Changing Media Consumption Habits

Last week, I jokingly said this tweet could be the basis of a whole blog post:

This week, I decided I might as well write that blog post myself. The reality is, on the one hand, we’re seeing dramatically changing media consumption habits. On the other hand, these changes often take quite some time to fully work their way through. In the interim, we get slightly ridiculous situations captured by the author of that tweet, in which new forms of media are enveloped in older ones. Some recent Pew research on the topic is useful for putting all this in context. We covered some of these topics on last week’s Tech.pinions podcast too.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on changing news consumption habits which highlighted both some of the changes happening and the extent to which some people are very much still living in the pre-social media world of newspapers and nightly television news. For example, although online sources of news are now often used by over a third of the US population, TV still leads with over half of US adults:

Overall news consumption by medium

But what those stats obscure is the extent to which these behaviors differ by age, which can be dramatic. I’ve chosen the two extremes of the age cohorts from the Pew study to illustrate this point:

Screenshot 2016-07-11 16.00.25

As you can see, the oldest adults are the most reliant on traditional media, with 85% relying on TV and almost 50% on print newspapers, while they also rely more heavily than younger people on radio. However, half of younger people regularly get news online, compared with just over a quarter through TV and just 5% through print newspapers. Though this wasn’t called out in the Pew report, it’s also striking that older people tend to rely on multiple sources more than younger people – the categories shown for 65+ add up to 177%, whereas those shown for the youngest age group add up to just under 100%. That likely reflects both smaller numbers of younger people getting news and the reality that online sources can replace not just one but several of the legacy media, providing text, audio, and video formats.

What’s even more interesting is the role social media increasingly plays in connecting people to the news online. Around two thirds of the Facebook users who responded to the survey say they see news there, just higher than the proportion of Twitter users who do so (though of course, the absolute number is far smaller). However – and this was something we discussed quite a bit on the podcast last week – people have what I’d describe as a healthy distrust of those social media sources. Just 4% of web-using US adults trust the information they get from social media “a lot”, with another 30% saying they trust it somewhat. Both numbers are much lower than the corresponding figures for local and national news organizations and family and friends in general. That’s probably a good thing and suggests a skepticism about these sources that is often warranted. But it also means people tend to mistrust what’s becoming an increasingly important source of news to them, which is perhaps creating some of the increasing polarization we’ve seen in political views in the US in recent years as people selectively believe the news that fits a preconceived worldview. After all, the Pew report also shows 74% of respondents believe news organizations tend to favor one political side or the other, with just 24% believing they deal fairly with all sides.

This is the great irony of our age – on the one hand, we have easier and cheaper access to news and information sources than ever before, as many of the geographic, financial, and other barriers to consuming news come down. However, we have become more skeptical of the sources we have available to us and more selective in choosing which we believe. As such, even as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the potential to expose us to more views, they’re also training us to place less weight on at least some of those views and, in some cases, are actively filtering out things we’re less likely to agree with. We need only look at the dramatic range of reactions to last week’s various shootings both by and of police officers in the US and the way in which many people seem to have quickly coalesced around particular viewpoints on these stories, to see a dramatic illustration of this phenomenon.

All of this also points a massive spotlight, at Facebook and Twitter in particular, with regard to how they filter and select news stories and specific sources in their curation, whether that’s trending topics found on both services, Twitter’s Moments feature, or the services’ algorithmic feeds. These services now have enormous power in filtering and pushing specific stories and viewpoints yet both operate with a lack of transparency. There’s great safety in either minimal power combined with great opacity, or significant power with substantial transparency, but it’s the combination of power and opacity that’s really problematic.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

3 thoughts on “Changing Media Consumption Habits”

  1. Up until recent events I would have said that Facebook, and to a large degree Twitter as well, was mostly the new water cooler or barbershop. But the whole live streaming mode has allowed Facebook to be more like Twitter in not just being a news aggregator of sorts, or even a reporter, but now is a virtual first person accounting, bypassing news media.


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