Where Americans find news: an update

Where do Americans find news in today’s media landscape?  Pew Research offers a very useful and up to date snapshot this week.

The short version?  Our news habits are quite diverse, and at least partially driven by age differences.

First, that diversity.  We extract news from social media, radio, newspapers, websites, and especially tv:

Pew summarizes: 

television is still the most popular platform for news consumption – even though its use has declined since 2016. News websites are the next most common source, followed by radio, and finally social media sites and print newspapers.

The popular reaction to this study has been to note social media beating out newspapers.  For example,

social media has for the first time surpassed newspapers as a preferred source of news for American adults. However, social media is still far behind other traditional news sources, like TV and radio, for example.

One key detail: there are different types of tv news watching, and local is in the lead.

Among the three different types of TV news asked about, local TV is the most popular – 37% get news there often, compared with 30% who get cable TV news often and 25% who often watch national evening network news shows.

Another interesting point: news websites are more widely used (for news) than social media.  Both of their usage patterns were stable for the past year.

Meanwhile, the online world is continuing to grow, almost taking the lead:

[W]hen looking at online news use combined – the percentage of Americans who get news often from either news websites or social media – the web has closed in on television as a source for news (43% of adults get news often from news websites or social media, compared with 49% for television).

Audience demographics are fascinating.  Once more, age drives tv and digital usage, with an enormous generation gap by medium:

Pew comments:

Age gaps that have long been notable have now widened substantially, with those 65 and older five times as likely as 18- to 29-year-olds to often get news from TV. A large majority of those 65 and older (81%) get news from television often, as do about two-thirds (65%) of those 50 to 64. Far fewer young Americans are turning to television news, however – only 16% of those 18 to 29 and 36% of those 30 to 49 get news often from television.

The age divide is nearly as large for social media, but in the other direction: Those 18 to 29 are about four times as likely to often get news there as those 65 and older.

Note one key finding about young new consumers, which might go against stereotypes:

Younger Americans are also unique in that they don’t rely on one platform in the way that the majority of their elders rely on TV. No more than half of those ages 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 get news often from any one news platform.

I have more questions.  For one, I’d really like to get more stats about radio.  Is that medium’s audience also older, like tv?  Does it include podcasts, when radio programs publish content in that form?  And the decline of tv and newspaper audiences: was that because of audiences switching away, or because of, well, older viewers and readers dying?

Kudos to Elisa Shearer for this vital research report.

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5 Responses to Where Americans find news: an update

  1. Alexis Madrigal wrote in 2012 “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong” [ https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/ ] claiming that “[ IM, email, etc. is a ] vast trove of social traffic [ that ] is essentially invisible to most analytics programs”. The PEW study, for all its wealth, considers only the forms of communication that are easily measurable. Madrigal would suggest that the PEW research shows only a portion of how information is shared – perhaps a significant amount is left out.

    If the conversation here is about the influence of *these specific channels* on news consumption, that is fine. But if the conversation is about the larger issue of how news information is communicated in general (as an inquiry into how people know what they know), then these “dark” channels ought to be considered as well, including informal F2F socializing.

    My only caution here is to consider that the media channels listed in the PEW research are a a strong representation, but they aren’t the “economy” of news and information any more than the Dow Jones Industrial Index is not actually the American economy.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    Your timing is ironic as I struggle through my chapter on narrative. I would argue that older consumers are more likely prefer to get their information from siloed, controlled, and “trusted” sources such as TV whereas younger consumers are more attuned to the vast canvas that is our information ecology today. This has been an emerging trend for years now.

    The thing I find a little frustrating about the Pew Study is that it fails to control for education. I would be curious to see how that impacts numbers. Based on my own students (at an urban community college) there is an automatic gravitation toward the “lighter” news websites like CNN, USAToday, and MSNBC. They rarely go after “meatier” sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post (perhaps because those are more likely to be behind a paywall. In other words, even within “media” categories as spelled out by Pew there are meaningful and significant variations in news consumption. I wonder what impact education has on the choices made here (I would suspect significant).

    While news sources are important, especially in understanding the world view they present (looking at local news – especially of the Sinclair News variety – it’s no wonder older Americans are obsessed with crime, immigration, and terrorism), it might be instructive to understand the quality of the news that everyone, especially the younger cohorts are getting from the various sources.

    • Rodney Hargis says:

      I share in your frustration, Tom.

      As I read Bryan’s assessment and the original article (and followed the links therein), I kept hoping I’d see data on axes such as location, race, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status.

      For instance, what would be the most likely news source of choice for…

      – a middle-class 35 year old Hispanic male in Cleveland, Ohio
      – a 50 year old, upper middle class African-American woman in suburbs of Tampa, Florida
      – an impoverished white male in his 70’s in rural Oklahoma
      – a 20 year old Asian-American lesbian college student in New York City

      We have an idea of which demographic is more likely to get their daily dose of news from certain TV networks, and we also can guess who would be more likely to read the NY Times in print vs going to Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook for their news and information.

      But ultimately, these are just guesses, and we don’t know for certain. Especially when it comes to the less common scenarios.

  3. Good comments above, expressing some of my initial thoughts, and other perspectives I hadn’t yet considered.

    My two cents are on the consumption of radio and the crossing of the age brackets.

    I listen to the radio. Almost exclusively while I’m driving, I listen to our local NPR station, and that is a primary source of my knowledge of the news. A lot of times in the office, I listen to internet radio, especially SomaFM.com, as they have several selections of commercial-free channels that aren’t distracting, (and others more upbeat and eclectic.) I wonder how the questions were phrased regarding radio; did they differentiate between AM/FM/Internet? I don’t have a satellite radio, so I can’t comment on that, but AM/FM broadcasts reach many places that don’t have WiFi.

    And then it’s fascinating being on the cusp of a age bracket. I turned 50 this year, and now sometimes find myself in the upper range, and sometimes still in the lower range–both in the chart I’m looking at and in which bracket I more strongly relate to. These arbitrary distinctions are a construct of our research methods, while human life is a complex journey that doesn’t always proceed in a steady progression. Let us guard against hardening of our categories.

  4. Matthew Henry says:

    I find very interesting the “local TV is the most popular”. This is very interesting. Is there more here, especially related to your other post (https://bryanalexander.org/demographics/why-is-american-society-breaking-away-from-the-developed-world/). Are American’s getting so tired of national or international news, they are just walking away saying, just tell me what happened here. Then, in some way is that causing the pendulum to swing to nationalism versus globalism?

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