Dumbing Down: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

I cannot mention the book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman enough. So I’m about to head down that road again. To be fair, he goes over a wide variety of topics, and being a journalism major, his chapter about the media sparked my interest.

One of the main points he addresses involving the media concerns the writing model of essentially dumbing down the way sentences are put together so that regular Joes can read the paper too. Klosterman says that this is a mistake. Not only is it slightly condescending, it’s also forcing those who read the articles to demand lower level writing in the future.

This is where I jump in and say, a) the j-school does seem condescending at times, and b) it’s already been pounded into my head to write simply. They don’t call it “dumbing down” in J2100, that would be too obvious.

Yes, we are taught “leads” and “nut grafs”, the essential stuff that we’re supposed to blatantly state at the beginning of a story. It’s supposed to “hook” the reader and let them know what we have to say affects them, or carries some other importance. Chuck thinks this kind of writing “simply” is a bad seed however. Once that seed is planted, the readers who were capable of reading the higher level start to expect a certain easiness within the articles now. Basically, they become lazy. (I should have started with that sentence, shouldn’t I have? It summarizes the WHOLE paragraph for you!)

This laziness, once instilled, is hard to undo. It’s just too darn tempting to skim, move on to Netflix, Facebook, or Twitter. Even staring out the window is a more productive use of one’s time than finishing that awfully long article. So now that practically every publication and news outlet is writing down to their readers/viewers/listeners, we’re all accustomed to being handed the meaning of the writing.

Far gone are the days where we interpreted our own meaning, when we actually read every last word of the whole article, or listened to the entire television broadcast without flipping channels or multitasking. “We like our news on a silver platter,” I can hear news consumers saying, “served with a complimentary guide to life so we don’t have to think for ourselves!”

I’m being dramatic. (Simple sentence, eh?) But still, Klosterman makes a good point. If we give the audience garbage day in and day out, they’ll simply come to expect it. It’s almost like watching reality TV, you know it’s godawful for your mind, but it’s just so darn tempting because it’s easy. It doesn’t require too much thought or energy, it’s just there for you to gaze at when you’re either procrastinating or incredibly bored.

While this model may suit reality TV (because really, what else is it there for?), it does not do journalism justice. I’m all for clarity. Make the facts crystal clear because then I can draw conclusions based on accurate information. Too often do I see people (including myself) making statements and/or judgements based on someone else’s version of the truth, rather than the primary source itself. But it becomes an issue when capable readers don’t use their skills and wait for important matters to be shoved in their faces. I’d like to think of journalism as leading a horse to water, pointing them in the general direction with hard core facts and data, but letting the horse be the one to choose whether or not, and how, to drink.


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