Our podcast: Digital News Report 2022. Episode 2: The news habits of younger audiences

In this episode of our podcast series we look at findings from our DNR22 on how younger audiences differ in how they engage with news

The topic

In this special episode of our Future of Journalism podcast we are looking into the findings of the Digital News Report 2022 around how  younger audiences engage with news. We look at what makes this audience unique, what are their main gateways in accessing news and how their levels of interest and news avoidance compare to older generations.

The speakers

Dr Kirsten Eddy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Digital News at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She studies the interplay of journalism, politics, and digital media, with a focus on moral and civic media and political discourse. She is the author of the Digital News Report 2022 chapter on how younger audiences are engaging with news

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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The transcript

Social and digital natives 

Federica: The term young people is typically vague, shall we first unpack what you mean in your research when we use this term?

Kirsten: Yes, this is such a great question, because I think it's very easy for us to lump all young people into one big, monolithic category. In our research, we try to avoid broad generational claims. So we focus this on two separate groups. The first are ‘social natives’. So these are 18-to-24 year-olds, who largely grew up with social networks, and then ‘digital natives’, which are 25-to-34 year-olds, who largely grew up in the information age, but before the rise of social networks.

Federica: Why is it important to consider young people’s news habits?

Kirsten: I don't think it's new information that publishers and journalists around the world are increasingly concerned about how to attract and engage young people. These groups are critical audiences for news organisations. They are the future generations of news consumers, but they're also increasingly hard to reach. And they're incredibly diverse and have different media behaviours and attitudes than their older peers, which I think makes a one-size-fits-all approach particularly difficult for drawing these groups in.

Reliance on social media 

Federica: From your research, what would you say is the main difference between how younger generations engage with news compared to older generations?

Kirsten: We really see a lot of differences in news behaviours based on age. But in terms of how they're accessing news, I think one key difference that we continue to find over time, is that younger audiences overall are increasingly much more reliant on side door sources to news that includes social media, aggregator sites and search engines. And they're far less loyal to news brands than older groups are. And we see this difference being particularly striking among those social natives who are 18-to-24 year-olds,

Federica: we tend to associate younger people with some of the newer social networks, like TikTok, or Snapchat. To what extent are young people using these for news?

Kirsten: I think that's a fair association, we definitely see a turn toward these newer social networks in general, largely resulting from shifts in those social natives’ media behaviours, while older groups kind of tend to have more entrenched media habits. But I don't think the use of these platforms is quite as widespread as we might expect, and younger audiences aren't simply all TikTokers However, to give one example, the percentage of 18-to-24 year-olds using TikTok for news has increased fivefold over our markets over just a three year span. So that was 3% in 2020 using that for news and 15% in 2022. So while it is a fairly small percent - that 15% using tick tock for news, and that is relatively low on its own - these changes over a very short period of time are pretty striking. And I think it's important to note that this also varies a lot by markets as well. So in Thailand, we see nearly a third of people under 35 using TikTok for news specifically. But in the UK, that number is only 6% right now.

Federica: And it might be difficult to generalise because of the differences you just mentioned. But what do you think is the appeal of such platforms for news? Are they more visual?

Kirsten: Definitely, I think that's a piece of it. And we actually we supplemented our survey data this year with qualitative research with 18-to-30 year-olds in Brazil, the US and the UK, and ask them a ton of questions about their news habits and attitudes. and many of them said that they're really drawn to kind of exactly what you said, the informal and entertaining style of visual media. They often talked about platforms like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube as being more personalised and diverse than traditional formats like TV. They talked about it as a resource that they turned to for rapidly changing events like the Russia-Ukraine conflict. And they talked about it as a venue for some of their more niche interests and hobbies. So some of the things that maybe we traditionally wouldn't even consider to be hard news in the first place.

Trust and avoidance 

Federica: One of the central questions in the main report concerns the level of trust in news. And we know one of the main findings this year is that overall trust in news is slightly down. It is a case also amongst younger people, and how does the level of trust differ between generations?

Kirsten: Yes, that's certainly true. We continue to see longer term falls in interest and trust in news among younger audiences. Though, as you said, we do see this across age groups and markets. So it's not just limited to our younger groups. But there are important differences in levels of trust by age and both digital and social natives are our lowest trusting age groups. So, on average, across our 46 markets, only a third of both of these groups say that they trust most news most of the time, and that's compared with nearly half of those who are 55 and older.

Interest in news 

Federica: Specifically, if we look at recent years, we've faced so many big news stories that could have been seen as negative but which also have very profound direct impacts on young people lives. COVID-19 has disrupted young people's education and perhaps the beginning of their careers, the world over. Are younger people engaging in news because they find it relevant to their lives, or tuning out because of all of the negativity. What are they saying?

Kirsten: This is such a great question, and it's one I've thought about a lot recently, we continue to see news avoidance increasing around the world, especially among younger groups, and even more so specifically for that 18-to-24 year-old group. And younger audiences largely had similar responses when we asked why they choose to avoid the news. So there weren't major gaps between digital and social natives. They often said that it has, as you said, a negative effect on their mood. In the UK, we heard that two-thirds of news avoiders under 35, saying the news brings down their mood. And some of our qualitative research participants talked about forming particular news habits to avoid negativity or to protect their mental health. They also often said that there's just too much news coverage of topics like politics, or coronavirus. And I think this is especially important because it shows us that younger audiences aren't necessarily avoiding all news. In fact, many of them are selectively avoiding topics like politics and COVID, specifically.

How young people define news 

Federica: Are there any differences in the types of news a younger people in first place consume, but also what they consider news in the first place?

Kirsten: There are. And I think those perceptions of too much newsroom attention going toward topics like politics, and COVID sort of reflect those differences. We find that many young people have a much wider definition of what news is. So in our qualitative work, they would often distinguish between the news as a sort of narrow, traditional agenda of politics and current affairs, and a broader news umbrella encompassing a whole range of topics, from sports, to celebrity gossip, to culture, and science. And I think this also came through in our survey research this year, both of our younger groups are less interested in news in general than older groups. And so it makes sense that they express lower interest in most news topics generally. But they were particularly less interested in traditional beats, like politics or international news than the older cohorts were, and they're more interested in softer news topics like entertainment and celebrity or education news. And I think we find that even many of the types of news that we often deem as a young people’s topics, so things like social justice, mental health and wellness, climate change, or fun news or satire, these things don't necessarily translate into greater interest in news about these topics for all or even most younger audiences.

Motivations for using news 

Federica: We talk about some of the reasons for avoiding the news. But what about the reasons for accessing the news? What are the main differences of these cohorts compared to other people?

Kirsten: When we asked about why people personally choose to keep up with the news this year, we actually see some similarities across our age groups. On average, across our markets, all age groups see the news as equally important for learning new things. But we do see that our younger groups are slightly more motivated than older groups by how entertaining the news is and how shareable it is. And they're slightly less motivated than older groups by that sense of duty to stay informed of news, or by feeling how it's personally useful to them. But this varies drastically within each market. So it became clear to us that young audiences engage in a sort of mix and match of motivations, depending on their interests, along with the types of content that they're thinking about or seeking out.

Re-engaging the next generation 

Federica: Given that young people - by definition, the next generation of news consumers - are engaging with journalism in different ways to their older counterparts. What do you think news organisations can do to reach this demographic and ensure the viability of their respective outlets? Are there any good examples out there that you can point to, organisations using innovaitve ways to attract younger audiences?

Kirsten: You know, as we continue to see young audiences’ behaviours and preferences shift, even in ways that distinguish social natives from digital natives, it's certainly more of a challenge for media organisations to attract them and to keep them around. And I think it's important to note that some of what we see here, young news users as more casual, less loyal, less trusting, and more sceptical is sometimes out of the control of individual outlets. And it isn't necessarily something that could just be fixed by, you know, creating a TikTok account. But that said, we do find that younger audiences are looking for more diverse voices and perspectives, and for stories that don't depress and upset them. And I think this desire for diversity reflects a lot of opportunity for news organisations in offering a variety of formats and media, an array of topics and niche content, a range of voices in terms of who they're hearing the news from, and in spaces for casual versus serious tones, as well as impartial versus advocacy-centred approaches.

So I think where we see great examples of innovation is when organisations are connecting with the broad range of topics that young people care about, where they're developing multimedia, and platform-specific content, and particularly when they're aligning that content and tone with the format they're using, rather than simply replacing what they already do, or just expecting young people to kind of eventually come around to what's always been done. And I think the former piece of that is particularly important, because we do see there is value in what news brands already offer. We see that in moments like the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, where they feel they need to know what's happening, many young people do value and turn to mainstream news brands.