WASHINGTON – Americans of all ages still pay heed to serious news even as they seek out the lighter stuff, choosing their own way across a media landscape that no longer relies on front pages and evening newscasts to dictate what's worth knowing, according to a new study from the Media Insight Project.
The findings burst the myth of the media "bubble" — the idea that no one pays attention to anything beyond a limited sphere of interest, like celebrities or college hoops or Facebook posts.
"This idea that somehow we're all going down narrow paths of interest and that many people are just sort of amusing themselves to death and not interested in the news and the world around them? That is not the case," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, which teamed with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research on the project.
People today are nibbling from a news buffet spread across 24-hour television, websites, radio, newspapers and magazines, and social networks.
Three-fourths of Americans see or hear news daily, including 6 of 10 adults under age 30, the study found. Nearly everyone — about 9 in 10 people — said they enjoy keeping up with the news. And more than 6 in 10 say that wherever they find the news, they prefer it to come directly from a news organization.
The study found relatively few differences by age, political leanings or wealth when it comes to the topics people care about. Traffic and weather are nearly universal interests. Majorities express interest in natural disasters, local news, politics, the economy, crime and foreign coverage.
With so many sources and technologies, 60 percent of Americans say it's easier to keep up than it was just five years ago.
But at the same time, Jane Hall, an associate professor of journalism at American University, said no one is setting the national news agenda the way The New York Times and network evening news once did.
"I do lament those times in which something could become so important that we all watched," Hall said. "But that doesn't mean we aren't all engaged now."
If you're under 30, the future of news is in your hands, literally.
Three out of 4 young adults who carry cellphones use them to check the news. Most owners of tablet computers also use them to get updates; young people are the ones most likely to have tablets.
But the young think of news differently than previous generations did, said Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. Their broader definition includes anything happening right now, whether it's sports or entertainment or politics.
"We don't see young people thinking of it as a civic obligation to keep up with news," Mersey said. "We see young people including news as part of a very complex, very diverse, very large media diet that includes a diversity of sources, a diversity of platforms and really goes 24/7."
The Media Insight Project study found that 20-somethings are likelier to follow up when they hear something big is happening.
"They're the sort of on-demand news generation," Rosenstiel said.
Americans get that first word an assortment of ways. Traditional news operations still dominate, but word of mouth, email and text messages, Facebook and Twitter, and electronic news alerts also come into play.
Most people say they have more confidence in a story when they get it directly from a news-gathering operation. But their media habit doesn't include paying for it — only about a fourth have paid subscriptions.
Nine out of 10 watched some type of TV news in the previous week. Newspapers, including online editions, and radio news each reached more than half the country. Online-only news sources such as Yahoo! News and Buzzfeed reached nearly half.
People flit across the news landscape, depending on what they're seeking, the study found.
Wonder why local newscasts seem fixated on crime, traffic, weather and health warnings? That's why viewers go there.
Cable TV channels draw the most people looking for foreign news, politics, social issues and business stories.
Readers prefer newspapers — online or in print — for local news, stories about schools and education, and arts and culture coverage. Among news sources, newspapers have the widest range of topics that attract a significant number of people.
Americans most often turn to specialty media these days for their sports, entertainment news, and science and technology coverage. When a natural disaster strikes, they turn on the TV.
"People of all generations are picking and choosing the media that fit their needs at the moment and the story they're trying to follow," said Rosenstiel.
"Consumers are becoming more in control," he said, "and not simply reacting to what is thrown at us."
The survey was conducted Jan. 9 through Feb. 16, 2014 by NORC at the University of Chicago with funding from the American Press Institute. It involved landline and cellphone interviews in English or Spanish with 1,492 adults nationwide. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.