Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quick! Who’s the President of Burkina Faso? Too Hard? Well then, How About The U.S. of A?

Artifact; use unknown
I lecture a lot about newspapers.  And city directories.  And censuses. 

As you may have noticed when you filled out last year’s form, the information-poor 2010 census questions won’t be of great help to genealogists in 2082.  City directories – like their distant cousins, the hard-copy phone books – are heading toward carrier pigeon fate, meaning that future genealogists will need some other kind of tool.   

The Wayback Machine?  The Veromi archive?

But what about newspapers?

Word on the street is, newspapers are mostly dead.  Well, if not mostly dead, then “in extremis.” And if not “in extremis”, in bed with a very bad (and probably terminal) case of …something or other.

For the past decade or so, print editions of newspapers have folded right and left.  Most papers have gone to some kind of online edition in search of more readers, hoping to monetize their venture through internet click-through ad revenues or by putting premium content behind pay walls.

Re: making money from real news on the ‘net - I’ll get back to you in a few years, once we see how that venture turns out.

Meanwhile, the biggest losers have been the folks who used to be local news reporters covering local events.  Now, the small papers, having laid off huge numbers of their reporters, rely on corporate and government press releases and “citizen reporters” with cell phones for their news content.

Still, it doesn’t much matter anyway, because apparently nobody is reading stuff like this anymore.

Chances are, if you’re under 35, you do not subscribe to the “home” edition of any print newspaper, do not buy a local daily newspaper with any degree of frequency and what little news you consume, you get from some kind of electronic media aggregator – television and the Internet, for example. (Definitional hint: aggregators don’t actually pay reporters to cover stories; they simply buy them from other sources or rely on “free” internet content.)

Still, does it really matter?  After all, knowing who’s who on “American Idol” or on “Dancing With The Stars” is much more important and sure beats knowing about the stuff in newspapers.  

In the most recent Pew US Religious Knowledge Survey,  3,410 Americans of all denominations (and also some who self-identified as belonging to no faith at all) were asked 32 questions to test their knowledge of religion in general and their own faith in particular.  They were also tested on their knowledge of religion in public life. The survey was done between May and June of last year.

So, what does that have to do with newspapers?

Well, interestingly, Pew also asked several “non-religious general knowledge” questions of the same folks.  One of those questions was “Who is the current vice-president of the United States?”  - the answer to which question can be found in pretty much every newspaper in the country almost every day.  It’s not a big secret. The guy tends to get mentioned a lot – probably - over time - even more than Charlie Sheen.  So that should be a no-brainer question, kinda like “What’s the Fourth of July all about?”


Only 59% of 3,410 adult Americans got it right.  Yup, 41% of those surveyed apparently never even heard that Joe Biden was the Veep, having missed tuning into the last general election in 2008.  

Think about it – you’re in the supermarket check-out line.  Look around. Most folks are busily chattering inanities on their cell phones. Four out of the ten people in line with you probably haven’t got a clue about who’s leading their country. 

One of the other questions asked for the name of the famous trial about whether evolution could be taught in schools.  It was a multiple choice question. Only slightly more than 3 out of 10 (31%) got that one right and answered the Scopes Trial. Most people (39%) thought it was “Brown versus the Board of Education.”  And, uh, 3% thought it was the “Salem Witch Trial”. (I wonder if they were the same 2% of folks who, in answer to another question, thought that Stephen King wrote Moby Dick?)

The folks at Pew tabulated the results by religious denomination.  You can read it for yourself by following the link here.  

I won’t comment on that “tabulation” part of the results beyond saying that if you don’t read the newspaper yourself but, after the next general election in 2012, you develop a sudden burning need to know who the new vice president is, you’ll be best off asking someone who’s Jewish or someone who identifies as an agnostic or atheist.  At least, that’s what the Pew survey seems to show.

Of course, those folks might be hard to identify, since recent polling also suggests that all Jews, atheists and agnostics combined equal less than 10% of the population.

They DO seem to keep abreast of the issues, though.  Maybe they’re still reading the papers.


  1. How can we be drowning in information and know so little about anything important? Thanks for the post.

  2. I'm always amazed when I read stuff like this; apparently, "stupid" has a big following!