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Now and Then: Methods of the Media

Two women stand outside the White House, reading a freshly published newspaper article about President RIchard Nixons resignation. Photo by Bettmann
Two women stand outside the White House, reading a freshly published newspaper article about President RIchard Nixon’s resignation. Photo by Bettmann

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, coined an important idea about the value of listening, stating that “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” It’s a noble idea, encouraging the incorporation of other’s beliefs into one’s own ideology through the practice of healthy discourse. It’s a practical one too — at least it has been for centuries up until the last decade or so. The invention of social media and the accessibility of the internet hasn’t really changed how much people listen to one another, but it certainly has played a role in increasing the amount we all speak — a reality that would be painfully ignorant if Epictetus had anything to say about it.

As these new vehicles for communication hit the road, it’s worth examining how our news outlets used to relay messages relative to how they do now. Has social media led to less debate? Was news in the “pre-internet era” more reliable? How has better technology impacted people’s knowledge and education on world events?

In 1970, cable news served just 4.5 million people in the United States, a country with a population of 205 million people at the time. With such a small percentage of households possessing access to channels that offered nightly news broadcasts, information on current events was hard to come by digitally. To compensate for this innovative yet inaccessible reporting avenue, the American people invested heavily in newspapers. In that same year, about 62 million copies of weekdays papers were in circulation and roughly 50 million editions of the Sunday post were in people’s hands on a daily basis. Talk radio was still a foregin concept to most, and it didn’t become a frequent method of information exchange for at least another decade. Considering the lack of consumption options at the time, Americans were still highly educated on current events. Studies conducted in 2007 found that people’s general knowledge about American politics — the United States’ trade deficit, major politicians and foreign affairs — tended to be relatively equal across decades with and without the internet and social media. In short, it’s a fair claim that scarcity in vehicle types didn’t have a noticeable impact on relative vehicle efficiency in the 1970s — a time many of us today think of as prehistoric and exclusive in terms of news availability.

Hit the fast forward button, skip to the 2010s and 2020s, and we’ll find that vehicle types have certainly expanded. While the buzz around print journalism has died down, seeing as though just 10% of Americans often read physical publications, methods of distribution in other fields are more prominent. Talk radio and podcasts are hits. NPR averages 15 million downloads a week on their catalog of talk shows while over 40% of people in the United States claim to have listened to podcasts in the last month. Granted, not all of these audio outlets focus on current events in Russia, Syria, Iran or Germany, but the point is that the opportunity exists for these topics to be covered in this auditory manner. Whereas television used to be a less popular mode of media consumption, it now attracts hundreds of millions of views per week. And, of course, the presence of social media has drastically changed the media outlook in the United States. About 52% of Americans often get their news from the apps on their smartphones — Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Still, as mentioned earlier, people’s education about foundational current events hasn’t changed much with the addition of all these communication outlets. This can largely be attributed to the fact that these extra avenues are rarely adding to the news cycle but merely expanding on what’s already there in the form of more opinionated reporting. A 2017 study compared media networks before and after the invention of social media and 24-hour cable to find that subjectivity has become the norm for most companies outside of the primetime reporting hours.

So what’s the explanation for this development — that education levels haven’t changed despite there being so many more outlets available to consumers? Well, it starts with the fact that “news” is a broader term than ever. Anyone can make “news” by posting a graphic on Instagram or a thread on Twitter. Sometimes it’s not reliable. Other times it’s just opinionated. Additionally, given that so much coverage on mainstream topics already exists, small outlets and individuals often report on “news” that’s more trivial and less impressionable to the minds of fast-paced, distracted Americans.. 

For better or for worse, information — fact or not — is more accessible than ever. In the 1970s, a lack of technology limited media companies to reporting more on the former. Now, fact and opinion can coexist thanks to the strides of the internet. We haven’t improved our ability to hear, still only boasting two ears each. We have, however, experienced an expansion on our ability to speak, to interact. Epictetus wouldn’t be happy. Are you?

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    Carol CorganMay 2, 2022 at 8:24 am

    Thoughtful piece, John. Well done!