Two recent reports cast further light on young people’s increasing disengagement from mainstream news media.
Young people these days are less and less inclined to use mainstream news media. They are less trusting of what they see, and growing numbers of them are avoiding news altogether. These may not be new findings, but they are perhaps more surprising during a period of global crisis, when we might have expected that news would be more important than ever. The Covid pandemic seems to have caused a small uptick in news consumption, but this has already disappeared: the steady decline of news seems to be accelerating once again.
Of course, there are many good reasons why young people in general are less likely than older generations to be interested in news. However, what we’re talking about here is not a generational difference, but a ‘cohort effect’, which dates back several decades. The differences between the generations are widening; and the media habits and orientations of today’s young people are bound to carry through into the future.
More than twenty years ago, I wrote a book about young people and news, based on research I carried out both in the UK and the United States. There was growing concern at the time about what was called the ‘democratic deficit’. Younger people appeared to be less and less interested in politics (as evidenced, for example, in the numbers joining political parties or voting in elections), and in civic participation more broadly. They were also increasingly turning away from news: readership of newspapers and viewing of TV news were already in steep decline. It is obviously hard to distinguish between cause and effect here – the declining interest in news is more likely to be a symptom of a more general disengagement, rather than vice-versa – but each probably reinforces the other.
My book was mainly about television. In the 2000s, the advent of new media technologies both complicated, and arguably exacerbated, the problem. Many commentators looked to the internet as the solution: networked digital media, it was hoped, would re-engage young people with politics and civic life, and also with news. The so-called ‘digital natives’ were participating in new ways, which would result in a resurgence of activism, and a regeneration of the public sphere and of democracy. What transpired was inevitably more complicated; but to say the least, things didn’t quite turn out as some of the more optimistic commentators predicted. (My colleague Shakuntala Banaji and I wrote another book about all this too.)
Two decades later, the basic terms of the argument are remarkably similar, although the sense of crisis has become increasingly urgent. It no longer seems quite so exaggerated to talk about the terminal decline of news journalism, and of the media’s role as a ‘fourth estate’ holding the powerful to account. Nor indeed, is it unduly melodramatic to lament the demise of democratic politics and civil society. Rhetorical claims about ‘post-truth’ may sometimes be overdone, but they aren’t entirely misplaced.
In the last couple of months (June-July 2022), two new reports have reinforced many of these concerns. This year’s annual report on News Consumption in the UK, published by the British media regulator Ofcom, echoes the findings of the latest global study published by Oxford University’s Reuters Media Institute, the Digital News Report 2022. There is a great deal of interest in both reports, but my main focus here is on what they have to say about generational differences – differences that obviously point to the longer-term future of news. They should make sobering reading for news providers, but they also raise some challenging questions for educators.
Ofcom: News Consumption in the UK 2022
The Ofcom report suggests that a watershed in news consumption has now been reached. This year, for the first time, social media have overtaken television as young people’s preferred news source. While Facebook is in decline among this age group (16-24-year olds), Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are now their top sources for news: the BBC – far and away the leading ‘traditional’ source – has been pushed into fourth place, with a very large decline from 45% to 24% in the past five years, and a 10% drop in the last year alone. The longer-term decline in newspaper readership has accelerated, and the use of online newspaper sites has not made up for the losses.
Although this shift away from ‘old’ media is apparent among the population in general, it is especially evident among the young. The pandemic seems to have resulted in a slight increase in TV news consumption, but people gradually turned away as it progressed: the average reach of all TV news channels has declined steadily over the past ten years (in the case of BBC One, for example, from two thirds to just over half of the overall audience). Some of the age differences here are quite eye-watering: on average, younger people watched 17 hours of TV news per year in 2021, as compared with 113 hours for the population as a whole, and 233 hours for the oldest age group. Yet while the decline is steepest for young people, it is apparent among all age groups.
Even so, there are some paradoxes here. In Ofcom’s surveys, a high proportion of young people claim to be ‘very interested’ or at least ‘quite interested’ in news (although we might well want to question what they mean by that, and why they might tick those particular boxes). In general, they say they trust established news brands, especially the BBC. Yet the online sources which they are increasingly using are also the ones they seem least likely to trust. Tik Tok, for example, is used by 28% of younger teens (aged 12-15) to follow news, and 7% say that it is their most important source; yet only 3 in 10 of these say that they trust it, or that it provides accurate news, which is significantly less than for TV news.
Reuters Institute: Digital News Report 2022
These findings overlap with those of the latest Reuters Institute report. This is a much larger global study, with large samples across 6 continents and 46 markets. Some of the international differences are quite notable; and given the way in which the debate tends to be dominated by US commentators, it is important to note that in several key respects (such as the low levels of trust in news), the United States is a significant outlier. Even so, the key findings are very similar: people in general (and young people in particular) are less and less interested in news, much less inclined to favour traditional media, and less likely to trust what they see. While the pandemic might have briefly arrested some of these longer-term trends, it seems to have been little more than a temporary blip.
Again, some of the figures here clearly show how the decline of news is accelerating. Interest in news worldwide has fallen from 63% in 2017 to 51% in 2022; and while some countries are relatively stable in this respect, others have seen quite dramatic falls (the number of people in the UK who claim to be very or extremely interested in news has dropped from 70% to 43% since 2015). The growth in online news has not compensated for the overall decline. For example, while subscriptions to specialist online news services have risen in recent years, there are signs that this is beginning to level off. Young adults are also less likely to subscribe: the average age of digital news subscribers is fifty.
Meanwhile, the trust that seems to have been earned during the pandemic now appears to be eroding quite rapidly, even in the case of familiar public service news brands. In the UK, the proportion of people who say they trust most news most of the time has dropped from 51% to 34% since 2015, while those who say they trust the BBC have fallen from 75% to 55% in just five years. These figures are even more dramatic in the United States; while the contrast with less politically polarised countries is striking (trust in news in Finland, for example, is twice the level of the UK).
In the wake of various national and global crises, the report also detects growing levels of ‘news fatigue’ and avoidance of news. While some are choosing to ignore particular types of content that they find depressing or repetitive, increasing numbers of people are disengaging from the news altogether. Again, the figures for the UK are especially shocking here: in the past five years, those who say they actively avoid news have risen from 24% to 46%. It would seem that the subjects journalists consider to be most important – pandemics, climate catastrophes, political crises, international conflicts – are precisely those that are causing users to turn away, perhaps because they feel powerless to do anything about them.
The Reuters report also suggests that generation gaps in these areas may well be widening; although it usefully points to the dangers of generalising about ‘young people’. Albeit in somewhat crude generational terms, the authors distinguish between ‘social [media] natives’, aged 18-24, and ‘digital natives’, aged 25-34. They note that among social natives, there has been a move away, not only from traditional news sources like television, but also from online news websites and apps, and from Facebook. (40% of social natives are using Tik Tok, and 15% are using it for news.) By contrast, older digital natives appear more loyal to Facebook, and more inclined to use online search tools.
Despite these differences, the authors argue that both groups are much less inclined than older adults to trust media of any kind; and they also more likely to avoid particular types of news, partly on the grounds that they are depressing, but also because they regard them as biased and untrustworthy. Many of the findings here are echoed in recent academic studies (see for example, here and here) – although academic research inevitably tends to lag behind. Even so, more in-depth qualitative studies do capture some more fundamental differences in young people’s orientations towards news. In general, younger people tend to access news in a more incidental, fleeting manner – ‘news snacking’ – and they tend to define what counts as news in less formal or conservative ways. They are less interested in traditional sources of expertise and authority, and more inclined to want a range of opinions and perspectives. At the same time, they can struggle to understand news stories, particularly where there is a lack of explanation or historical context.
What does this mean for the future of news journalism? The authors of the Reuters Institute report argue that the ‘social contract’ between journalists and the public is currently ‘fraying’. This is surely something of an understatement. If we turn to other influential sources, like the annual Edelmann Trust Barometer report, the rhetoric of crisis is much more evident. This year’s report argues that there is now a ‘vicious cycle’ of distrust that is ‘fuelled’ by a lack of faith in both government and the media. Almost half of their large sample of respondents regard both as ‘divisive forces’ in society. ‘Through disinformation and division,’ the report argues, ‘these two institutions are feeding the cycle and exploiting it for commercial and political gain.’
Ultimately, I’m inclined to share the caution of the Reuters Institute report: democracy is not dead yet, although in many parts of the world, it certainly smells funny. The depravity and insanity of British politics over the past several years makes it hard to imagine that we will ever achieve anything remotely close to the rational, democratic public sphere imagined by social theorists. Yet reports of the demise of news journalism are still somewhat exaggerated.
Even so, for news organisations, such reports must surely make sobering reading; although the implications for their work are far from clear. Change is clearly needed, not just in the media that are being used, but also in the form and content of news. As I argued all those years ago, news organisations need to work much harder to make news more accessible and relevant, not just to young people but to older adults as well. This is not necessarily to imply that news should strive to be more ‘interactive’ or ‘entertaining’ – more like Tik Tok videos, perhaps – but it surely does suggest that it has much to learn from the growing take-up of social media. News providers urgently need to rethink how they engage with younger audiences if they are not to lose these cohorts altogether.
Where does this leave educators? Since prehistoric times (the 1960s), news has been a standard topic in media education curricula, although it hasn’t always been easy to teach, for some of the reasons I’ve implied. This is as it should be, although these reports would imply that teaching about newspapers and (increasingly) television news is likely be less and less relevant to students’ experience. Even in the UK, specialist Media Studies courses have been slow to respond to this changing news environment.
Aside from Media Studies courses, most of the targeted ‘news literacy’ provision in the UK is provided by legacy media organisations like the BBC and the Guardian newspaper. And in some respects, this can be seen as a response to precisely the crisis I have been describing here. Much of the motivation for these organisations is to do with restoring trust in their brands; and in the process, much of the blame for so-called ‘fake news’ is directed against social media. For reasons I’ve considered before, this approach seems to be swimming against the prevailing tide, and is unlikely to succeed.
However, there are also questions here about our broader aims. These reports might seem to suggest that young people’s greater distrust of news media makes them more ‘media literate’ than older generations. I can absolutely understand that distrust, and I share a good deal of it. But I’m not sure we should simply celebrate it. Does media literacy necessarily imply distrust? How much distrust do we need, and how much is healthy for society more broadly? Some critics have suggested that media literacy might be encouraging a generalised distrust that amounts to little more than superficial cynicism. I’ve debated these issues in previous posts (for example, here). What some might see as a healthy manifestation of young people’s media literacy skills could equally be seen as another consequence of their sense of disempowerment. Too much trust implies a credulous audience; but too much distrust can be dangerously dysfunctional. So how much is too much?