Who is Osama bin Laden? Is he famous? Is he in a band as well? And why should I care? These were all questions that teenagers tweeted in May 2011 on the night President Obama announced that U.S. special operations forces killed Osama Bin Laden. Data released by Yahoo! concluded that two thirds of the people who searched “Who is Osama bin Laden?” that night were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.
I’ll give these kids a break—many of them were very young during the September 11th attacks. Still, you would think that at some point in their many years of schooling that somebody would have mentioned and discussed the most wanted man in the world, his background, and why thousands of American servicemen and women are stationed in Afghanistan. With such a heavy focus on what’s tested—math and English—our public schools simply aren’t teaching civics and current events.
As a result, a 2007 Harvard University study determined that a majority of teens are ignorant about current affairs and do not read the newspaper. Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey found that people age 18 to 34-years-old are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. On a current events quiz, young adults averaged 5.9 correct answers out of 12 questions, fewer than the averages for Americans ages 35 to 49 and above age 50. Many of these teenagers are or will be voters in a short time. I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than this.
Fortunately, a former New York Times editor is trying to upend the astonishing rise of ignorant Americans with her new startup, Kicker. Intended for people who are “turned off by traditional news media and want to “make a difference” and “get in the know easily,” founder Holly Ojalvo, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, hopes to disrupt the way teenagers engage with the fourth estate.
“A lot of news products aimed at high school and college students are designed as curriculum supplement,” says Ojalvo. “Some are alright, but it shouldn’t be the only way to engage young people for current events.” For teenagers, Ojalvo explains that news is overwhelming, confusing, irrelevant, and hopeless. “We want kids to feel smart, not stupid,” she says.
What Kicker does is make the news accessible, engaging, and actionable. There are only few news stories a day, expressing the highlights of major stories and writers use info graphics, tweets, maps, and quotes—”whatever tells the story best,” says Ojalvo. Perhaps, the most significant in the trio of elements of Kicker is that each story has a way for the reader to take action.
For instance, a recent piece on global warming suggested that young people can get involved by signing the Climate Reality Pledge, joining a virtual march, or a local 350.org group. As Ojalvo puts it, “When someone’s telling you a story, the kicker is the gist, the takeaway, the zinger. The kicker to any story we tell you is that you can start taking action. Right now. And we’ll point you in the right direction.”
For the future of Kicker, Ojalvo plans on experimenting with a few new features and will be collaborating with a Columbia University class on a digital strategy for the company and Brooklyn Law School, who is providing legal assistance.
To hammer away at the civics crisis in America where three quarters of high school seniors are unable to identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution among other embarrassments, we should be turning to sites like Kicker.
It isn’t just teens who need more civics and current affairs education, either. Do you recall the recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking “undecided voters?” Undecided voters were invited to ask questions about the election. Questions included, “When is the election? What were the names of the two people running? Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?” While the skit was undoubtedly exaggerated, it’s based in reality: Ojalvo says that adults in their 40s and 50s are secretly emailing her that they need Kicker to understand what’s going on, too.
So to every American who fails to identify the President of the United States, unable to pass the citizenship test, or just wants to comprehend the cluttered national conversation, it would do you very well to spend a minutes a day on Kicker. Let’s mark the words of Adlai Stevenson: “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”
Teen raising hand photo via Shutterstock