Study: youth shun news, love media

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Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.

That well worn rhyme sums up the sobering lesson in a July 2007 report, “Young People and News,” in which Harvard University professor Thomas Patterson offered this analysis of news habits and news awareness based on interviews with 1800 randomly chosen respondents representing teens, young adults (18-30) and older adults (31 and above):

 “The evidence shows that young Americans are estranged from the daily newspaper and rely more heavily upon television than on the internet for their news. A few decades ago there were not large differences in the news habits and daily information levels of younger and older Americans. Today, unlike most older Americans, many young people find a bit of news here and there and do not make it a routine part of their day.”

The study (press release and full report here) said not only do younger people expose themselves to less news – whether through print, broadcast or internet — than do older adults, but their definition of news also tends more to soft stories like the death of Anna Nicole Smith, rather than hard news like Britain’s planned pullot from Iraq. Soft stories, said the reported, created “a buzz among younger respondents” while hard news practically bounced off them because they could not put the big events into the context of their lives. Quoting from the report:

“Studies indicate that people can hear something over and over without recognizing its existence if they have little prior knowledge or awareness of it. Their mind fails to recognize it amidst the noise of the hundreds of informational messages that come their way each day.”

Taking their cue from the Ancient Mariner American youth seem lost in a sea of media, with info, info everywhere but nary ’nuff to think. 

Although the report focused on the young, as defined above, I was none too reassured by the news habits of the older contingent — only 35 percent read a paper daily, and just one in five scanned internet news regularly. Television did better, drawing the daily attention of roughly six in 10 older adults.

Overall the 33-page report conveys the sad sense that Americans are losing interest in the sort of news that would seem to lie at the heart of self governance. Democracy rests upon a notion called political efficacy, our belief as citizens that we matter. If Americans cannot comprehend the big issues of their day how can they hope to control them?

. . . to be continued Friday.