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How younger and older Americans understand and interact with news

While the survey finds distinctions among attitudes and understanding of the media by factors like party and ideology, it also finds some significant and cautionary distinctions by age.

Consistent with previous Media Insight Project research findings, and those of other research as well, the survey shows older Americans are more likely to seek out news, say following the news is highly important, and get news multiple times a day. But it also shows older adults tend to have more trust in the media than younger adults.

In fact, younger Americans are more likely than older adults to lack trust in both the media generally and also the news sources they rely on. While a majority of adults age 45 and older (52 percent) call the news media trustworthy, only about a third of those under age 45 (35 percent) agree. Adults age 45 and older even trust their preferred news sources more than do younger adults (80 percent vs. 66 percent).

Moreover, the youngest Americans are the only age cohort in our survey that says most news reports are fairly inaccurate. A majority of adults age 29 and younger say most news reports are fairly inaccurate (53 percent). A majority of those age 30‑44 (57 percent), age 45‑59 (61 percent), and age 60 or older (67 percent) say most news reports are fairly accurate.

Age group Think most news reports are fairly inaccurate Think most news reports are fairly accurate
18-29 years old 53% 47%
30-44 years old 43% 57%
45-59 years old 37% 61%
60 and older 31% 67%

Data Source: Question: “Choose the statement that best describes how you view the news, even if it is not exactly right. In general...”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

As a point of comparison, a majority of Republicans (55 percent) say news reports are fairly inaccurate, while over 7 in 10 Democrats (71 percent) say they are fairly accurate, though perhaps for different reasons.

One important and perennial question about such findings is whether they suggest that the media attitudes of these younger Americans will change as the younger generations surveyed become older? Researchers have been struggling with this question for nearly 30 years, since the Times Mirror Research Center for the People & the Press produced a study called The Age of Indifference in the early 1990s.

The answers were dramatically complicated by the explosion of new technology. Younger generations began to move online in such numbers it was hard to make generational comparisons that had been made before.

But the numbers here suggest that the differences between generations in trust in the media are becoming more entrenched — and even growing. The youngest generation of adults has grown up with a fragmented, more politicized media landscape, and it may be making a difference.

One clue is that the differences in trust in media across ages may also be increasing. For example, 63 percent of 18‑ to 29‑year‑olds say the media is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 49 percent of those 60 years old or older. Likewise, half of those age 18‑29 report their level of trust in the media has decreased in the last year compared with about 4 in 10 adults age 60 and older.

When it comes to building or improving trust, majorities across all age groups say it is very or extremely important for journalists to offer more information about the sources or evidence cited in a story, and this is especially important to older adults. Seventy‑seven percent of those age 60 and older and 73 percent of those age 45‑59 say it is very important for journalists to offer more about sources or evidence, compared with 63 percent of those age 30‑44 and 58 percent of those age 18‑29.

Older adults have more positive views of TV news outlets, while younger adults tend to have more favorable attitudes toward social media

Another dynamic in sorting out the future of trust in media is that different generations now consume fairly different media. In particular, the signs are increasingly clear in this survey, as in others, that younger generations have less of a bond with and exposure to television news, either in cable or local or national broadcast news.

That can be seen in the fact that, although younger adults are more skeptical than older adults about the media in general, the public’s ratings of specific types of media vary depending on age.

In particular, older adults are more likely than younger adults to provide positive ratings toward various types of television outlets. Younger adults have more favorable opinions of social media than older adults.

That is one of several signs we see that television news organizations increasingly face a challenge as younger Americans uncouple from cable, which is occurring at a growing rate.

At the same time, there are no significant differences across age when it comes to views toward various types of newspaper and radio outlets.

Overall, older adults also tend to give more positive ratings to journalists they follow.

60 and older 45-59 years old 30-44 years old 18-29 years old
Local TV news 65% 62% 49% 43%
Broadcast TV 59% 53% 40% 40%
Journalists you read or follow 55% 47% 34% 33%
News organizations in general 43% 40% 29% 31%
Cable TV 41% 42% 29% 31%
Social media platforms 11% 17% 18% 31%

Data Source: Question: “For each of the following items related to the news media, please indicate whether you have a very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, or very negative view of that item.”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

There are also differences across age groups when it comes to being able to differentiate news from opinion for various types of media outlets.

Older adults report having an easier time than younger adults in differentiating news from opinion with traditional broadcast and print media.

In contrast, younger adults are more likely than older adults to say they have an easier time differentiating news from opinion on social media. Moreover, adults age 18‑29 are as likely to say it is easy to differentiate news from opinion on either social media or online‑only websites as traditional media.

60 and older 45-59 years old 30-44 years old 18-29 years old
Local TV news 76% 66% 57% 52%
Broadcast TV 69% 59% 50% 48%
News media in general 63% 56% 52% 49%
Your local newspaper 61% 59% 52% 46%
Social media platforms 34% 46% 43% 52%

Data Source: Question: “Many news organizations produce opinion content as well as report the news. How easy or difficult is it for you to tell the difference between the opinion content and news reporting in each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

There are also some age differences when it comes to the definition of fake news.

Older adults tend to have a broader definition of what constitutes fake news than do younger adults, especially when it comes to conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors. Seventy‑three percent of adults age 60 or older and 68 percent of adults age 45‑59 say an outlet passing along conspiracy theories is fake news, compared with 57 percent of those age 30‑44 and 51 percent of those age 18‑29 who say the same.

Likewise, 52 percent of the oldest adults say news stories that are unfair or sloppy are fake news, compared with 33 percent of the youngest adults.

Although young adults are more likely to have taken a media literacy class or started a blog, older adults report more familiarity with common journalistic terms

Despite younger adults having more experience with media literacy courses and creating media themselves, there is a notable age gap in the understanding of journalistic concepts.

The news literacy movement in schools is about 10 years old, and you can see that difference in the data. But you can also see that the penetration rates, even among the young, are still relatively modest.

Nearly 1 in 4 adults age 18‑29 (23 percent) report having taken a media literacy class (23 percent), compared with 18 percent of those 30‑44 years old, 16 percent of those 45‑59 years old, and 10 percent of those age 60 and older. Those differences may not be as striking as some may have expected.

Younger adults are significantly more likely than older adults to have started a blog or social media account to create news or non‑personal content. Eighteen percent of adults age 18‑29 and 11 percent of those age 30‑44 have started such a blog or social media account to create news, compared with 5 percent of those age 45‑59 and 3 percent of those age 60 and older.

Yet, there are no age‑related differences when it comes to having participated in a school news organization or having taken a journalism class.

Although they are less likely to say they took a media literacy class, older adults are significantly more likely to report being very or completely familiar with common journalistic terms such as “political endorsement” or “op‑ed.” There are especially large age gaps in familiarity when it comes to differences between an editorial and a news story or the differences between a reporter and a columnist.

This is another indication that journalistic terminology with origins in print may not be resonating with all Americans. In this case, while the youngest Americans have grown up in a media‑saturated world, the journalistic words that media inherited are not breaking through.

American Press Institute

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