Age is a funny thing. The older you get, the easier it becomes to blame the young. The wise old men of the glorious past became wiser when they kept abreast with the events of the world. But youth is always said to embody a carefree negligence, a casual neglect of worldly matters. But is it really so? Or are we too quick to dismiss today’s millennial generation as irresponsible, carefree and uncaring without looking at statistics? If yes, we are simply using stereotypes associated with youth to describe the millennials. This is unfair.
The habit of staying updated about contemporary events is not the forte of only the old and the wise. However, there are major differences in the ways millennials, the youth of today (age 18-34) consume news, compared to older generations. In fact, research conducted by YPulse shows that 68% of millennials get their news from social media, and not through traditional channels such as newspapers, television or word of mouth. This is not a huge surprise. After all, the Internet being an integral part of all our lives, it is only natural that news consumption also moves from the material sphere to the digital sphere.
This shift of journalism from print to screen requires close attention, for two reasons. Firstly, this would be the first time that news is being consumed free of cost, at such a large level. Studies conducted by Media Insight Project shows that only 40% of millennials pay for at least one news app or subscription. This means that most of the news that gets circulated on the Internet is being consumed free of cost by readers. The stakes for content accuracy and journalistic ethics drastically reduce in such a situation; subscribed customers obviously receive quality news. The need for a news filtering system that siphons off fake and unreliable news items then arises. The flow of fake news generates an iota of distrust in readers and an ever-lurking suspicion about the reliability of news sources. Secondly, the shift marks the beginning of a digital era in journalism that also revolutionizes the roles of journalists themselves. Thus if production of news is shaped by the medium, the way we think about news itself changes. On top of this, it is also important to look at digital journalism and millennial consumption of online news as affecting readers’ responses towards news. But for all this, it is crucial to think of millennials, not as apolitical and apathetic beings, but as vibrant users of the Internet to consume and respond to everyday news updates.
The Myth of “Newsless” Millennials
Mark Mellman, in his article for The Hill, describes millennials as “newsless”, when compared to Baby Boomers or GenX. He backs it up with the statistic of average time being spent on news articles when accessed using social media versus when accessed directly. Facebook being the primary social media on which millennials consume news, Mellman mentions that while a reader arriving at a news article from elsewhere on the Web spends an average of 4 minutes and 36 seconds reading it, someone arriving from Facebook spends only an average of 1 minute and 41 seconds for the same. He means to say that the engagement with news accessed via social media is drastically lesser in the case of millennials, than how it was for previous generations.
However, Mellman’s point falls apart. His underlying assumption that the average time spent on an article is directly indicative of the level of engagement of the readers is flawed. Someone who moves away from a news article and back to social media, could simply be doing it to share or respond to the same on social media, thus engaging with the article, as well as the news. Mellman’s idea of engagement with news seems to be limited to a temporal idea of engagement, rather than a subjective or qualitative one.
Time, Online Personas and Tolerance
The statistics that prove millennials’ interest in news, access and responses to news should be qualitatively supported. Older generations had time slots built into their schedules to consume news. In other words, they kept some time aside every day, specifically to read the newspaper or watch the television. Millennials hardly do that. Social media can be addictive and addictions don’t fit into schedules; they dictate schedules. News consumed via social media thus does not follow a stipulated time. The danger of there not being a specific time-slot is that there can be too much news, as a newsfeed is by definition, an endless pit of updates that keep coming. It isn’t that millennials don’t consume news. The bigger dilemma is how millennials could ever stop consuming news, if they continue doing it via social media.
As society is built on personas and mutually enriching relationships, it is only natural that social media is built on online personas and virtual friendships. Consuming news on social media frequently translate to sharing of this news for the benefit of family and friends. As a relationship-building platform, social media encourages such sharing tendencies. This is also a way to build an online persona, which is sometimes drastically different from one’s real personality. A method of responding to news in a public, virtual way also becomes an integral component of our self or identity, by boosting our online presence. Moreover, online campaigns and viral tasks on social media are innovative ways of responding to news and bringing about social change, however subtle or small, in today’s virtual era.
Due to its public nature, it is almost impossible to avoid multiplicity of opinions on social media. Newspapers in the past used to present editorials, explicating the opinion of the editorial team on any particular political or social issue. Social media replaces this with a multitude of opinions by presenting news articles on the same issue from different news outlets. So instead of a single editorial of a subscription-based newspaper, millennial readers are more akin to receiving and considering diverse perspectives and opinions. In other words, tolerance could be a welcome benefit of using social media to consume news.
One may lead a horse to water; twenty cannot make him drink. Millennials might be accessing news via social media, but active social change inspired by news cannot always take place virtually. However, the Internet is known to spring surprises and it would probably be only a matter of time before techniques such as ethical hacking or spaces like Reddit communities become tools for a reformation of perspectives and time-old systems of organization. From this vantage point, the future is not too far.