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Only one in 20 teens and one in 12 young adults say they read the newspaper on close to a daily basis, according to a report released Tuesday by the Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
In addition, the majority of the daily news that all age groups retain—which is nearly twice as likely to come from television than the Internet, despite a stated preference for Web-based news—is of the “soft” news variety, not the type that deals with issues like politics or the war in Iraq.
But even though soft news rules among the masses, it still “sticks out relatively more for young people than older people,” said the report’s author, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press Thomas E. Patterson.
“Young people are more likely to get a news story from someone else, which is surprising, because other surveys had suggested that older people talked more about news amongst themselves,” Patterson said. “That was particularly true in the case of soft news stories—many of them circulated by word of mouth.”
The fact that soft news is far more popular than hard news was a relatively unconfirmed discovery prior to the survey, Patterson said. Each respondent was asked a few questions about current events at the time of their response; on issues ranging from the British government’s planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq to the death of Anna Nicole Smith.
“We followed up with a brief factual question related to the story we asked them about,” Patterson said. “For example, ‘do you happen to know if [Smith] died in California or Florida?’ or ‘did the British say they were going to withdraw all of their troops or part of their troops?’”
Patterson also said that one reason young adults seem to latch on to soft news more than hard news is that they “don’t have an easy way to process the issues of public affairs.”
“It’s not that they don’t hear it, but it doesn’t stick,” he said. “I think the fact that they have less information about politics and public affairs plays a big role—most of them don’t know who Condoleezza Rice is.”
In the report, titled “Young People and News,” teens are identified as aged 12-17, young adults are between the ages of 18 and 30, and older adults those 31 and older. A national survey asked 1800 Americans various questions about where they get there news, what kind of news it is, and how they obtain it.
“Do they watch all of a newscast or do they click away after a few minutes?” Patterson said. “When reading a newspaper, do they skim stories or read the whole thing?”
He said that this particular survey was unique in that it brought teenagers into the sample, shedding light on many misconceptions about what issues are important to young people.
“We found that the Daily Show and other comedy news shows were hardly even a blip,” Patterson said. “They don’t spring out as an important source of daily news.”
The study also found that while the Internet has an overestimated value as a daily news source, the radio is in fact underestimated in its usage.
Many people—especially young adults—tune into the radio for music or other purposes and end up getting some news in addition, Patterson said.
But he also said that, in general, the substantial nature of young peoples’ “avoidance of news” was disheartening.
“Teens come in far below young adults as far as the depth of exposure to news, their ability to recall having seen it and recalling facts about it,” Patterson said. “I think it confirms what surveys have said, that young people are not overly attentive to news.”
Most disheartening for Patterson, however, was the measured decline in newspaper readership. He said that the survey results confirmed the marked trend of people staying away from print newspapers.
“Newspaper circulations have been dropping, and it’s commonly understood that young people aren’t interested in newspapers.” Patterson said. That’s a pretty scary statistic in terms of thinking about the future of journalism in American life. Journalism has an interesting future, but I’m not sure newspapers do.”
—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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