Millennials and the news: A new study shows that they’re tuned in after all

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is there a more maligned demographic group in the United States than millennials? Blamed for everything from narcissism to avocado toast, adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are regularly disparaged as less ambitiousless tolerant, and less well-informed than members of older generations.

We believe these stereotypes even though they are supported by precious little in the way of evidence. In at least one of those categories, we now have some countervailing data. According to a new study by the Knight Foundation, millennials are regular news consumers who rely on journalism for information, entertainment, and guidance on how to vote.

The survey of 1,660 young adults “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day,” according to the Knight report. Interestingly, Hispanics and African Americans were somewhat less likely to engage with the news than whites, but were “more likely to share news with friends on social media.” Twitter habits differed by ethnic group as well: “Forty percent of young African American adults get news on Twitter at least once a week, compared to 27 percent of Hispanics and 26 percent of whites.”

I’ve been teaching young adults for the past 15 years, and the Knight findings confirm what I’ve seen. Young people care deeply about the news. But the way they define and consume it is quite different compared to my generation.

Remember Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim that “the medium is the message.” When those of us who grew up with newspapers read journalism on our phones, we might retain some of our pre-digital ways of thinking — oh yeah, if this were the paper, what I’m reading now would be the editorial page. But for young adults who never read a print newspaper, the digital experience is everything. They don’t draw those kinds of analogies, and they accept the mobile environment for what it is: a source of infinite news and information that they have to sort through.

Granted, I teach mainly journalism students, whose interest in the news is more intense than that of other young adults. Still, I have a few observations that I think are applicable to digital natives of all backgrounds:

• Young people are dubious about “the news” as a curated package. Rather than seeing news as a compilation of international, national, and local information that they need to keep up with on a daily basis, younger news consumers tend to dive deeply into a few areas that interest them. They don’t see the digital environment as disaggregated because for them it was never aggregated. They do their own aggregation, making themselves well informed on a few topics.

• Quality is as important to millennials as it is to older generations. Studies show that older people are more likely to believe and share fake news than younger people. If we’re going to offer classes in media literacy, they are needed at the senior center every bit as much as they are in middle school — maybe more so. Perhaps that’s because older news consumers have a reverence for anything that appears in print (or even in digital text), whereas millennials grew up knowing that they have to be their own fact-checkers. In my experience, young adults are intensely concerned about quality, and they know how to separate the good stuff from the garbage.

• Millennials are unlikely to develop brand loyalty in their media habits. National newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are experiencing some success in charging for digital subscriptions, as are a few regional papers like the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. Long-term, though, those papers may be leaving millennials behind, since they’re not going to want to restrict themselves to a few titles they pay for. We need new ideas, such as subscriptions that include a wide range of news sources, or the ability to pay for that day’s digital paper. Single-copy sales were a staple of the newspaper business for generations; they need to make the leap to the way we consume news today.

The Knight Foundation study, conducted by the NORC research institute at the University of Chicago, also found that young people regard the media as being highly biased — even sources they use regularly. They also worry that the media are harming democracy and national unity. African Americans and Hispanics said that news sources did not portray them accurately. No particular media outlets are mentioned in the report. But it does show that millennials are well aware that the country is in crisis, and that the media are too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

All of which shows that we older people ought to welcome our millennial overlords. We can only hope that they’ll show up on Election Day. Sadly, that is one area in which they thoroughly deserve their dismal reputation. Perhaps that will change in 2020.

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