Why Young People Are More Informed Than You Think

March 16th 2015

Jenny Chen

The Wall Street Journal called us “Generation Lazy.” The Harvard Political Review called us apathetic. Turns out that neither is true. A new report from the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that Millennials are actually more engaged with what’s going on in the world than you might think. We just don’t always like what we see.

Millennials are more engaged than you might think.

Previous studies have indicated that Millennials don’t read the news. In 2012, a Pew Research poll found that the Silent generation (67-84 years old) spent twice as much time following the news (84 minutes a day) compared to Millennials (46 minutes a day). But American Press Institute Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel said that most of those previous surveys were built around traditional questions about how often Millennials read newspapers either online or in print.

“Just because Millennials weren’t going to conventional news destinations and were spending a lot of time on social media, they inferred that Millennials must not be interested in the world around them,” Rosenstiel said. Rosenstiel and his colleagues found that this was not the case, and their study suggests that a lot of the social media activity is actually related to news. “Previous research didn’t ask what Millennials were doing on social media,” Rosenstiel said. “Social media isn’t just for sharing photos anymore.”

The Media Insight Project study found that 85 percent of Millennials surveyed felt that following the news is at least somewhat important to them. Sixty-nine percent of Millennials keep up with news daily and 45 percent of Millennials regularly followed five or more “hard news” topics. Forty percent of them paid for some kind of news specific service, app, or digital subscription. In fact, the divide between social media and news consumption is actually not a divide at all. Many Millennials report getting their news from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit. Eighty-eight percent of Millennials said they got news from Facebook. Sizable minorities of Millennials also report getting news from Pinterest (36 percent), Twitter (33 percent), Reddit (23 percent), and Tumblr (21 percent). Younger Millennials diversified their news sources even further and got news from an even wider variety of social networks. “This generation is not newsless just because they don’t go to traditional news sites,” Rosenstiel said.

Millennials follow a good mix of “soft” news (news about entertainment, pop culture, and more) and “hard” news (traditional news categories like international politics and national news). Over 40 percent of Millennials surveyed reported regularly following news about music, TV and movies, national politics, crime and public safety, science and technology, and specific news related to their hobbies. 

There is still reason for concern however. According to a study conducted last year by the Media Insight Project – Millennials are much less likely than those 60 and older to follow important issues like national government and politics and international issues. 

Millennials are News Savvy.

Information from social networks can be as crazy as the Wild West, said Rosenstiel, but Millennials are savvy enough to sift through it. Thiry-six percent of Millennials surveyed said they searched for more information from trusted new sources when they heard about a story.  (Rosenstiel said that Millennials defined these trusted news sources as ones that had brand recognition, attractive and credible looking layout, and articles with links to primary sources). Furthermore, Millennials like to be empowered to do their own research – they often clicked on links to primary sources in order to verify information and learn more about the topic. 

Contrary to previous reports, social media actually has a broadening effect on news consumption rather than a narrowing effect. Social networks can be a jumping off point for a lot of online activities including news consumption. Rosenstiel likens it to a dinner party. “Social media serves as a way to contextualize news for Millennials. Some news that they might not ordinarily read, if their friend posts it and says you should read this because of this and that, they’re more likely to read it,” Rosenstiel said. 

The report states that Facebook may be increasing news awareness and consumption in ways that even its users do not anticipate or intend. For example, 7 in 10 regularly click on news stories on Facebook, even though less than half (47 percent) of Millennials say they go on Facebook to read the news. 

Still, Millennials Are Frustrated By News.

Despite the interest that Millennials have in news, the report also uncovered a growing discontent with the way news is conveyed today. Perhaps frustrated at how news agencies are trying to cater to stereotypes about Millennials, many of the survey participants expressed frustration with the ways in which outlets have tried to cater to Millennials by providing sensationalized and dumbed-down news.

“I’d like if the media in the next five years is actually stripped down and is more factual as opposed to sensationalized,” the report quoted a 25-year-old from Chicago, Marwa, as saying. “I feel like the news creates so much drama for us, it creates so much fear instead of just saying, ‘okay, this is what happened.’”

The report went on to quote a sophomore from University of Mary Washington, Connor, as saying, “[O]ne thing that I want to see change is that news is less sensationalist and don’t use big buzzwords or click bait just to get a message out there that isn’t necessarily true or relevant.” And finally, a 29-year-old named Marilu said,  “Some news stations need to grow up. And I say this because, when Obama made the announcement [about immigration], some news stations didn’t report it, or they didn’t televise it. I feel like whether they agree with something or not, no matter what their political agenda is, this was the news [and they should cover it].” 

Furthermore, many Millennials are starting to get fed up with the fragmented and constant stream of information that they get from their social networks and that social media often only delivers news of very niche topics that you and your network is interested in.

“I feel like you have to scout for [general news]. It’s not easy for me to get public news. I had no idea about the French terrorist [event]. I only caught a glimpse of that a couple of days ago on the TV in the restaurant,” the report quoted a sophomore from University of Mary Washington, Liz, as saying. 

It’s clear that Millennials are more savvy news consumers than others might think. Maybe it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that there isn’t a central news source for us to trust. And while that leads to a more diversified news diet, it also means that the onus is now on us to sift through what’s good and what’s not – and that can be exhausting.