Wave after wave of digital innovation has introduced a new set of influences on the public’s news habits. Social media, messaging apps, texts and email provide a constant stream of news from people we’re close to as well as total strangers. News stories can now come piecemeal, as links or shares, putting less emphasis on the publisher. And, hyper levels of immediacy and mobility can create an expectation that the news will come to us whether we look for it or not. How have these influences shaped Americans’ appetite for and attitudes toward the news? What, in other words, are the defining traits of the modern news consumer?
A new, two-part survey reveals a public that is cautious as it moves into this more complex news environment and discerning in its evaluation of available news sources.
To be sure, news remains an important part of public life. More than seven-in-ten U.S. adults follow national and local news somewhat or very closely – 65% follow international news with the same regularity. Fully 81% of Americans get at least some of this news through websites, apps or social networking sites. And, this digital news intake is increasingly mobile. Among those who get news both on desktop computers and mobile devices, more than half prefer mobile.
In this digital news environment, the role of friends and family is amplified, but Americans still reveal strong ties to news organizations. The data also reinforce how, despite the dramatic changes witnessed over the last decade, the digital news era is still very much in its adolescence.
These findings come from a two-part study which asked U.S. adults a wide range of questions about their news habits and attitudes, and then over the course of a subsequent week asked them in real time about news they had gotten in the last two hours. The first survey was conducted, among 4,654 U.S. adults ages 18 and older who are members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The second survey consisted of 14 short, online surveys that were administered two per day. Survey invitations were sent at different times each day, and responses were accepted for two hours after the invitations were sent. Panelists who completed the January wave on the web and reported that they get news online were asked to participate in the experiential study; 2,078 panelists participated and completed at least 10 of the 14 surveys.
In the Spanish language version of the questionnaire, “local television news” was mistranslated as “television news” for a question asking respondents how often they watch local television news (which resulted in a 46% share who said they do so often). This affected the 66 respondents who took the survey in Spanish (4% of the sample after weighting) The effects of this mistranslation were minimal and do not affect the report’s conclusions.
Pathways to news
Americans express a clear preference for getting their news on a screen – though which screen that is varies. TV remains the dominant screen, followed by digital. Still, TV news use is dramatically lower among younger adults, suggesting further shake-ups to come.
As of early 2016, just two-in-ten U.S. adults often get news from print newspapers. This has fallen from 27% in 2013.
This decrease occurred across all age groups, though the age differences are still stark: Only 5% of 18- to 29-year-olds often get news from a print newspaper, whereas about half (48%) of those 65 and older do.
Compared with print, nearly twice as many adults (38%) often get news online, either from news websites/apps (28%), on social media (18%) or both. (81% of adults ever get news on these online platforms.)
Still, TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.
But demographics speak to the fragility behind those TV numbers. While solid majorities of both those ages 50-64 (72%) and those 65+ (85%) often get news on TV, far smaller shares of younger adults do so (45% of those 30-49 and 27% of those 18-29). Alternatively, the two younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news – 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 49% of those ages 30-49 often do so.
TV’s staying power over print is buttressed by the fact that Americans who prefer to watch news still choose TV, while most of those who prefer to read the news have migrated online.
The greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to it (17%).
When paired with the platforms people prefer, the data reveal that as of now, the web has largely pulled in “readers” rather than “watchers.” While those who prefer watching news predominantly opt for TV and listeners turn to radio, most of those who prefer reading news now opt to get news online rather than in print (59%, compared with 26% of news readers who opt for print).
Within the digital realm, mobile news consumption is rising rapidly. The portion of Americans who ever get news on a mobile device has gone up from 54% in 2013 to 72% today.
Two-thirds, 66%, of adults get news on both types of digital devices, while 13% get news only on a desktop/laptop and 5% only do so on a mobile device (15% do not get news on any digital device).
But, among those who get news on both, more prefer mobile (56% to 42% who prefer desktop).
One of the most prominent distinctions between those oriented towards mobile devices for their digital news and those oriented towards desktops is age. Fully seven-in-ten of those ages 18-29 either prefer or only use mobile for getting their digital news, compared with 53% of those 30-49, 29% of those 50-64 and just 16% of those 65+. When it comes to news attitudes and habits, the two groups are quite similar. This includes loyalty to news sources, trust in information from news organizations, discussion of news with others and level of engagement with news on social media.
Personal contacts are also a common source of news and can play an amplified role online. But Americans see clear distinctions between news organizations, friends and family, and more distant individuals.
About two-thirds (63%) of Americans say family and friends are an important way they get news, whether online or offline; 10% see them as the most important.
Still, online news organizations play the larger role: 36% of online news consumers often get news from news organizations, compared with about half as many who do so from people with whom they are close (15%). Even fewer (6%) say they often get news from people they’re not close with.
But those who get news from these sources are as likely to say the news from close friends and family is relevant as they are to say this of news organizations; 15% of those who get online news from close personal contacts say those updates are very near to their interests, compared with 11% who get news from news organizations and 4% of those who get news from more distant contacts.
The less newsy are more likely to say friends and family are important pathways to news: 69% of those who follow news less often say friends and family are important, compared with 57% of those who follow news all or most of the time. Additionally, women are more likely than men to say friends and family are important, young adults are more likely than older adults, and blacks are more likely than whites to say this.
Trust and accuracy
Few have a lot of confidence in the information they get from professional outlets or friends and family, but large majorities have at least some trust in both; social media gets substantially lower trust scores.
Only about two-in-ten Americans (22%) trust the information they get from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, and 18% say the same of national organizations, slightly higher than the 14% who say this of the information they get from their friends and family. While the portion saying they have a lot of trust in each group is low, large majorities have at least some trust.
Social media, on the other hand, is trusted by a slim minority – only 4% of web-using adults have a lot of trust in the information they find on social media. And that rises to only 7% among those who get news on these sites.
When those who get news online from each source type were asked specifically about each’s accuracy, news organizations again sit at the top; 15% of those who get news from news organizations online find them very accurate, compared with 7% who say the same about people they are close with and just 2% for people they are not particularly close with.
Democrats are more likely than others to have “a lot” of trust in the information from national news organizations: 27% do, compared with 15% of Republicans and 13% of Independents. Those ages 50+ (22%) are also more likely than those ages 18-29 (10%) and those 30-49 (16%) to trust information from national news organizations a lot.
U.S. adults see the news media as performing its watchdog function – but overwhelmingly say that news organizations are biased.
Three-quarters of Americans think that news organizations keep political leaders in check – preventing them from doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.
But about the same portion (74%) say that news organizations tend to favor one side – including 75% of those who say the media prevents leaders from doing things they shouldn’t.
Political differences emerge here with conservative Republicans most likely to think that news organizations are one-sided.
This ideological difference is reinforced by earlier research that asked about trust of individual news organizations. Of the 36 sources asked about in our 2014 survey, 28 of them were trusted more than distrusted by respondents who expressed consistently liberal political views across a range of questions about political values; 24 of them were distrusted more than trusted by consistent conservatives.
Americans are more evenly divided on whether online news they get from friends and family is one-sided – but many would prefer that it were not.
35% of online news consumers say the news they get from their friends and family online is one-sided; 31% say that it represents more than one side.
Most, 69%, of those who say that the news from friends and family online is one-sided would prefer that they post or send things that represent a greater mix of views. Three-in-ten are OK with the one-sidedness.
Conservative Republicans that say the news they get from friends and family is fairly one-sided are much more likely than others to say that this is OK (51%, compared with about a third or less of other political groups).
Loyalty and source attention
The numbers for source recall were updated to account for the small number of times respondents skipped the question. No number changed by more than one percentage point.
Attitudinally, Americans are split on whether they feel loyal to their news sources – but behaviorally, they tend to stick to the same sources anyway.
About half (51%) of Americans say that they are loyal to their news sources, while 48% say they are not particularly loyal.
At the same time though, 76% of Americans say they usually turn to the same sources for news.
Taken together, nearly half (46%) of Americans both describe themselves as loyal and also go to the same sources repeatedly (the “very loyal”). Just 18% are neither attitudinally nor behaviorally loyal (the “non-loyal”).
Older adults are more likely to be in this group: 58% of those ages 65+ are “very loyal,” whereas only 28% of those ages 18-29 are. And women are more likely to be very loyal (49%) than men (43%).
The “very loyal” news consumer tends to be a news cheerleader.
The very loyal follow news at much higher rates than others: 67% follow it all or most of the time, compared with 45% of the somewhat loyal and 32% of the non-loyal.
The very loyal are also more likely to trust national and local news organizations and think they do a good job informing people.
And they are also heavily reliant on TV; 54% of very loyal news consumers prefer to get news from TV. No other platform comes close. Among the non-loyal, however, there is a much wider mix of preferred platforms including more weight towards digital sources when compared with the very loyal.
There are also signs that people pay attention to the sources of news online, though less so among the “non-loyal” news consumers.
A follow-up survey asked about the news consumers may have gotten online in the past two hours. Panelists who completed the January wave on the web and reported that they get news online were asked to participate. Survey invitations were sent at different times each day, and responses were accepted for two hours after the invitations were sent. Respondents were asked if they’d gotten news in the past two hours about various topics, where they’d gotten news from and what they’d done with the news, if anything.
When asked if they remembered the source of an article they arrived at from a link, about 4-in-10 (38%) remembered every time; only 15% never remembered.
This is particularly true among the very loyal and the somewhat loyal. Of those who got news from links, 39% of the very loyal and 41% of the somewhat loyal remembered every time, compared with 28% of the non-loyal.
While many Americans get news from social media, few social media news users are heavily engaged with news there.
About a quarter of social networking news consumers (26%) often click on links to news stories on social media. But only 16% often “like” news stories and fewer than that often comment on or discuss news stories, or share/repost news stories on social media.
More social interaction about news still occurs offline.
While people get news online at very high rates, the conversation about the news is not happening there at nearly the same rate as it is offline – people still overwhelmingly share news with others in person or over the phone.
This is even true when it comes specifically to news people get online. In the follow-up survey in real time, researchers found that when they got news online, respondents were more likely to speak with someone about the news they got than they were to do anything else, including emailing or posting about it; on average, when people got news online, they spoke with someone else about it 30% of the time, more frequently than posting about it on social media, sending it via email or text, or commenting about it on a news organization’s website.
Intentionality matters when it comes to online news consumption: those who seek the news out behave differently than those who stumble into news while doing other things online.
Overall, more digital news consumers get their news online in the process of accomplishing other digital tasks (55%) than specifically seek the news out (44%).
Those who get news online by seeking it out (“seekers”) are more interested in news overall: 63% say that they follow the news all or most of the time, compared with 43% of those who do not tend to seek out news online.
Seekers are also more likely than other online news consumers to get news online from news organizations and news websites or apps, though their use of social media as a source for news is about the same when accounting for demographic differences.
Seekers are less likely to say that friends and family are an important way they get news: 56%, compared with almost seven-in-ten of non-seekers (69%).
Men and white non-Hispanics are more likely to seek out news online: 51% of men seek out news online, compared with 37% of women, and about half of whites (47%) are seekers, compared with 31% of blacks.
Only about a third of digital news consumers (36%) actually prefer the online world as their primary platform for news.
Those who prefer digital news (who also tend to be younger adults) have a more negative view of the news media overall. They trust it less (67% trust national news organizations at least some, compared with 81% of others) and sense more media bias: 81% say the media favor one side, compared with 71% of those who prefer other platforms for getting news.1
Online, though, they demonstrate a more active interest in news, seeking it out rather than just happening upon it while doing other things. They are also more likely to say that getting news online gives them a wider range of news than they would get otherwise.
Those who prefer to get news online are also more likely to often click on links to news stories on social media (35% of digital preferrers who get news on social media vs. 21% of other social media news consumers) and to at least sometimes post their own news links (42% vs. 32% of others). Those who prefer to get digital news are also more likely than others to share news digitally (27% say this is the most common way they share news, compared with just 8% of others). But even those who prefer digital platforms for news are most likely to share news with others by talking with them.
Younger adults are more likely to prefer to get news digitally: 54% of those ages 18-29 do, compared with 38% of those ages 30-49, 15% of those ages 50-64 and 7% of those ages 65+. Those with college educations are also more likely to prefer digital: 37% of those with college degrees and 33% of those with some college education, compared with just 17% of those with high school degrees or less.
Young adults follow the news less closely, and they have more negative attitudes about the news media. But they are more likely than their elders to get news online.
Those ages 18-29 are less interested in local and national news, and they discuss the news at lower rates compared with those older than them. They are also less likely to get news often from legacy platforms like TV and print newspapers.
But when it comes to the news in the digital realm, these young adults outpace their elders. About a third often get news from social networking sites (32%) and from news websites and apps (34%). Their use of social networking sites for news is higher than among any other age group, while their use of news websites/apps is higher than that of those ages 50 and older.
Attitudinally, they are more negative toward the news media, displaying lower levels of both approval of news organizations and trust in the information they get from them. But earlier research by Pew Research Center found that they are no less trusting when it comes to specific news sources with which they are familiar. In other words, while they may be less trusting of the media in general, when it comes to news brands they’re familiar with, trust is less of an issue.
Despite this digital focus, young adults are no more likely to engage with news on social media than others.
The fact that young adults have greater interest in news on social media does not result in greater engagement with news there, as they are no more likely to share/repost news stories or comment on news stories than others.
Despite their lower levels of news interest in general, on social media, those ages 18-29 are at least as likely as others to often click on links to news stories (30%, which is on par with those ages 30-49 and higher than those 50+).
Party ID and news
Democrats overall express more trust than Republicans in the information they get from national news organizations.
Fully 31% of liberal Democrats and 24% of conservative/moderate Democrats trust information from national news organizations a lot (vs. 13% of conservative Republicans and 18% of moderate/liberal Republicans).
As noted earlier, conservative Republicans are the most likely to say the news media tend to favor one side (87%) and conservative/moderate Democrats are the least likely (57%). At the same time, though, about three-in-four liberal Democrats (73%) see news media bias, about equal to moderate/liberal Republicans (77%).
Online, those at either end of the ideological spectrum are somewhat more likely to get one-sided news from family and friends; Conservative Republicans are most likely to be OK with it. But both sides see personal contacts as an important news source.
Among online news consumers, roughly four-in-ten conservative Republicans (39%) and about as many liberal Democrats (44%) say news they get from family and friends online represents just one side, outpacing the more moderate members of each party.
But about half (51%) of conservative Republicans who said they see mostly one-sided news say this is OK, exceeding all other political groups, including liberal Democrats (34%).
The Center has seen similar differences across the ideological spectrum in the past. In our 2014 report on political polarization and media habits, we found that half of consistent conservatives say they only talk politics with other conservatives, while liberals were most likely to drop a friend because of politics.
These differences emerge despite the fact that both sides are about equally likely to consider friends and family an important source for news. Liberal Democrats are, however, somewhat less likely to say friends and family are the most important way they get news (5%, compared with 10% or more among the other groups).
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