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Another Voice: Voters may be less informed and educated than ever

By Richard A. Lee

Today’s political candidates campaign in a world in which news and information travels with unprecedented speed and arrives on smart phones that we carry in our pockets.

But modern technology has not produced a more informed and educated electorate. In fact, when voters go to the polls on Nov. 5, they may be less prepared than ever to make informed, educated decisions. Why?

The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past few years. In 2005, YouTube was in its infancy, the majority of people on Facebook were students and Twitter did not yet exist. Today, all three are used regularly to obtain and share news and information.

The growth of the Internet has altered the manner in which news is gathered, reported and disseminated, placing new demands on depleted news staffs. In addition to their normal writing and reporting responsibilities, journalists now need to tweet, blog and update stories throughout the day, leaving less time to write in-depth articles.

In addition, the nation’s prolonged economic slump has led to buyouts, layoffs and other cutbacks in newsrooms around the country. Not only are news staffs smaller, they also are less experienced with fewer veteran journalists mentoring younger reporters.

The net effect is that news is reported in less depth, with less context and with more emphasis on personalities and horse-race issues than on substantive public policy matters. This leaves voters less informed and less educated on critical issues and the candidates best qualified to address them.

But if this year’s voters are indeed less informed and educated, the media are not entirely to blame. The citizenry also bears responsibility.

In many ways, the Internet has made our lives more convenient, but it also requires that we work harder. For example, we make airline and hotel reservations ourselves, but we have to research prices, availability and other items that once were provided by travel agents. There is a parallel in how we obtain news and information. All of the information we need no longer arrives on our doorstep in one convenient package every morning. Instead, it has become our responsibility to search through the vast array of information sources available today and pull out the facts we need to make informed, educated decisions.

We are indeed at a watershed moment. The new media landscape requires a greater commitment from citizens. Becoming an informed and educated voter in the 21st century is not a passive activity. We must search through the plethora of material online and decide what is valuable and what is not. Only then can we become educated citizens and fulfill our role in the democratic process.

Richard A. Lee teaches journalism at St. Bonaventure University.