People differ in how much understanding they feel they have of important issues they might see in the news, and in how much ability they have to improve the places they live.
Two dividing lines we saw in our data cut across age and race.
Older Americans are more likely to believe they have a better understanding of national issues, while younger Americans are more likely to believe they can improve their country.
Age tends to have an impact on people’s beliefs about their understanding of national issues and their perceptions about being able to improve their community.
Forty-one percent of adults 45 and older say they understand the important issues facing their country very or extremely well, compared with only 32 percent of adults aged 18-44. In contrast, only 22 percent of adults 45 and older think they can make a moderate or big impact in their country, compared to 33 percent of those aged 18-44.
While those aged 18-29 and those aged 30-44 have comparable levels of knowledge of national issues, individuals aged 18-29 report a distinctly lower knowledge of local issues. Eighteen percent say they understand issues in their community very or extremely well, compared to 34 percent of those aged 30-44 and those aged 45-59, and 25 percent of those 65 and older. Those aged 18-29 however have similar views on their ability to make an impact as those aged 30-44 (47 percent v. 45 percent).
African Americans tend to be more likely than whites and Hispanics to believe they understand important issues and can make an impact.
Forty-four percent of African Americans report they understand issues in their community very well compared with 25 percent of whites and 23 percent of Hispanics. African Americans are also more likely than whites or Hispanics to say they have a good understanding of national issues (49 percent vs. 36 percent and 28 percent, respectively).
African Americans also are more likely to believe they can make an impact in their community. Fifty-five percent of African Americans say they can make a moderate or big impact in their community compared with 41 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of whites.
Media behavior, understanding of issues and perceived efficacy
We also wanted to know if any of these concepts related to how people view and engage with news. We found some correlations, and identified additional questions to study.
People who actively seek out news, those who say following news is important to them, and those who pay for news are all more likely to believe they understand issues and are qualified to discuss such matters.
People’s news consumption is related to both understanding important issues and perceptions about making an impact.
Overall, when asked how important it is for them to personally keep up with news and information, 53 percent say it is very or extremely important, 38 percent say it is moderately important, and just 8 percent say it is not very or not at all important.
Americans who say it is very or extremely important to them to follow the news are more likely to believe they are very qualified to discuss important issues in the news than those who say following the news is moderately important or not important (54 percent vs. 13 percent and 9 percent).
Forty-eight percent of those who say following the news is very important to them report they can make a moderate or big impact in their community compared with 31 percent who say following the news is moderately important and 22 percent who say following the news is not very important. Similarly, 33 percent of those who say following news is very important to them also say they can make a moderate or big impact in their country, compared with 20 percent of those who view following news as moderately important or unimportant.
When asked about how they get news, 61 percent say they actively seek out news and information, while 39 percent say they mostly bump into news and information as they do other things or hear about it from others.
In addition, about half of people report paying for a news source or donating to a news organization. In particular, 54 percent say they either pay for a magazine, newspaper, newsletter, news site, or podcast or donate to a public radio or TV station.
How people get news and whether they pay for news are both strongly tied to understanding important issues, but not significantly related to people’s beliefs about their ability to improve their community or country.
Forty-five percent of those who seek out news say they are very qualified to participate in discussions with family or friends about important issues in the news compared with 18 percent of those who say they mainly bump into news. Likewise, 44 percent of those who mainly seek out news say they feel they understand important national issues very well compared with 25 percent of those who bump into news. Additionally, thirty-two percent of those who mainly seek out news report understanding issues in their community very well, compared with only 21 percent of those who mostly bump into news.
People who report paying for news are more likely than those who do not pay to both feel qualified to discuss important issues and believe they understand issues facing the country. Forty-percent of people who pay for news believe they are very qualified to talk about important issues compared with 27 percent of those who do not pay. Likewise, 44 percent of those who pay for news say they understand important issues facing the country very or extremely well compared with 25 percent who do not pay for news. However, there is not a significant difference between payers of news and nonpayers when it comes to understanding issues about their community.
In contrast, there is no significant difference in beliefs about the ability to improve their community or the country between those who seek out news and those who primarily bump into news or between those who pay for news and those who don’t pay for news.
In short, people who more deeply engage with news on these measures have an increased understanding of important issues in the public square, but they do not seem to feel more agency to improve where they live.