Stop Reading and Turn On Your Television

RICHARD REEVES

October 26, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- I was persuaded last week that we have passed through the looking glass. Watching is now better than reading, even in areas where reading has worked best for about 500 years, teaching and communicating substantive information.

And the younger you are, the truer and better that conclusion is. I am not particularly happy about this. I make my living selling words by the pound and have no talent whatever for producing pictures.

I watched Al Gore trying to communicate substantively the other night on MTV. The next morning I picked up a newspaper (an old habit) and read an interview with a fellow named Tom Colbert, who scouts and sells story ideas to tabloid television shows -- ''A Current Affair" and such. The last question, by Steve Weinstein of the Los Angeles Times, was professionally hostile: Aren't you just a dirty-laundry collector, an ambulance chaser?

Mr. Colbert got a little defensive, but then said: ''No one under 30 is reading hard news. This is where they get their information, and if I can find stories that explore the motivations of the main character, then it is not a waste of time.''

Well, what could you expect him to say? Junk information -- who cares? Then I looked at the current issue of the ASNE Bulletin, the trade journal of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. A provocative story was under the headline: ''Turnabout! New study finds people learn more about the news from TV than from print.''

The conclusions of a study of Time, Newsweek, the Boston Globe and the ''CBS Evening News'' were devastating, including these three:

* ''Television news succeeded better than newspapers in communicating substantive information.

* ''TV and magazine coverage resulted in significantly higher levels of learning than newspaper coverage.

* ''People with strong cognitive skills got the same amount of information out of print as they did out of television; newspapers were particularly unhelpful to people with average cognitive skills.''

The methodology of W. Russell Neuman, Marion R. Just and Ann N. Crigler seemed credible to me. (Their research is presented in their book, ''Common Knowledge,'' published by the University of Chicago Press.) The study involved more than 1,300 people, long follow-up interviews, and then interviews with the writers and producers of stories on five subjects, ''Star Wars,'' South Africa, drugs, the economy and AIDS.

I didn't want to believe it, of course, though Mr. Neuman made telling points, including this one: ''In a newspaper, you see a headline that says 'SDI' and you skip it.'' Yes, I do. ''On television, the first picture you see is this gigantic missile warhead pointed toward you. . . . They have your attention.''

But I had my own reality check, a political-science class I teach at UCLA. I admitted to my students that I am of a generation of people who watch a World Series game on television, then rush out to buy a newspaper to make sure it really happened. Then I asked them about their own accumulation of knowledge. Only a few admitted the television thing -- at first.

They knew what I wanted to hear. But, as I asked more questions and listened to more answers, it was perfectly clear that these hundred or so gifted and serious young Americans at a great university did indeed learn more from the tube than from books. Television was their shared experience, their common knowledge.

This may sound naive, but I was surprised. Not because I thought they did not watch a great deal of television -- I have children of my own -- but because I still insisted on seeing the thing as a recreation or a narcotic.

No, as Mr. Neuman and colleagues concluded, the students thought TV was a superior medium in transmission of serious information. ''You experience information,'' one student said. Someone else said, ''You can remember where you were and what you were doing when you learned of great events on television. People don't remember the circumstances where they find out in a newspaper that something happened.''

TV seemed to be moving wallpaper to them. There is nothing they do without being connected to the sounds and images of television. ''You can do other things with it on,'' a student said, which is exactly the words his grandparents used to describe radio. And then a number said they thought television was more credible than print.

That hurt. But they are not awed or fooled by the picture box. They are, rather, enormously sophisticated about how it works, where the images are from, and how they are collected and distributed. Well, my grandmother did not know what to make of it the first time she saw an automobile, but her children and grandchildren took them for granted. Life goes on, in real time and the recycled time of reruns and old film.

That's what our children and their children will have to know and have to live with. That alone, the domination of television in affairs both trivial and serious -- newspapers try to do the same thing -- guarantees that their lives will be different from mine.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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