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How young adults define ‘news’: 7 good questions with Data & Society’s Mary Madden

Teenagers and young adults are challenging long-held assumptions about news consumption patterns. A new report from Data & Society explores how young adults use mobile devices, messaging apps and social media to consume breaking news. It finds that young adults express low levels of trust in news media and use a variety of methods to verify and confirm the stories they care about.

The report found that young people frequently run into news stories by accident as they move between social platforms, and some of the ways they share news (such as screenshotting a story) might elude current tools used to track traffic to news organizations.

Mary Madden

How Youth Navigate the News Landscape,” which was released in March and supported by the Knight Foundation, is based on findings from six exploratory focus groups with 52 teenagers and young adults in three U.S. cities — Philadelphia, Chicago and Charlotte, N.C. The participants were between the ages of 14 and 24, and included an even mix of men and women.

We talked to Mary Madden, a co-author of the report and researcher at Data & Society, about what news organizations can do to be seen as credible by young adults, how young adults define “news,” and why young adults don’t share as much news on social media.

1. How does young people’s definition of “the news” differ from the traditional definitions?

In the conversations we had with teens and young adults, we spent a lot of time talking about their concepts and associations with “the news” in a deliberately open-ended way. And across the groups, we were struck by the ways in which the boundaries of “what counted” as news had been so deeply influenced by the language and design of social media platforms.

This came up in descriptions of news as “what’s trending” or “what my friends are talking about,” but also through homework assignments where we asked participants to share screenshots of news and information that they had learned about prior to our discussions. Those examples featured a range of social updates that were submitted by the participants — such as a friend’s personal safety check-in on Facebook after the Orlando shootings or an announcement of friends getting engaged that had been pushed to the top of their news feed. At the same time, participants also submitted many mainstream news articles — from outlets such as CNN, NBC and The New York Times — and illustrated an ability to discern between different genres of news and the tendencies towards bias across different sources.

The umbrella category of news for [young news consumers] is quite broad and much more infused with social content, commentary and sharing.

In general, the umbrella category of news for them is quite broad and much more infused with social content, commentary and sharing. In the report, we describe the ways in which social media is often the first place they hear about stories, but mainstream media still often serves a verifying or elevating role for the stories that are most important to them.

2. The report says, “Many participants consider user-generated content — especially live video — to be more trustworthy than mainstream media sources.” What reasons did focus group participants give for putting more trust in user-generated content?

The discussions of live video were heavily influenced by the tragic events unfolding during the time we were in the field. In particular, the livestreaming of police shootings and their aftermath on Facebook was an entirely new phenomenon, and placed user-generated video accounts of highly controversial events at the center of debates about excessive use of force and racial bias in policing.

When we probed participants about what kinds of content they trusted the most, live video was repeatedly noted as being less subject to manipulation. As one 16-year-old female participant described: “I personally think that live video is more reliable than like a video that’s taken and is given to like everyone. … When it’s live there’s — I mean, I’m not saying there isn’t a complete chance that it’s not being tampered with, but it’s less of a chance because it’s happening as the person’s watching it.”

3. The report finds that young news consumers have “widespread skepticism” about the accuracy of news and assume that some level of bias exists in the information they see. What can a news organization do to be seen as more credible in a young news consumers’ eyes?

Although most teens and young adults express low levels of trust in the news media overall, we found that they are seeking out multiple sources and varying viewpoints and express a desire to know the facts of the stories that matter to them. Many young people value a sense of transparency in reporting and a sense that an outlet is covering news that’s relevant to their lives.

We hope these findings provide news organizations with a reference point to develop new approaches to news delivery and audience engagement that can build trust with younger audiences.

4. The report says, “In an age of smartphones and social media, young people don’t follow the news as much as it follows them.” How did the focus group participants get their news?

Because social media is such a dominant part of young people’s lives, and news content of all kinds is so pervasive there, news consumption often ends up being a byproduct of spending time on social media platforms. Participants often encountered news when they weren’t necessarily looking for it. Some of this was due to notifications from apps or stumbling upon something because they “accidentally swiped left.” Other participants noted the way that Snapchat and Twitter had become an important source of news for them through the Discover and Moments features that were created specifically to highlight news content within those apps.

5. The report suggests that young people’s news sharing habits differ from those of older news consumers. How so, and what does that mean for how news organizations track traffic and sharing?

The differences that were most notable to us were the sharing behaviors we heard about. In general, messaging apps — like Snapchat, Kik and WhatsApp — are far more popular with younger generations.

It was entirely new to us to hear that some participants viewed it as more convenient and preferable to share screenshots of news stories with their friends.

And it was entirely new to us to hear that some participants viewed it as more convenient and preferable to share screenshots of news stories with their friends when they wanted to discuss a story rather than sharing links or posts through social media. Screenshots were preferred by some to sending links because they would give a quick overview of the story while eliminating the need to click through advertisements.

These kinds of sharing practices that are happening in the “dark social” realm are likely not being measured by tools that are used track news audiences.

6. Why did participants feel that sharing news and opinions on social media could harm their reputation?

Something that I found to be true in both my research at the Pew Research Center and in these conversations is that, as young adults transition to college and the workplace, they become much more attentive to managing their digital footprints and any potentially negative associations that could affect the way they are assessed.

Some of what we heard related to concerns about sharing news about controversial topics on a public profile. One female participant noted the way that might affect future job prospects: “If I shared my opinions on social media about some of these issues and stories, I would be one of those people where they’re like, ‘No, I’m not hiring her.’ I just screenshot it and send it to my friends.”

7. Focus group participants said they believed news content would take on new forms and “eventually permeate every aspect of their lives.” How did they see this happening?

This part of our conversation was one of the most fascinating to me because it illustrated the ways in which younger audiences view themselves as surrounded by news in ways they might not always want.

Many of the participants’ visions were quite negative, suggesting an inevitable all-encompassing information stream that you can’t get away from. As one young man described it:

“You’re going to end up having to see it. Like in the future, they’re going to want you to see it. You ain’t going to have a choice. It’s going to pop up on everything.”

However, one of my favorite quotes was from a participant who described a future where news would be delivered by hologram: “I think like it’s going to be little holograms. You’re going to open this thing and a little guy’s going to come out and tell you about stuff.”

Given that some participants said they already found notifications annoying, I’m not sure how successful the little hologram guy would be, but it was clear that the participants fully expected that the news industry would continue to evolve and innovate in creative ways moving forward.

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