Jessica Thom, assistant professor, at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. (Jasmine Bala)

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

While most Canadian millennials get their first taste of news via Facebook posts, Twitter shares and other social media, that is typically just the starting point when it comes to their news consumption habits, a new study suggests.

The study contradicts the commonly held belief that young people don’t go much beyond social media in their quest for news, says Jessica Thom, a Ryerson University School of Image Arts assistant professor and the author of the research. In fact, she said, many youth use social media as a gateway to mainstream news sites.

“They’re really reading the trending topics; they’re reading the title of the article that their friend has posted or shared,” Thom said in an interview. “They’re really getting kind of the bite-sized pieces of news from their social media, and then they either click on that article or they search that title and they find out more information through search engines.”

Participants in the research, which Thom did for her doctoral dissertation, said that after social media such as Facebook brought a news event or development to their attention, they would often use Google to seek out more information from a trusted mainstream news site.

“That is a very conscious decision that they make, to find a mainstream news outlet that they have some sort of understanding of or with,” Thom said. “It’s for the most part not things like blogs, live streams, Twitter or opinion comments on YouTube where they’re going to find out the facts about a news story.”

Thom’s investigation of how young people choose which news to consume and which news to believe involved focus groups, interviews and online diary-keeping. Participants were aged 18 to 29.

If young people weren’t interested in the topic of the story or didn’t think it was important, they normally didn’t go much further than the headline on social media, said Thom.

“That idea of importance was also something that was a little bit vague,” she said. “[It] can be something that’s important to them because they have a family member, a friend or a roommate that has some sort of affiliation to that story. They could be from that country; they could know someone who’s visited that country.”

Participants, she said, clearly understood that reading the news is a key part of being an informed citizen and participating in a democratic society. They demonstrated a “sophisticated approach to—and interest in—becoming informed citizens,” rather than a lazy or haphazard approach to news consumption, she wrote in her dissertation.

Thom noted, however, that young Canadians also “depend on sites and aggregators like Facebook, Snapchat and Google, as well as their friends and family, to funnel important or interesting news to them rather than spending time and mental energy sifting through thousands of news sites, blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, Snapchats, radio broadcasts and television news bulletins to find the most relevant news.”

The proliferation of fake news, she added, has “made judging the truthfulness and deception in news very challenging,” and this is something millennials have to think about when consuming online news.

When deciding what mainstream news outlet to visit and believe, Thom wrote that young Canadians use a mental checklist. It may include questions like: “Is the source credible? Have you used it in the past? Does it have a tradition? Is the language appropriate? Does the language sound like a professional journalist or does it sound like ‘Joe’s blog’? Is the spelling accurate? Is it more opinion-based or is it more fact-based?”

Study participants, she said, used literacy skills taught in their public school curriculums to determine which sources are the most trustworthy. Although participants pointed to mainstream and legacy media sources as credible, she noted that they generally didn’t believe or trust soft news stories, particularly those that were political.

The young people Thom spoke to indicated that a “breaking news story is instantly believable, but a political story is likely spun in some way,” she wrote, noting that they felt these stories could be more opinion-based and have a political bias.

“It was the difference between reading the facts and knowing the news story and being told an opinion about what that news story is.”

The lesson for news outlets, Thom said, is that they need to share news in a way that follows the gateway system if they want to target young Canadians.

“They not only can make their information easily accessible via social media so that the news can be encountered by them, but [they can] also make sure that it’s a brand that comes to be known [and trusted] by young people earlier in their lives so it becomes more of a habit to use them,” she said. “So, when they go about making a decision about what news they’re going to look at through a search engine, that can be one of the options. Because they know that brand – they know the news organization – that’s something that they’re going to come to trust.”

While this brand might not be a news outlet they use every day, millennials will come to have some sort of understanding and belief in the news outlet’s credibility. It “might be one that they’ve heard about [and see online], one that they know their parents watch at 6 p.m., or that they know that their grandparents have delivered everyday,” Thom said.

Thom said her research objective was to increase and add to the discussion of how people, specifically young Canadians, consume news.

“There’s a lack of dialogue about our news consumption in Canada. Not from journalists who are obviously very interested in this, but from our government, from our public institutions,” she said. “I don’t think that we actually have the numbers and studies that can back that stuff up in a Canadian context.

“The way that we get informed in a contemporary news landscape is something that we need to know a lot more about. Particularly [since] our next generation is going to be getting informed that way.”

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