A good deal of past research about this newest generation of adults has focused on technology use. That research has revealed Millennials spend a good deal of their time on social media rather than heading directly to news destinations on the web. That in turn may have encouraged the idea that civic awareness is at risk.
This study set out to go further, to learn not just where people go online but what they do when they get there. Platforms such as Facebook or search engines such as Google are gateways to many activities, not just personal and social information. And asking people about how much they get “news” in a generic sense can be elusive. What do people think of as news? Does it include traffic and weather, food and restaurants, sports scores?
[pullquote align=right]I think there’s a lot of news out there these days, and I feel that if you limit yourself to just watching what’s on the news on TV, you’re not getting the whole picture. And I feel that a lot of, maybe, newer news places, there’s so much more you can get online to kind of supplement what you see on TV that you can get closer to the truth and find what you’re looking for.
– Connor, sophomore, University of Mary Washington
To solve this problem, this study probed what topics people pay attention to and how they get information about them. The survey probed 24 different topics, all of which increasingly today might be found in news products such as newspapers, TV news broadcasts, or online-only news websites. The qualitative interviews we conducted were even more open ended, asking people about what subjects they spend the most time with online.
The findings debunk the notion that younger Americans are choosing to focus their attention on only a few things, particularly so-called soft news and entertainment, or, in the famous phrase of critic Neil Postman, that we are “amusing ourselves to death.”
Millennials regularly follow a wide range of topics, and virtually everyone’s information diet in this generation involves a mix of hard news, soft news, and more practical or news-you-can-use topics.
Moreover, these digital natives are rational and discriminating in how they employ different information sources for different types of news — using social networks and word-of-mouth more for certain topics suited to those platforms, going directly to news reporting organizations for topics where professional news gathering from a single source has high value, and actively turning to search engines and news aggregators when seeking multiple sources and community input makes sense for the topic.
Millennials follow many topics, including information about entertainment, news, and their daily lives
To begin with, Millennials follow news about a wide variety of subjects and do so across a range of sources. The average Millennial reports regularly following 9.5 different news and information topics among the 24 included on the survey.
[pulldata stat=”9.5″ context=”the number of news and information topics followed by the average Millennial”]
The most popular topic is “TV, music, and movies.” Two out of three Millennials say they follow news about it on a regular basis.
The second-highest proportion of Millennials, more than 60 percent, regularly get news and information about a hobby.
But more civically oriented news topics are a significant part of the information diet of this generation, too. More people under 35 say they follow politics, crime, technology, their local community, and social issues, for instance, than report following popular culture and celebrities or style and fashion.
Nearly all of these young adults follow what are traditionally considered “hard” news topics. The average Millennial follows about four hard news topics and 45 percent of Millennials follow 5 or more.
Interest in hard news is not correlated with age. Younger Millennials are just as likely to follow hard news topics as older ones. In our qualitative interviews, we saw what may be clear reasons why. Virtually everyone we talked to had some areas of passion or deep interest, which may have been related to career, heritage, travel experience, or some other factor. And they tended to be quite conscious and active in the ways they sought information about those areas, identifying experts that they followed, news organizations that they trusted, and more.
“I do a lot of research on genetic engineering, so I look up what scientists in the world are doing. Biology and chemical research,” said Kristina, a student at the University of Mary Washington. “I do like to keep up with celebrities, and then I’m very big into heroes and stuff, so comics.”
The powerful role of social media, especially Facebook, in the news and information lives of young adults
Even though it is not the only path to news, social networks play a preeminent role in Millennials’ news acquisition, even as many Millennials express frustration with it, particularly the youngest.
[pullquote align=’right’][Social media] has introduced me to a lot of news that I wouldn’t have known about or wasn’t paying attention to.
— Haley, age 22, San Francisco
For 9 of the 24 topics, Facebook was the only destination cited by a majority. Facebook’s outsized role is evident by any number of metrics. Of the 24 different news and information topics asked about, for instance, Facebook ranked as the No. 1 gateway for 13 and the second-most popular choice for seven others — meaning it ranked No. 1 or 2 for 20 out of 24 topics.
In other words, although most of these people had multiple ways of getting information on these topics, more of them included Facebook in that mix than any other place.
Search ranked as the second-most common means of acquiring news and information. It was the most cited way of accessing news for 8 of the 24 information topics asked about, and it was the second-most cited means for five more, meaning it was No. 1 or 2 on 13 of the 24.
No other single platform (such as national TV, specialized news sources, newspapers, or even other social media platforms) ranked first or second for more than six topics.
At the same time, in our qualitative interviews we also repeatedly heard a pushback against Facebook and to some degree social networks as an environment. Various people told us they are beginning to see Facebook and other platforms as places that are often prone to negativity, that some people use to start arguments, or that are filled with useless, inaccurate, or untrustworthy information.
Simply put, social media is no longer simply social. It long ago stopped being just a way to stay in touch with friends. It has become a way of being connected to the world generally — to send messages, follow channels of interest, get news, share news, talk about it, be entertained, stay in touch, and to check in and see what’s new in the world.
[pulldata align=right context=’Social media is no longer simply social. It has become a way of being connected to the world generally.’]
Adriana, age 23 from San Francisco, does not like what she sees on Facebook. “I have [a Facebook account]. I don’t really use it. It’s a stupid thing. It kind of turned into useless information, like 15 reasons this, 20 reasons that.”
They also expressed concern about the amount of time they spend on social networks and whether they were wasting time and being distracted.
It isn’t only Facebook he has tried to get control of. “I’ve noticed since I’ve gotten off of Twitter, I’ve been a lot more attentive at work and what’s going on around me instead of being on social media and looking at somebody’s picture from a thousand miles away.”
In another San Francisco interview, Sam, age 19, put into words the sentiment of many interview subjects. “I use Facebook, too. But I don’t like to … anymore,” he said. “I’m trying to scale back because it’s really time consuming, and you can get addicted. And it takes up a lot of valuable time that I could do something else.”
Millennials get news and information from a variety of places and where they go is topic driven
Although the number of Millennials who get news through Facebook and social media is large, it would be a mistake to think that Millennials get all their news this way.
Virtually every one of these digitally native young adults surveyed and interviewed use a blend of paths to news, mixing social, search, aggregators, online-only news sites, and traditional reporting sources such as newspapers, television, and specialized media.
To understand this, we divided the various news platforms and sources into three basic categories that represent different pathways to news and information.
One pathway is social. Here people tend to bump into news organized by their social network. Social includes Facebook, Twitter, various other social media platforms, and traditional word-of-mouth.
A second pathway to information is curated. Here users seek out these platforms to find news from many sources organized by subject, either sorted by algorithm, human editors, or a combination. Curated media includes search, aggregators, and blogs.
The third pathway to news and information is reportorial media. These are content creators with teams of news gatherers, whether legacy publishers or new digital only publishers. While people may end up at these destinations by other means, when they seek out these sources directly — by watching a newscast, using a news organization’s app, reading a newspaper in print or digitally — they are turning to an individual organization to get information. The reported media includes all legacy organizations (local and national TV, newspaper media, and radio), online content creators, and specialty media (ethnic, sports media, specialty magazines, etc.).
Which path people use, the data reveal, tends to depend on the topic they want to learn about.
Millennials tend to lean toward social media, though not exclusively, for what might be considered “soft news” or lifestyle topics, such as popular culture, music, film and TV, local restaurants and entertainment, and style and beauty. About three-quarters of Millennials who follow these topics report using at least one social source.
The only so-called lifestyle or entertainment topic where social was not the most popular path was sports. Here people were more inclined to turn to reporting organizations directly.
Original reporting sources are also important destinations for at least three of these eight lifestyle topics. More than 7 in 10 Millennials cite them as paths to information about the arts, celebrities, and music/TV/film.
Twelve of the 24 subjects analyzed might be traditionally considered “hard news” topics. For six of these, Millennials are most likely to get their news directly from a reporting organization — including such subjects as government, business, international news, health care, the environment, and traffic and weather.
For these hard news topics, Millennials rely in large numbers on reporting media. More than 6 in 10 Millennials cited at least one reporting source for all but one of the 12 hard news topics.
Finally, people tend to look to curated media for subjects that might be considered practical or news-you-can-use-topics, such as product information, how-to advice, hobbies, and news or information about their career.
Including search engines, news and information aggregators like Google News, and blogs (where curation is typically an important function), at least 7 in 10 Millennials cite these types of sources for practical topics.
There are also a few topics for which there is no favored path, or for which people use at least two of them equally. For instance, Millennials have no clear preferred path to news about science and technology. Social, curated, and reporting platforms are cited equally for these topics.
Similarly, Millennials are just as inclined to cite social platforms as reporting organizations for crime or public safety news and news about their town or neighborhood. And they are just as likely to cite curated sources as social pathways to get how-to advice.
The virtue of looking at news consumption this way is that it reveals something more nuanced than simply the prevalence of Facebook in people’s digital lives and news environment. The great majority of Millennials, on almost every topic, actually find news multiple ways.
What’s more, as we will see later when we explore what Millennials do after they encounter news on social media, even bumping into news may lead to more active participation and engagement by sharing, commenting, or investigating differing perspectives and opinions.
However they first discovered it, when Millennials want to learn more, they most often turn to search
In both the qualitative interviews and the survey, we also asked people to recall the last time they delved more deeply into a subject online.
Millennials were most likely to say that their last deep dive was to find information about a subject that was a news-you-can-use topic or information about current events.We asked them first to identify in an open-ended question what the subject was. Those who recalled a subject (87 percent) were asked to recall where they went to learn more. Finally we asked if they could say which destination was most useful and why.
Nearly 4 in 10 Millennials (37 percent) who recalled a subject said that the last time they spent a fair amount of time online they were looking for practical, news-you-can-use information, such as advice or how-to information, researching products, or investigating topics related to school or career.
The number of Millennials who said they delved more deeply into a current event/breaking news story or information on a major issue is nearly identical, at 36 percent.
By contrast, about half as many, 18 percent, went deeper to find out more about a topic that was categorized as lifestyle, like sports, food and cooking, health and fitness, or music, TV, and movies.
From there, if people went to additional sources, they scattered in many directions. Eighteen percent said they went to Wikipedia or a similar site to follow up, 17 percent received information from word-of-mouth, 16 percent went to Facebook, and 16 percent went to a search engine.Once people had recalled the last time they began looking more deeply for something online, we asked them where they turned first. More than half (57 percent) reported first going to a search engine to learn more. Nineteen percent cited a specific news organization (led at 7 percent by TV news and 5 percent by newspapers). Seven percent recalled going to Facebook; 4 percent said Wikipedia or a similar site.
And what kinds of sources, when people dove deeply into a topic, did they find most useful? Half of Millennials (50 percent) cited a search engine, which of course is a gateway to other sources. Another quarter cited some type of news organization. Again, just 7 percent cited Facebook as the most useful path for learning more, the same percentage that cited going there as their first choice for more information. And 3 percent cited Wikipedia.
In other words, while Facebook is the most popular means of discovering something, when people want to dig in, they find other paths, including news organizations, more useful.
We heard the same thing in our qualitative interviews. A Chicago interviewee, age 30, who asked not to be named said, “[I]f I’m on social media and I see people are posting about something, then I’m like, is this really factual information or is it possibly fictional information? And it triggers a domino effect for me to look at multiple other sites because I get curious sometimes. Then I can interpret things for myself. [A] lot of it starts at social media.”
The answer appears to be that two factors make a web destination most useful: familiarity and transparency — or citations of sourcing, and links.And what made one destination more useful than another for those now actively trying to learn more? Was it simplicity of design, ease of navigation, quick load times or something else?
Fifty-seven percent reported a source is useful to them because they have used it a lot and usually get what they need.
About half also said a source was useful because it cited multiple sources and offered links to learn more (52 percent).
A smaller number, 41 percent, said a source was useful because the design made it easy to find what they needed. Brand reputation fell slightly further down the list, though this may also be closely connected to the most popular reason — familiarity. But overall, 37 percent cited a long and trusted reputation as a factor that made a source useful or reliable. Only 19 percent said a source is useful because their friends use it and trust it.
We also asked people in the qualitative interviews what makes them skeptical of sources. The notion that every source is biased surfaced repeatedly. This is a generation steeped in having to navigate information on their own. We heard over and over that there is a lot of material out there that people have discovered is unreliable, and often highly subjective.
Shelton, a sophomore at the University of Mary Washington, said, “I understand that no matter what, there will be a slight tinge of bias from anyone giving out the news. I feel like someone whose job it is to give the news [should] make sure there is the least possible amount of bias. And unfortunately, I don’t see that a lot, nowadays.”
[pulldata align=center context=’Young adults mix social, search, aggregators, online-only news sites, and traditional reporting sources’]
In Millennials’ Words
What news and information topics do you follow?
“I definitely follow all the political events. Also, current events, like the most volatile things that are going on around the country. I like national news. Also, I follow celebrity news — I have to admit that.”
– Lauren, age 23, Chicago
“I woke up this morning and checked Bleacher Report, which is a sports blog. I check game scores. I check all the latest trade rumors and everything like that. I check a music website called ILLROOTS.com and then from there I see all the latest news on the artists I like to keep up with, their songs and music videos. Just looking up music and just trying to see what my favorite artists are doing right now.”
– Sam, age 19, San Francisco
How do you use search engines for news?
“I use Google at first [to find news]. Sometimes I’ll go to specific sources, because I use Google just to get like a broad sense and then I’ll try to narrow that.”
— Adriana, age 23, San Francisco
“Who’s playing? Oh, Warriors and Cleveland. You just Google Warriors Cavaliers score, right there. It just comes right up.”
— Steve, age 20, Oakland
What’s the role of social media when it comes to news and information?
According to two friends from Chicago:
“So if you’re on your Facebook or Twitter there’s a handful, maybe five things that are trending. It’s up to you to click on it and then you’ll see more. But if you don’t click on it you just see those things like, ‘Oh wow, an Eric Gardner story. That’s sad, that’s terrible.’ But if you don’t actually click on it, you don’t read it. But you see it. So like you know something’s going on, but you’re not knowledgeable.”
— Lauren, age 23
“I think social media used to be just personal. Facebook was just keeping in touch with friends. And then I think maybe when Twitter came around, it wasn’t just posting pictures, it was statuses. Then it became this 140-character thing and that got the ball rolling with news. And then Facebook got on board and it like slowly became more news-centered, whereas before it was personal.”
— Elese, age 23
How do you decide what sources to use?
“I feel that the sources I look for, I take them with a grain of salt usually. If something’s interesting and I think it’s reliable, like okay, I’ll believe that until I hear something else more convincing.”
— Connor, sophomore, University of Mary Washington
“[I like to] pick out facts [and] read a couple of different sources, so I have an idea of what to trust and what I don’t trust.”
— Lauren, age 23, Chicago
What makes you question a source?
“Experience, educational background, and how they build their credibility.”
— Female, Chicago
“A lot of the times when I don’t even believe their stories because the website doesn’t look credible. Just like the font — just like the whole web layout — how the links are organized. It’s just like it doesn’t look professional at all.”
— Sam, age 19, San Francisco