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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

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September 2, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:17am

‘Fake news’ seen as mere ‘nuisance’ by young people, new Reuters Institute study finds

By Freddy Mayhew

So-called “fake news” is seen as “more of a nuisance than a democratic meltdown” by young people, according to new research into news consumption among the under-35s.

A survey of 20 young people, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found there wasn’t “quite the crisis of trust in the media that we often hear about” on the subject.

“There is a general disbelief at some of the politicised opinion thrown around, but there is also a lot of appreciation of the quality of some of the individuals’ favoured brands,” a report on the study said.

It found respondents’ perceived scale of the “fake news” problem “is relatively small compared with the public attention it seems to receive” and young people are actively trying to spot disinformation.

The How Young People Consume News and the Implications for Mainstream Media report was based on surveys of UK and US Gen Zs (18-24) and Millennials (25-35) carried out by consultancy firm Flamingo.

A total of 20 had their smartphone usage tracked over two weeks, revealing data on their digital habits. Sixteen of these also completed digital diaries about their news consumption and were later interviewed for 90 minutes.

The study, published today, found the relationships young people have with the news depend on “the moment” they consume news, the type of consumer they are and the medium by which they consume it.

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It described four key news moments for young people:

  • Dedicated: “This moment is about dedicating time to the news, as you might a novel or TV series”
  • Updated: “This is about getting the key news updates you need/ want in an efficient way”
  • Time-filler: “Not about the news per se – something to do or to amuse, often while doing something else on a third party platform or in the real world.”
  • Intercepted: “A notification or message intercepts what was otherwise happening (working, watching TV etc.) either on social media, an aggregator or news app.”

While the consumers themselves also fit into four categories:

  • Heritage News Consumer: These consumers “make a concerted effort to at least consume some of the same traditional news brands that they grew up seeing,” but it “sometimes feels like a chore that’s part of being an adult”
  • Dedicated News Devotee: These consumers “have a routine, habitual appointment with their primary news brand and almost always have a dedicated app that they use regularly”
  • Passive News Absorber: “They remain informed through collective osmosis from their online and offline experiences, but dedicate little to no time to actively engaging with the news”
  • Proactive News Lover: They are “committed to news consumption, and no doubt brand aware, but they assume responsibility for collating their news, rather than delegating it to a brand.”

The research found it is important that news content, format and tone “fit the roles and moments they are intended for”.

If not, the study warned that newsbrands “run the risk that experiences are not seamless or intuitive, and younger audiences will disengage”.

It found two broad themes for what young people are looking for from news: progress (as in personal development) and enjoyment.

Attitudes to paying for news among those surveyed were “not particularly positive”, but the report highlighted some occasions where young audiences might be willing to part with cash.

This includes when they have a “personal closeness to a brand and what it stands for”, content that will help them progress their career, unique content not available elsewhere or when it is given as a gift.

“Young people will pay for entertainment (Spotify, Netflix etc.) but currently the overwhelming majority won’t pay for news,” the report said.

It put this down to a mindset that news should be free or feels like a chore, because young people have grown up with free access to news, because they “value using multiple sources” to discern the truth and can’t pay for them all, and because monthly subscriptions “don’t fit news habits”.

The study suggested newsbrands offer a pay-per-article model to reduce friction around access to news, set up payment models that are closer to daily print use, allow people to pay for single sections (such as sport), offer more flexible deals or consider setting up a shared news app.

In conclusion, the report said news needs to deliver value to young people as individuals. “It needs to support their desire to progress in life as well as entertain and engage them,” it said.

It said traditional news brands will need to change both the format, tone and agenda of what they do and tell young people what is “useful, interesting and fun to know”, but avoid “dumbing down”.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all solution”, the study said the experience of accessing news content “should feel as easy and accessible as Facebook and Netflix”.

It went on: “This is partly about the way the content is written and presented – with clearer language and more explanatory content – but also about how relevant and interesting content is surfaced without having to work for it.

“Instant, frictionless access, recommendations that feel relevant and useful, and the right tone of voice will be critical to building loyalty and trust with these groups.”

Newsbrands also need to tell stories in ways that “fit the expectations of young people, and the moments when they are open to news”, it said.

This means creating more mobile and social native formats and incorporating these ideas into their news websites and apps – such as visual formats and on-demand podcasts.

The study also said the “way the news media covers stories may need to change” to entice young people who are “often put off by relentlessly negative news”.

It said they “don’t want the media to shy away from serious or difficult stories” but also “want stories that can inspire them about the possibility of change and provide a path to positive action”.

It added: “They are tired of media agendas and stereotypes, but are not looking for blandness or balance for balance’s sake.

“Younger audiences respond to stories with a ‘point of view’ as well as human stories told from a ground up perspective.

“Authenticity, fairness, diversity and inclusiveness are the kind of values that resonate with under-35s. At the same time, journalism in the future needs to give young people more of a stake in stories and their outcomes.”

The study follows the Reuters Digital News Report, released earlier this summer, which found UK news consumers were actively avoiding the news because of Brexit.

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