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The Personal News Cycle: A focus on African American and Hispanic news consumers

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

Introduction

The predicted digital divide, in which people of color would be left behind in the use of technology, is not playing out as many of those forecasting the digital future anticipated, at least not when it comes to news, according to a new survey released today.

These Americans do not believe that the growth of web and mobile media has fulfilled the promise of more coverage, and more accurate coverage, of underserved ethnic communities.

The two largest minority groups in the United States — African Americans and Hispanics — are in many ways using digital technology for news at similar rates as the American population overall. Yet these Americans do not believe that the growth of web and mobile media has fulfilled the promise of more coverage, and more accurate coverage, of underserved ethnic communities. The new survey — the second to be released by the Media Insight Project — was produced in collaboration with the Maynard Institute, New America Media, and the McCormick Foundation.

The new study adds to the growing body of evidence that the digital divide has not materialized as expected when it comes to technology use. The study also adds nuance to our understanding of the means by which people navigate and think about technology, particularly when it comes to news.

% Who... African Americans Hispanics
Find it easier now to keep up with news generally 58% 57%
Find it easier now to keep up with news about [African American/Hispanic] community 39% 41%
Think the media covers [African American/Hispanic] community regularly 51% 49%
Think the media covers [African American/Hispanic] community accurately 25% 33%
Own a smartphone 70% 65%
Use smartphone to access news (among owners) 85% 78%

Data Source: The Personal News Cycle: A focus on African American and Hispanic news consumers, 2014
Full question wording is available at mediainsight.org

THE MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

African American and Hispanic American adults have come to rely on a variety of technologies and devices to get their news today, and in rates similar to adults in the United States generally. At least two-thirds of American adults across all racial and ethnic groups, for instance, are now online and own a smartphone, and African Americans and Hispanics use new technologies at similar rates for news. The average American across these different groups uses about four different technologies to get news every week.

If anything, African Americans and Hispanics are adapting to mobile technology at even higher rates than non-Hispanic whites (with the exception of Hispanics acquiring tablet computers). Both African Americans and Hispanics also agree with the majority of adult Americans that it is easier to follow news in general today than it was five years ago.

Only a third of Hispanics and a quarter of African Americans believe their communities are accurately portrayed in the media.

Far fewer African Americans and Hispanics, however, believe that the changes in the news landscape have made it easier to learn about their own racial or ethnic community.

For instance, relatively few African Americans and Hispanics — which combined make up approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population — believe they see in the media an accurate portrayal of their own communities. Only a third of Hispanics and a quarter of African Americans believe their communities are accurately portrayed in the media, and a major reason for this may be that they feel their communities are not paid much attention in the news. Only half of adults in either group believe their communities are covered regularly in the media today.

The perception that, even in the networked age, it is difficult to see regular or accurate coverage of African American and Hispanic communities may also be inhibiting these Americans from being more avid news consumers. While large majorities of African Americans and Hispanics are daily news consumers, and while pluralities access the news throughout the day, those with concerns about the accuracy of the media’s coverage of their communities attend to the news much less often.

These findings contradict two theories about the web that have been prominent for much of the last decade. One is that racial and ethnic minorities might lag in digital access and adoption. The advent of wireless technology, among other things, may have confounded that expectation. The other is that as barriers to entry for publishing fell, reporting on more diverse topics would emerge, thus better serving historically underrepresented communities. The survey reveals that those communities are not finding that to be the case.

This study is the second by the Media Insight Project. The first study, released in March of 2014, found that, rather than demographics such as age and political orientation guiding news coverage, the topic of the story largely determines where people go to learn about events and what path they take to get there.

The new report, which includes previously unreleased data, adds a new dimension to prior findings by probing the news consumption habits of African Americans and Hispanic adults nationwide and comparing them to adults nationwide, as well as to non-Hispanic whites alone. It also adds new questions about ethnic news and news consumption.

Even though the classic concerns about a digital divide based on connectedness do not fully describe the landscape, the survey finds some important differences among racial and ethnic groups when it comes to news consumption. Those differences mainly have to do with where people go for news, and potentially the availability of news, as well as the topics about which they are concerned.

In general, for instance, African Americans tend to rely on local news stations, whether on television or the web, for information about their communities. They are more likely than Hispanic Americans to own tablets, use news alerts, and to find news about their own community through social media. Hispanic Americans, on the other hand, rely more on ethnically focused media outlets for news. They are also much less likely to read news in print.

The word “news” itself may even be a source of confusion, bringing a certain kind of information to mind. For most people, news may actually encompass a wide range of topics, from weather and traffic to political infighting to the latest celebrity scandal. To clarify how Americans get different types of information, regardless of whether they consider it news, the survey assessed consumption of 17 different topics, asking people if they followed these topics, how, and where. This process revealed some significant differences by race and ethnicity. For example, while a majority of Hispanics follow news about immigration, a much smaller percentage of whites and African Americans do so, only about 1 in 3. Moreover, these three different racial and ethnic groups tend to rely on distinct reporting sources for news on different topics.

Survey methods

This survey was conducted by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute (API) and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from January 9 through February 16, 2014. The margin of error for this telephone survey of 1,492 adults 18 and older is +/- 3.6 percentage points. The sample includes oversamples of 358 Hispanic adults and 318 non-Hispanic African American adults. The margin of error for the Hispanic sample is +/- 8.5 percentage points, and for the non-Hispanic African American sample it is 7.9 percentage points. Interviews were completed with respondents on landlines and cell phones, and interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The discussion of results often refers to point estimates from the overall national findings as a benchmark to compare the racial and ethnic subgroup estimates. These national findings among 1,492 respondents represent the general population of Americans age 18 and older, including whites, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and any other racial or ethnic combinations in which respondents identified.

Using a battery of new questions designed for the digital age, the survey sought to examine whether people distinguish between a reporting source (that is, the news organization that gathered the news) from the means by which they discovered the news (social media or a search engine, for instance) and what device they used (for example, print publications or smartphones). Rather than asking people about news in general to learn these things, moreover, the survey identified 17 different news topics and probed consumption habits on each one, a specificity that both unlocks a broader definition of news and reveals more nuance about consumption.

For each news topic (e.g., business news vs. traffic and weather) or type (e.g., breaking news, slow-moving trends, and news people feel passionately about), we asked respondents to tell us how they generally follow news about that topic. All verbatim responses were collected and then coded by the research team. Each response was coded along three dimensions:

Device categorized the coded mentions of the device or technology the respondent used to get news. For example, watching television, listening to the radio, reading the print version of a newspaper, or reading an article on a smartphone.

Discovery method categorized the coded mentions of how the respondent found the news regardless of the device used. For example, hearing it directly from a news organization, seeing it on social media, or hearing about it through word of mouth.

Source categorized the coded mentions of the organization that gathered the information and did the news reporting. For example, reporting done by local television news stations, newspapers, online-only news sites like The Huffington Post, or magazines like Time.

Additionally, if a respondent did not mention one of these dimensions about how they generally follow news, the dimension was coded as “No specific mention.” This coding scheme allowed the research team not only to quantify how people get their news, but also to describe how people think about news consumption and what dimensions are most salient in different news contexts.

One of the reasons for this approach is that it is less clear, now that people have so many choices, what consumers pay attention to when seeking out news. This has led to confusion in past data about what was meant by a news source versus a news platform, and it has made interpreting the data more difficult.

These distinctions are not only important for trying to understand behavior. They also are important to publishers who are trying to find the best ways to reach their audiences. They also matter to brand advertisers trying to figure out how to reach customers.

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