New Medill survey shows higher-than-expected news engagement among young people

Graph about teen news consumption

An oft-cited factor in the continued struggles of traditional news outlets has been the sense that young people are disengaged from the news. But the News Socialization Study, a new survey commissioned by Medill reveals that teenagers may be keeping up with current events more than previously thought.

“The survey found more engagement with news among teens than we were expecting,” says Stephanie Edgerly, professor and Associate Dean for Research at Medill. Edgerly oversaw the survey, which was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. “We found that 29% of teens said they encounter news daily. That’s encouraging.”

Paula Poindexter, professor at the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, shares Edgerly’s positive reading of the survey results, though she says she would like to see those numbers grow.

“The daily engagement numbers in the survey were higher than I would have expected,” says Poindexter, author of “Millennials, News and Social Media: Is News Engagement a Thing of the Past?” “That’s a good thing, but there’s certainly an opportunity for teens to become even more engaged.”

Older teens (16 to 17 years old) showed slightly higher engagement levels than younger teens (13 to 15 years old). This finding may seem logical given that the college application process and eligibility to vote may trigger increased interest in national events.

More surprising may be the relatively robust consumption of local and network TV news among teens. The survey found that 46% of teens saw local TV news daily or weekly, while 42% encountered national network TV news daily or weekly. The numbers were lower for cable, sports and entertainment news as well as for news-related satire/comedy shows.

“It’s important to keep in mind that when we refer to TV news, we aren’t necessarily referring to watching a big box in your living room,” Edgerly says. “Teens may also encounter TV news on their phones and laptops. But there seems to be an accessibility to TV news that appeals to them.”

Poindexter adds a note of caution: “Regarding the survey’s TV news numbers, what’s not clear is whether teens deliberately turned on TV news or they encountered it because their parents were watching it,” she says. “We should keep that in mind.”

The survey also shows the continued influence of social media on teen news consumption. Roughly a quarter of all surveyed teens said they engaged with news on YouTube (37%), TikTok (35%) or Instagram (33%) on a daily or weekly basis, though the sources of that news remain in question.

“We have a much clearer idea of the sources of news teens are seeing on local and national TV outlets,” Edgerly says. “We have a less clear idea of the sources behind what they see on YouTube and TikTok. Those are more of a black box at this point.”

No surprise, the survey shows that teen engagement with newspapers is low. Only 5% of teens said they encountered news through local or national newspapers on a daily basis. The numbers were somewhat higher for weekly news encounters in local newspapers (18%) and national newspapers (13%). Given that the survey does not specify “print” when referring to newspapers, these low numbers may reflect minimal newspaper engagement even when considering digital formats.

“I think this poses some very important questions for newspaper organizations,” Edgerly says. “What is their strategy for trying to engage this younger group? They should be thinking about that now. Waiting until teens are in their 20s or 30s will be too late.”

The survey also explores the inclusion of news in school curricula.

When asked what kind of classroom news-related activities they engaged in at least once in the past year, 75% of the surveyed teens said they discussed news stories in class, and 62% followed news as part of a class assignment. Another 59% said they discussed how to tell whether information can be trusted.

“These findings are really, really important, especially at this moment in time,” Poindexter says. “It’s encouraging that schools are still bringing news into the classroom and even assessing its quality.”

At the same time, only 44% of teens said they “created a news story about an issue or event as part of a class assignment,” and only 31% said they learned about the job of a reporter in class. So Edgerly detects a discrepancy between news discussion and hands-on activities in schools.

Although Edgerly says she is pleased with how the new survey provides a window into teen news engagement, she acknowledges the need for further research.

“This survey provides a snapshot of how U.S. teens are engaging with news, and we don’t often get data this level of detail from a large national sample of U.S. teens,” she says. “It’s great in helping clarify trends.

“But there is still more to understand, particularly in terms of what is happening online and in social media spaces. We have much more to learn about what it means to have YouTube or Instagram be a teen’s door into news. Those spaces invite many more questions than answers at this point.”

The survey was funded by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation as part of its support for Medill’s Local News Initiative and its Metro Media Lab project.

The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago surveyed 1,507 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 from March 10 to April 26, 2023.

The survey used a mixture of probability and nonprobability sampling. Quotas used for the nonprobability sample: race/ethnicity, age, parent education, binary gender.

The survey was a mixture of phone and web survey methods.

Overall data is weighted to be representative in terms of age, gender, region, race/ethnicity, parent education, using TrueNorth Calibration methodology.

Survey margin of error was +/- 6.43%.

For this survey “news” was defined as stories about current events and public issues that come from media organizations. Examples include newspapers, television, podcasts, news programs and news websites. Sources may also include social media posts on platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram.

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Article image by Annie Spratt used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)