Millennials and the news

After spending a few minutes trying to figure out how to explain my reaction to Paula Poindexter’s research about the news consumption habits of the millennial generation in 140 characters or less (beyond my original reaction: “Yikes”), I decided to give up and blog about it instead.

First, some background. Jim Romenesko posted a news release earlier today about Poindexter’s new book, in which she reveals that “Millennials describe news as garbage, lies, one-sided, propaganda, repetitive and boring”; “Most millennials do not depend on news to help with their daily lives” and “The majority of millennials do not feel being informed is important.” Dispiriting news, to be sure, for those of us who work in or teach journalism. But surprising? Not really. As Poindexter says in the release, most millennials don’t feel like they’re represented in much of the news they see (they’re right: they aren’t) and they don’t feel it affects their daily lives a lot, which is also probably true to some degree.

But is this new? I don’t think so. Based on my own experiences as a journalist and a university journalism professor, I don’t think most young people pay much attention to the news apart from entertainment and sports. In this respect, I don’t think today’s millennials are any different from any other generation when they were in their late teens or early twenties. I don’t think it’s until we go away to college or university and start living on our own that news becomes interesting and relevant to most of us.

That was my experience, at least. As a teenager, I worked for my local weekly newspaper, so I had to be current on local politics and goings on around town, but I don’t think I knew much about national or provincial politics, much less the economy or international news. I wasn’t a very worldly 18 year old. And why would I be? I wasn’t old enough to vote, I didn’t have to work to support myself or anyone else and I was more concerned with my own life than anything happening on the other side of the country let alone the far side of the globe. It wasn’t until I went away to school and was forced to start reading, watching and listening to the news on a regular basis that I started to become more interested. But even then, a lot of what I read didn’t make much sense to me immediately; it took time and regular reading to get the bigger picture, and by the time I did, it had started to seem interesting and, yes, even relevant. I think that’s just part of growing up and having your view of the world expanded beyond your own day-to-day life.

I try to remember this every September when I teach my introduction to journalism course, as I’ll start doing again on Thursday. It would be great if all of these 17- and 18-year-old students showed up being voracious newshounds, on top of the latest geopolitical developments across the country and around the world and ready to report on them. But if they aren’t, that’s OK, too. We have to make room in journalism schools for students who haven’t quite been bitten by the news bug yet but who, with a little prodding and a little time, will get it. As I tell my students, I truly don’t mind if you’re coming into journalism school as someone who doesn’t read, watch or listen to the news on a daily basis — as long as you realize that now that you’re here, you have to start. What I do expect is that you’re someone who is curious about learning more about your community, your country and the world and interested in finding out more about what makes it all tick. I don’t expect you to be an expert on any of this — just someone who’s willing to do a bit of work to find out more. Sure, a lot of the news you read may not make much sense at first, but as long as you stick with it, it will start make sense, by which point it will probably start to seem interesting, too.

As such, I’m not too discouraged by Poindexter’s research, and I’m looking forward to reading more about her methods of how to engage young people in the news earlier.