Industry Frets, but Kids Say Media Underestimates Them

As summer unleashes millions of teens onto their communities full time, one thing’s for certain: few will be found hanging by the pool reading the newspaper.

Studies suggest fewer and fewer young Americans are reading newspapers, watching TV newscasts or checking headlines on the Internet, although online reading is the most common form for teens to skim the news.

A report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York found that the most popular news source among 18-to-34-year-olds is general-interest Web portals like Yahoo, which are checked daily by 44 percent of those surveyed. Only 19 percent read a newspaper every day.

[Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on young people's interest (or lack thereof) in keeping up with the news.]

The demands of school and the explosion in entertainment options both online and on the tube are likely responsible for siphoning attention away from the news. But indications are that many young people also distrust the media and don’t think keeping up with current events is important.

With declining readership and viewership among older people as well, the question of how to ensure a future audience hangs over the news industry. For anyone who believes that the Fourth Estate is essential to democracy, this is dire news.

“One essential thing we need to do as citizens is to make sure the media survives. This is not just a problem” for the industry, said David T.Z. Mindich, chairman of the journalism department at St. Michael’s College in Vermont and author of “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.”

Calling news culture “a valuable thing in a democracy,” Gregory Moore, editor of the Denver Post, agreed that a declining interest in the news has very serious consequences.

“Good journalism costs money. I hope we can hold on to that value in this society, and not just as pabulum that has no higher value,” Moore said.

Still, it is probably unfair to say young people don’t care about the world around them. Those who have studied the issue say kids approach political and social issues thoughtfully, and many of them are “aching to do good in their world,” as Ocean MacAdams, an MTV News executive, put it in an interview with

Several news organizations are experimenting with how they package news, some in ways that are sure to rankle baby boomers who don't expect to see Britney Spears anywhere on the front page of their morning papers. But a scantily clad pop star may not be the hook to get young people interested in current events.

Of about 109 high school students who spoke with, an overwhelming majority said they thought the media's efforts to reach them betrayed a skewed understanding of who they are.

The media does "a great job of feeding us stuff — clothes, music, sex, videos — but they don’t talk about more important stuff," said Bryan Ortiz, an 11th grader at Long Island City High School in Queens, N.Y.

When asked if Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton were all they cared to know anything about, John Pilios, a 12th grader at Long Island City, responded: "But that's all we get in the media."

Said 11th grader Stacey Dimopoulos, "They think that's going to capture our attention when I'd rather see [news about] Iraq."

While most of the students who spoke with admitted paying less attention to the Iraq war than when it started two years ago, more than half said they followed local and national politics, developments in science and technology and the War on Terror.

One class of seniors at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pa., started a fund-raising drive to raise awareness about the genocide in Sudan (search). Nearly all the students said that the media's runaway fascination with Jennifer Wilbanks (search) and Terri Schiavo (search) was unnecessary and distracted from events more worthy of blanket coverage.

"If the issue in Darfur was covered as much as [Schiavo and Wilbanks] were and was brought to the forefront, then certainly more people would want to pressure the government to do something," said student Bill Yeager.

But another group of students at a northern New Jersey high school said the steady drumbeat of bad news from places like Iraq was a big turnoff.

"I'm not really into reading about the war," said Allie Slomko, a junior at Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains.

"I mean, I know what's going on, I'm not completely ignorant. It's just not something I enjoy reading about. I don't enjoy reading about people dying," she said.

While parents may be more interested in learning about murders and kidnappings — the two crimes that seem to dominate local newscasts — young people see such reporting as largely sensational.

"It's just murder, murder and murder and then whatever is on the government's agenda," said Central High senior Alison Margolies. "It would be nice if it wasn't just terror and the war."

Margolies was among a majority of students who said the media aren't reporting enough "good news." That comes as an awakening to many adults who say they don't want young people to believe that the world of child kidnappings and killings drawn by TV news is anywhere near an accurate reflection of the world in which they live.

Most of the students said they wanted to see the media do a better job of rounding out reporting on horrific events.

"When you look at some news, it makes you feel unable to do anything for your world. ... Instead of just showing that people are dying in Sudan, you could show what this high school and other groups are doing [to help the victims]," Margolies said.

Perhaps unfortunately, the data do not indicate that most young people share Margolies' enthusiasm about international news. More disturbingly, many young people seem not to understand the role of the press in a free society.

A study (pdf) commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation showed that 87 percent of more than 100,000 sampled high school students believe people should be free to express unpopular opinions, as compared with 95 percent of adults. Among students who had not taken media-related courses, that number dropped to 68 percent.

Only 51 percent of the students agreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish reports without government approval.

Warren Watson, who directs a project at Ball State University in Indiana that encourages high school journalism, said today's youth are growing up in a media environment in which the line between news and entertainment is blurred beyond recognition.

"Kids are just bombarded and they shut it off. There's so much that they're on overload," Watson said. "This might be the first generation in some time where the parents are more informed than their offspring."

While young people spend a lot of time online, they "use the Internet for everything but information," Watson added.

Mindich agreed, but said that while entertainment-related activities are more appealing to young people, their cynicism toward the media was also a factor.

"Young people are very suspicious of media companies that are owned by big corporations. They are very suspicious of spin. They are very suspicious of entertainment-driven news," Mindich said.

Most of the young people who spoke with agreed, with more than a handful echoing the sentiment that "all news is biased."

Several students said that what they perceived as lopsided coverage — mainly about Iraq — led them to believe that the media was biased.

"I think they just show one side of things. They show more of Americans and what they are going through, and I think they should focus more on what Iraqis are going through," said Long Island City senior Jennifer Arias.

Nearly all the students said they wanted to see more international stories, and a couple dozen students said they preferred the reporting of foreign broadcasters like the BBC to the big three broadcasters and American cable news networks.

"In order for me to watch the war and understand it completely I have to watch a foreign news channel because it's on the outside looking in. You get both sides," Long Island City's Pilios said.

Mindich said that news organizations will have to depend on quality reporting in order to win back trust.

"The strategy can't be the continuing trend of a shrinking news hole, cutting back on foreign correspondents and adding more entertainment and frivolous news," he said, "because that has been the strategy and it hasn't worked."