuals to seek out the news in a way that isn’t intimidating, more people will become aware of the world around them to better prepare them to be active, engaged, productive citizens. At the worst, it will provide an outlet for avid news junkies or even semi-frequent news followers to catch up on difficult issues in a manageable and efficient manner.
It won’t reach as far as some would like, though. Vox is unlikely to appeal to older generations, as well as demographics that actively avoid current events. Those completely uninterested and disengaged from current events– those who could benefit most from clear-cut news– are unlikely to hear about the project and be interested in it. It will bring with it the cult of Ezra Klein followers, but that in and of itself is a very distinct, limited group.
The creation of Vox in and of itself is reflective of a greater societal problem. News gathering is a hobby of the elites, and only a minority of Americans are making political decisions based on their own conglomeration of information and previous knowledge. The tiers of information range from the hyper-inaccessible to the demanding. If individuals are interested in current events more rich and informative than the hyperlocal ramblings of local news, they must already be well educated. Vox is a step in the right direction, but large-scale shifts in cultural attitudes toward intellectualism and information are necessary for America to become a truly informed nation.