This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research
For years, researchers and social critics have worried that the newest generation of American adults is less interested in news than those who grew up in the pre-digital age.
Much of the concern has come from data that suggest adults age 18-34 — so-called Millennials — do not visit news sites, read print newspapers, watch television news, or seek out news in great numbers. This generation, instead, spends more time on social networks, often on mobile devices. The worry is that Millennials’ awareness of the world, as a result, is narrow, their discovery of events is incidental and passive, and that news is just one of many random elements in a social feed.
A new comprehensive study that looks closely at how people learn about the world on these different devices and platforms finds that this newest generation of American adults is anything but “newsless,” passive, or civically uninterested.
Millennials consume news and information in strikingly different ways than previous generations, and their paths to discovery are more nuanced and varied than some may have imagined, according to the new study by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
This generation tends not to consume news in discrete sessions or by going directly to news providers. Instead, news and information are woven into an often continuous but mindful way that Millennials connect to the world generally, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment.
Rather than having a narrowing effect on what Millennials know about, however, the data suggest this form of discovery may widen awareness.
Virtually all Millennials, for instance, regularly consume a mix of hard news, lifestyle news, and practical “news you can use,” the study finds. Millennials are more likely to report following politics, crime, technology, their local community, and social issues than report following popular culture and celebrities, or style and fashion. Fully 45 percent of these young adults regularly follow five or more “hard news” topics.
Millennials also appear to be drawn into news that they might otherwise have ignored because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks, as well as on more private networks such as group texts and instant messaging. Once they encounter news, moreover, nearly 9 in 10 report usually seeing diverse opinions, and three-quarters of those report investigating opinions different than their own.
The data also suggest that social networks are exposing Millennials to more news than they were initially seeking. Overall, just 47 percent who use Facebook say that getting news is a main motivation for visiting, but it has become one of the significant activities they engage in once they are there. Fully 88 percent of Millennials get news from Facebook regularly, for instance, and more than half of them do so daily.
Some people, particularly older Millennials, are more inclined to actively seek news, while others tend to let news find them, but virtually all Millennials employ a blend of both methods, as well as a mix of platforms and activities.
“Social media keeps me more informed than I could be with the other forms of news,” said Elese, a 25-year-old in Chicago. “By quickly scrolling through my feed, I can see the major stories going on. If I need to read deeper into it, I can go to a credible source’s website.”
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These are some of the findings of the study, which extends the work from the Media Insight Project’s 2014 Personal News Cycle to provide a deeper investigation of the news and information habits of Millennials age 18-34. For this work, researchers combined different research methods, including in-depth interviews in four different cities and a national survey.
Facebook is not the only social network Millennials use for news. On average, those surveyed get news from more than three social media platforms — including YouTube (83 percent), and Instagram (50 percent), and places of active involvement such as Reddit.
While social media plays an enormous role — and for some topics a preeminent one — in how Millennials learn about the world, the research also reveals that this manner of encountering news is not strictly passive or random. People actively navigate and make choices about which sources in their social media feeds they consider to be reliable, and they take other steps of participating in news as well, including posting news stories, commenting on them, liking or favoriting them, and forwarding them to others.
People have always “discovered” news events partly by accident, by word-of-mouth, or by bumping into it while watching TV news or listening to the radio, and then turning to other sources to learn more. Technology, and the facility with which Millennials use it, has made this mix of random and intentional learning far greater.
“Social media has evolved a lot,” said Marilu, a 29-year-old in Chicago. “Before, it would be all about you. Now it’s about a lot of sharing articles, sharing of videos, sharing of memes. There’s a lot of that.”
Among the study’s findings:
- While Millennials are highly equipped, it is not true they are constantly connected. More than 90 percent of adults age 18-34 surveyed own smartphones, and half own tablets. But only half (51 percent) say they are online most or all of the day.
- Email is the most common digital activity, but news is a significant part of the online lives of Millennials, as well. Fully 69 percent report getting news at least once a day — 40 percent several times a day.
- Millennials acquire news for many reasons, which include a fairly even mix of civic motivations (74 percent), problem-solving needs (63 percent), and social factors (67 percent) such as talking about it with friends.
- Contrary to the idea that social media creates a polarizing “filter bubble,” exposing people to only a narrow range of opinions, 70 percent of Millennials say that their social media feeds are comprised of diverse viewpoints evenly mixed between those similar to and different from their own. An additional 16 percent say their feeds contain mostly viewpoints different from their own. And nearly three-quarters of those exposed to different views (73 percent) report they investigate others’ opinions at least some of the time — with a quarter saying they do it always or often.
- Facebook has become a nearly ubiquitous part of digital Millennial life. On 24 separate news and information topics probed, Facebook was the No. 1 gateway to learn about 13 of those, and the second-most cited gateway for seven others.
- At the same time, younger Millennials express growing frustration with Facebook, and there are signals in the research that the use of social media will continue to splinter with time. Younger Millennials use more social networks (an average of four) than older ones (who average three). They are also more likely than older ones to have cut back on their social media use or dropped a social network completely. In our longer interviews, these younger Millennials describe Facebook like a utility they have to use rather than one they enjoy.
- When Millennials want to dig deeper on a subject, search is the dominant method cited by 57 percent (and it is the one cited most often as useful), followed by news sites (23 percent). Only 7 percent cite checking Facebook to learn more.
- And when Millennials do dig deeper, the most important qualities that make a destination useful are that they know the source well (57 percent) and that this digital source is transparent and rich with references and links (52 percent).
- Millennials, however, do not worry much about privacy. Only 2 in 10 worry a good deal about privacy in general. And when asked about specific concerns, only 22 percent worry even a little about government surveillance; 30 percent worry even a little about corporate America knowing too much about them. The biggest worry, 38 percent, is identity theft.
- Despite this lack of overall concern, the vast majority of Millennials (86 percent) have changed their behavior online, mostly to control what people know about them. Fifty-two percent have changed their privacy settings, while 37 percent say they are now more likely to remove information or photos of themselves that are embarrassing or immature.
News and information are woven into an often continuous but mindful way that Millennials connect to the world generally, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment.
About the study
This study was conducted by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It included two components — a quantitative survey of Millennials nationwide and qualitative interviews and follow-up exercises with small friend groups of Millennials in Chicago, Illinois; San Francisco and Oakland, California; and at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The researchers sought to supplement the quantitative survey research with a qualitative component to obtain a deeper understanding of Millennials’ online lives and news consumption habits.
The survey reached 1,045 adults nationwide between the ages of 18 and 34. Study recruitment was completed through a national probability telephone sample, while the main portion of the questionnaire was administered online. The margin of error was +/- 3.8 percentage points.
The qualitative component included three semi-structured group interviews conducted in Chicago, Illinois, on December 11, 2014; two conducted in San Francisco, California, on January 7, 2015; two conducted in Oakland, California, on January 7-8, 2015; and three conducted at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on January 22, 2015. A total of 23 Millennials were interviewed. Select participants in each of the locations also consented to complete follow-up activities. These activities included 1) a self-reflection, interview, and essay exercise about news attitudes and behaviors, and 2) a news story tracking diary. These exercises were intended to gather additional information about how these Millennials think about news and information, what news and information is important to them, and how they follow a news story of interest. A total of 10 participants completed one of the follow-up exercises.
All point estimates described in the report are derived from the nationally representative survey of adults age 18 to 34. All quotes specified in the report are derived from the qualitative research. A full description of the study methodology can be found at the end of the report.