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How We Get Our News: U.S. Study Debunks Conventional Wisdom

By:  Darren Dahl Apr 9, 2014
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How we get our news

We tend to make lots of assumptions these days about we consume our news. You might hear that only older people read newspapers, for example, or that younger people rely almost exclusively on their social media feeds to learn what’s happening in the world – if they even care at all. Then they’re folks who seem to only tune in to a source that shares their ideological and political beliefs.

But the truth about how we connect with current events may be far more nuanced and interesting: It turns out that most people do care about the news and they’re turning to a diverse range of platforms to get it.

That’s the conclusion of a research study called “The Personal News Cycle” conducted by the Media Insight Project, a partnership between the American Press Institute (API), The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago. Researchers polled nearly 1,500 people about how and when they follow news stories across different media platforms.

Participants were asked whether they followed any of 15 different news topics – such as politics, sports and weather – and what source of media they used to follow that news and learn more it.

The results blow away the conventional wisdom that people’s news habits are determined by demographic factors such as age. “We found that all generations are following different topics and using multiple sources to do so,” says Jennifer Benz, a senior research scientist at the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, who led the research. “People really do try and keep up with the news.”

That includes 18 to 29 year-olds, who are not as apathetic or disinterested at they are often labeled. “Young people are interested in the news, they just may go about getting it in different ways,” says Benz.

Another big takeaway from the research is that the nature of the news itself – whether it was breaking political news, for example, or a traffic accident – actually determines where we go for our information rather than our age or political affiliation. “We found that people go to different sources for different types of news,” says Benz. “They might go to their local TV station, online or via the TV, to get information on traffic and weather but then turn to a site like ESPN to get more specialized news on sports.”

The research shows that we’re also using a wide range of technology – an average of four devices that include our phones and tablets, to our TVs and computers – to access the news on a continuous basis.


“Everyone is using everything,” says Gabriel Kahn, professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who reviewed the study’s results. “When you have technology that makes news dramatically more accessible, you have so many new opportunities and choices in how you can access the mix.”

At the same time, traditional media sources remain a trusted and reliable source of news for most of us despite the rise of technology. We tend to use mobile devices and social media as a means of discovering news, for example, not necessarily to read more broadly on a subject or to get the necessary context or implications of the news item we’re interested in.


“People know the difference between Twitter and The New York Times,” says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the API. “One thing is a way of finding the news while the other is an organization that reports the news. People are discriminating when it comes to the news sources they trust and they are very conscious about where their news is coming from.”

While newspapers remain important sources of original reporting for most people, there are unsurprisingly generational differences in how we access it: Older Americans are far more likely to read a printed version of a paper, while younger consumers read it online.

There was also a generational gap when it came to which readers said they had read, watched or listened to a news story beyond its headline where older Americans were more likely to go deeper on a story in general. But when it came to following up on a breaking news story, it was actually younger readers who spent more time digging into the news.


“Younger folks have more spontaneity and curiosity in the moment something is happening,” says Rosenstiel, “whereas older folks might say, that’s interesting, and then come back and do a deeper dive later on.”

What was common across all ages though, says Benz, was that when consumers heard about a story on TV and wanted more information about, they all went online to conduct a more in-depth search.

The data from the research, released last month at the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) MediaXchange 2014 conference in Denver, has a few major implications for news publishers moving forward.

Rosenstiel says news publishers probably need to become more transparent in how they collect their news if they want to build credibility and trust with their audience. They also should focus on specializing on one area of content where they become top of mind with news consumers.

“If the subject determines where people go to get their news then publishers should make an effort to own certain subjects,” he says. “The old department store model of having everything for everyone doesn’t work in an era where people can choose who they think can provide the deepest expertise. A better source is now just a click away.”