Media, Millennials and Making News That Matters

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Comparing the findings of two youth media studies a decade apart and what they tell us about reporting with and for our communities.

Local news sites — especially online only digitally native newsrooms — should be investing deeply building relationships and serving younger news audiences.

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A new study from the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research provides new insights into what Millennials want from news and how they discover and consume it. The report, How Millennials Get Their News, suggests a number of key things local newsrooms can do to better serve and connect with younger audiences in their communities. However, I want to pair some of the findings from this new report with a very different report from more than a decade ago.

In 2002 the Youth Media Council in Oakland California released, Speaking for Ourselves: A Youth Assessment of Local News, a youth driven report (PDF link) on local media coverage of young people and the issues that matter to them. The report is an important examination of local media’s coverage of youth and youth issues, and includes a useful set of recommendations which I explore below. And while 2002 was before YouTube, Facebook and even Myspace had launched, the recommendations in the report are still timely today.

Taken together, these two reports illustrate how much news habits have changed with digital technology, but inclusion and engagement are common threads that connect them across the past decade. Young people continue to want to help shape the news that shapes their lives.

Inside the News Habits of “America’s First Digital Generation”

First, let’s look at the findings of the new research released:

Millennials Want News and See It As a Public Good

Recently the Pew Research Center released a study that illustrated a enormous hunger for meaningful local news and information in cities across the United States. The report released today reinforces this desire for hard news. 85 percent of respondents said that keeping up with the news was important to them and 40 percent say they pay for one news-specific app, service or subscription. However, others quoted in the report suggested that the civic importance of journalism means access to news should be free to all.

“Millennials are more likely to report following politics, crime, technology, their local community, and social issues than report following popular culture and celebrities, or style and fashion,” the authors write. “Fully 45 percent of these young adults regularly follow five or more ‘hard news’ topics.” There are always biases built into self-reported findings like this, but even so this study suggests that Millennials value public interest reporting.

Millennials Value Credibility and Transparency

According to the research, “civic motivations (74 percent), problem-solving (63 percent), and social factors (67 percent)” drive Millennials’ interest in news. And when Millennials want to follow a story or learn more news sites are the second most popular place for them to look, only after search.

For many, social networks are a starting place. Even when they don’t go there intending to look for news, Millennials are confronted with an array fo reporting. Social media is an engine for discovering news, but only 7 percent see it as a resource for learning more or digging deeper. When Millennials want to follow a story or dig deeper into an issue they look for sites they can trust. And notably, that trust is often rooted in transparency. Respondents commented specifically on a site’s use of links and references as a quality they look for.

Nothing About Us Without Us

Shifting now to the 2002 research, we find less about how youth consume the news and more about the content of news available to them in their local communities. The 2002 report, Speaking for Ourselves: A Youth Assessment of Local News, focused interviews with local youth and on content analysis of one station in Oakland, but drew on an array of other research to provide a larger context. The study explores how media coverage of race, poverty, education, and crime tends to criminalize youth behavior. The report calls for a shift “in the balance of power between news media and youth, giving youth and their communities a real public voice.”

The American Press Study found that Millennials were drawn to news where they saw themselves and their issues represented, especially when that coverage emphasized the potential for young people to make positive change. “I have so much faith in my generation to change the course of this country,” said one respondent in the study, “and I love seeing that play out in the news, whether it be through health care changes, gay marriage acceptance, sexual education and access to information, and race issues.”

But for most of the people in the 2002 Youth Media Council report they rarely saw themselves or their communities reflected back to them in local news:

“The distance between the experiences and conditions of youth and the news stories about us is a landscape of media bias in which myths become public opinion and lies become public policy. We can transform media bias into media justice by building strong relationships between news outlets and youth organizations, and increasing dialogue between journalists and youth community members. […] It is therefore critical to our survival that journalists and communities work in partnership to report on public policy issues that frame the contours of our conditions and draw the boundaries that define our lives.”

In many ways, the youth who compiled that 2002 report were calling for the kinds of community engagement we are only just beginning to see get traction now. And even within many engaged newsrooms there is still a gap when it comes to building the kinds of deep reciprocal relationships described above.

Nine Recommendations for Covering Youth with Youth

While the Millennial report illustrates that how we cover issues of concern to young people is important to how they engage with the news, it doesn’t provide a lot of concrete recommendations in terms of shaping that coverage. That is a place where the 2002 Youth Media Council report can be useful.

They offer nine recommendations for local newsrooms who want to improve their coverage of youth, particularly around issues of education, poverty and crime (which they found often dominate local news coverage of youth). In these recommendations we see the seeds of ideas — such as solutions journalism —that are currently gaining currency within journalism. What follows are shortened versions of their recommendations, download the full PDF for a longer discussion of each.

  1. Avoid episodic stories about individual incidents of crime reported out of proportion to their actual occurrence and balance stories about youth and crime with stories about youth poverty, education, and youth organizing.
  2. Link racial bias to inequity in stories about crime, education, and poverty.
  3. Let youth speak for themselves in stories about youth. In our study we found that the voices of white adults were amplified in stories about us, while the voices of youth, especially youth of color, were marginalized.
  4. Balance news coverage of youth by quoting youth advocates and public defenders.
  5. Highlight root causes and trends. In the coverage we examined, we found that root causes went unreported. Causes that were identified focused primarily on the negative behavior of the youth.
  6. Examine solutions other than increased punishment and incarceration. A lack of solutions limits the public understanding of crime, education, and poverty, as well as denying the public an opportunity to think critically about the policy solutions currently being offered.
  7. Balance the portrayal of white youth and youth of color. We believe that the amount of information offered about a young person beyond the criminal incident gives the public a more comprehensive understanding of the causes of crime as well as injecting a broader range of solutions into the debate.
  8. Challenge the myth of rising youth crime and violence. Make it policy in all coverage of juvenile crime or violence to provide accurate information and statistics about the rate of youth crime and violence.
  9. Link social problems to public policy. Public policy is a key component of democratic political participation. It is one way the public engages in challenging and fixing social problems. When incidents that illustrate the conditions of our lives are reported without an exploration of their relationship to public policy, we have less opportunity for political participation.

At the end of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research report the researchers asked young people what they saw or hoped for in terms of the future of news. The feedback they got has resonances with the recommendations above from 2002.

“I want the news to find a balance. That’s my most important thing. I don’t want to turn on the news and just see nothing but negativity and you know, nothing but sadness,” said Sam, age 19 in San Francisco. “Like I found out the Richmond death rate or homicide rate has been the lowest in many years. I found that out from social media. I didn’t find that out from the news.”

Another San Francisco respondent told the researchers he is “waiting for journalists of his generation to come to the fore and speak in ways that are more relevant to him.” Like the Youth Media Council in 2002 suggested deeper collaboration between journalists and youth, Devon suggested that media need to “bring someone else along” to help them speak to their generation. (See how one journalist in East Palo Alto is tackling these issues.)

Across these two reports one thing stands out. Young people care deeply about the news and they want to be active participants in creating, not just consuming, media that matters to them.

Josh Stearns is the Director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Dodge Foundation. This post first appeared on the blog of The Local News Lab, a Dodge project supported by the Knight Foundation, dedicated to creative experiments in journalism sustainability.

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