The kaleidoscope: tracking young people’s relationships with news

Kirsten Eddy

For young people, news is not just digital, but social. They have grown up with the social, participatory web, which has conditioned how they consume news, what they consider ‘news’ to be, and who they trust to deliver it. 

To better understand younger audiences’ relationships with news, the Reuters Institute commissioned the strategic insight agency Craft to conduct qualitative research with 72 people aged 18–30 (24 per country) in Brazil, the UK, and the US. This work, which took place between February and March 2022, included news diaries, screen recordings, blogging, vlogging, and in-depth interviews with young participants representing a range of demographic traits, life stages, and news habits. 

Instead of speaking about young people as one, this report details a kaleidoscopic variety of news behaviours and attitudes as well as topical and executional preferences—driven by a fragmented news media landscape, a proliferation of news formats and brands, and the natural diversity of this group. Here are five key findings from the report:

1. For young people, news can be ‘narrow’ or ‘broad’. Young people make a distinction between ‘the news’ as the narrow, traditional agenda of politics and current affairs and ‘news’ as a much wider umbrella encompassing topics like sports, entertainment, celebrity gossip, culture, and science. ‘The news’ is associated with mainstream, traditional media brands, who are expected to act impartially and objectively, even if there are doubts that this is achievable. ‘News’ is topically broader and afforded more tonal latitude. Alternative media is felt to operate better here. 

2. Some young people selectively avoid ‘narrow,’ ‘serious’ news – at least some of the time. Rather than simply avoiding news, there is ‘news to be avoided’ – often to guard mental health. Because of this, young people seem to engage more with ‘news’ than ‘the news.’ Avoidance of ‘narrow’ news has implications for mainstream brands, who are felt to operate primarily at the ‘serious’ end of the spectrum.  

3. Many factors – both contextual and personal – influence a young person’s news consumption preferences and behaviours. The proliferation of choice driven by the social mobile web results in as many pictures of young people’s news consumption as there are young people, though this report discerns a typology of hobbyist/dutiful news consumers, main eventers, and the disengaged. Each group differs in terms of their motivations for consuming ‘narrow’ news, how they encounter it, their brand considerations, and their content preferences. 

  • The Hobbyist/dutiful consume news for enjoyment or out of a civic duty to know what is happening
  • The Main eventer feel a practical need to keep up with developments as they impact day-to-day life, rather than out of enjoyment or duty
  • The Disengaged avoid ‘the news’ as a general rule but feel they need to know the unavoidable ‘big’ things going on in society

4. Young people are highly sceptical of most information and often question the ‘agenda’ of news purveyors. As they’ve grown up in the digital age and been socialised by older generations to be critical of the information they consume, they judge mainstream news brands by (but not inherently value for) their impartiality.  

5. There is little consistency in what ‘young people’ want in terms of format – it is usually a matter of personal taste. Far from the consistent traits often ascribed to them, young people like a range of formats and media, and are drawn to information that is curated for them. There will continue to be a place for text, video, audio, and still imagery – sometimes all in one piece of content. 

Mainstream news brands cannot please all young people all the time, but as this report shows, they can give themselves a better chance of being chosen more often. Recognising the variety of preferences that exist within an incredibly diverse cohort presents a new set of opportunities for news organisations.  

That means diversifying their offers – not necessarily replacing what they are already good at – by broadening topically and lightening tonally, and meeting those who are less engaged with ‘narrow’ news on their territory. To deliver this, news brands should consider who is creating news aimed at young audiences and how that content aligns with each platform’s unique codes and conventions.

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