Young People Flee from the News_ Whatever the Source

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					                                 TELEVISION QUARTERLY




   Young People Flee
    from the News,
  Whatever the Source
                      By Thomas E. Patterson



A
         few decades ago, young                The study had several special features.
         Americans      were     heavy         For one thing, our sample included
         consumers of news. More               teenage (ages 12-17) respondents,
         than half of the adults under         who’ve seldom been polled nationally
30 years of age were regular readers of        on their news habits. We also stratified
a daily newspaper. Most of them also           our sample, overselecting young adults
watched the evening newscasts on a             (ages 18-30) in order to estimate
regular basis. As Martin Wattenberg            more precisely their news habits.
notes in his recent book Is Voting             Finally, we used several measures of
for Young People?: “There was little           news exposure, looking not only at
variation in news viewing habits by            the frequency of Americans’ news
age. TV news producers could hardly            exposure, which is the typical focus of
write off young adults, given that two         media surveys, but also at the depth
out of three said they had watched             of their exposure and their familiarity
such broadcasts every night.”                  with specific news stories.
   Analysts agree that today’s young              Precise assessments of young
Americans are less interested in news          adults’ news habits are important
than their counterparts of a generation        in at least two respects. First, young
or two ago. However, estimates of              people’s interest in news will affect
the decline vary widely, and some              the economic vitality of news
analysts claim the digital revolution          organizations and thus their ability
is a generational watershed that is            to invest in quality journalism. Also
bringing young people back to the              at stake is the grassroots vitality of
news. “The notion is that no young             America’s democracy. Although it
person cares about news, and that is           is inaccurate to equate the news-
wrong,” says Lee Rainie of the Pew             consuming citizen with the informed
Internet and American Life Project.            citizen, the news, as the journalist
“They’re moving to a different                 Walter Lippmann noted, is our
distribution system.”                          window onto the world of public
   We recently conducted a large               affairs. If we fail to look through that
national survey to discover what               window, we will know little of the
can reliably be said about the news            world that lies beyond our personal
exposure of today’s young Americans.           experience.

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   Most older Americans have a daily                Two in every three young Americans
“appointment” with the news. Many of                largely ignore the daily paper. A smaller
them, for example, routinely sit down               proportion—two in every five—pay
each evening to watch the nightly news.             almost no attention to national and
Many fewer younger Americans behave                 local television news.
this way. Most of them do not set aside a              of course, citizens do not have to
particular time of the day for news.                avail themselves of every conceivable
    Whereas one in five older adults is a           source of news in order to stay informed.
heavy user of the newspaper—meaning                 It may be enough that they play regular
they read it every day and pay reasonably           attention to a single medium only.
close attention to its stories while doing          Roughly half of older Americans do
so—only one in twelve young adults and              so. Among teens and young adults, the
a mere one in twenty teens rely heavily on          number is closer to one in five. In fact,
the newspaper. The picture is marginally            roughly a fourth of younger Americans
brighter in the case of television news. For        pay virtually no attention to news from any
both national and local television news,            source, and another fourth are moderately
about one in six young adults, and a like
proportion of teens, are heavy viewers.             Searching for a Source:
They watch television news almost daily             Are Young Americans
and sit through most of the newscast                Getting News from Non-
while doing so. Nevertheless, this level is         traditional Outlets?
far below that of older adults– more than
twice as many of them, two in every five,           attentive to a single medium only.
are heavy viewers of national news and                  Clearly, there is a wide generational
a slightly larger proportion follow local           gap in news consumption. The daily news
TV news closely.                                    is not an integral part of the daily lives of
   Age differences shrink for Internet-             most teens and young adults.
based news but do not disappear. Even                  There remains the possibility that
though older adults are somewhat less               young Americans have devised new
likely than young adults and teens to               ways of getting the news, relying on
access the Web, they make greater use               entertainment programs, new media,
of it as a news source. Nevertheless,               acquaintances, or an irregular mix of
only a fraction of each age group uses              traditional media.
it extensively. Roughly one in seven                   To assess that possibility, our study
older adults, one in eight young adults,            deployed an innovative measurement
and one in twelve teenagers are heavy               technique. Each day of our national
consumers of Internet-based news.                   survey, respondents questioned that day
   When news use is viewed from the                 were asked about their awareness of a
perspective of the non-users, teens                 current top news story. The next day,
and young adults far outnumber                      a new top story was the basis for the
older adults. Indeed, in the case of the            questioning. Respondents who claimed
newspaper and the Internet, an absolute             exposure to the story in question were
majority of teens and young adults are              then asked to identify the source of this
non-users. The newspaper particularly               news. If they encountered the story in the
has little appeal to young Americans.               newspaper, on a late-night entertainment

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program, heard about it from their uncle,            do older adults, but the fact that many
or any other source, this information was            young adults spend a lot of time on the
recorded.                                            Internet and watch a lot of entertainment
     The findings from this method of                television does not necessarily indicate
questioning were remarkably similar                  they are using them as news sources.
to what we found using standard                      When it comes to news, young adults are
measurement techniques. older adults                 far more likely to get their information
were substantially more likely than                  from television than from one of the
younger adults (62 percent versus 43                 new media and, within television, from
percent) to claim exposure to the story in           a newscast rather than an entertainment
question. Teenage respondents were even              program. The large fact about teens and
less likely to claim exposure; their recall
level was 10 percentage points below that            The Changing Media
of young adults. Younger adults and teens            Environment, and Why
were also less likely to correctly identify a        It Leads to Less News
simple factual element contained within              Exposure.
a story they claimed to have encountered.
overall, whereas slightly more than                  young adults is not that they are heavily
a third of older respondents claimed                 dependent on new media but that they
awareness of the story and could identify            partake only lightly of news, whatever the
accurately the factual element, only a fifth         source.
of younger respondents could do so.                     News exposure is at a historic juncture.
    In regard to the source of young                 From the early 1800s until recently,
people’s story awareness, “old media”                the news audience was expanding.
predominated. Roughly 50 percent of older            The introduction of the hand-cranked
and younger respondents who claimed                  rotary press in the 1830s drove down the
awareness of the story in question cited             price of the newspaper from five cents
television news as their source. No other            to a penny, and newspaper readership
news source was cited even half as often.            immediately began to rise. By the end of
The daily newspaper was at the bottom of             the 1800s, helped along by the invention
the list for young adults and teens.                 of newsprint and the steam-driven press,
    Conspicuously missing from the list              some metropolitan newspapers were
of sources were television entertainment             selling as many as 100,000 copies a day.
programs. only a tiny number of the                  Radio news came along in the 1920s,
teens and young adults cited Jon Stewart’s           expanding the news audience beyond
The Daily Show or some other late-                   those reached by the newspaper.
night television program as their story                 Television news’ contribution was
source. Such programs have a hard-                   even more substantial. Early studies of
core following, but it is a relatively small         the television news audience produced
audience in the context of the full public.          a startling finding: many of the people
     The notion that young Americans get             who watched TV news regularly had
their news from “a different distribution            only a slight interest in news. Georgetown
system” was not borne out by our survey.             university’s Michael Robinson was one
It is true that teens and young adults               of the first analysts to recognize the
make more use of “the new media” than                significance of these viewers. They were

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“inadvertent viewers,” brought to the                 particularly powerful in strengthening
news less by an interest in news than a               the news habit of those who use it as
fascination with television. The news                 a news source. Compared with the
in most markets had a monopoly on                     typical newspaper reader or television
dinner-hour television, and viewers who               news viewer, the typical Internet-news
were intent on watching television had no             user spends many fewer minutes per
choice but to sit through it.                         day attending to the medium’s news.
   over time, some of these viewers                   Even the on-demand feature of Internet
developed a liking for news, and it                   news can work against the formation of
rubbed off on their children. Television              an online news habit because it breaks
news was an early-evening ritual in many              the link between ritual and habit.
families and, though the children might               Newspaper reading, for example, is a
have preferred to watch something else, it            morning ritual for some Americans– the
was the only dinner-hour programming                  almost unthinkable walk to the door to
available. By the time many of these                  retrieve the paper, followed by the almost
children finished school, they had                    unthinking opening of the paper to the
acquired a news habit of their own.                   preferred section. As the scholars Maria
    Television’s capacity to generate                 Len Rios and Clyde Bentley note, online
interest in news through force feeding                news exposure is less fixed by time, place,
ended in the 1980s with the rapid spread              and routine--elements that reinforce,
of cable television. Viewers no longer had            almost define, a habit.
to sit through the news while waiting for                The Internet cannot be faulted for the
entertainment programming to appear.                  decline in news interest among young
Television news did not lose its regulars,            Americans. other factors, including a
a reason in the cable era why its audience            weakening of the home as a place where
has aged as it has shrunk. But TV news did            news habits are acquired, underlie this
lose much of its ability to create interest in        development. Not withstanding the
news among young adults who preferred                 cartoon father with his nose buried in the
other programming. And its capacity to                paper after a day at work, news exposure
generate interest among children was                  in the home was a family affair. The
greatly diminished. Fewer of the parents              newspaper sections were shared, as was
were watching the news and, even if the               the space around the radio or in front
parents were watching, the children, as               of the television set. Today, media use is
a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study                 largely a solitary affair, contributing to
revealed, were usually in another room                the tendency of media use to reinforce
watching something else.                              interests rather than to create new ones.
    The Internet has even less capacity
to generate a daily news habit for those                 Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee
without one. Although, like television,               Professor of Government & the Press
the Internet has it addicts, their pursuits           at Harvard’s Kennedy School of
are largely determined by the interests               Government, where he is also acting
they bring to the Web. Their existing                 director of the Shorenstein Center on
preferences govern the sites they choose to           the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
visit. A 2006 Pew Research Center study               He designed and directed the national
indicates that the Internet is not even               survey on which this article is based.

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