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Monday, December 4, 2023

From TV to TikTok, how we get the news is changing fast

Right now, you are reading the news.

It might be in a printed paper, but more than likely it’s online, probably crammed onto your smartphone’s screen. Perhaps someone else will stumble across a social media post summarizing the words below, or hear it talked about it on a local radio or television station.

News is consistent in that as long as humans and all their complexities exist, it will never stop happening. The ways we follow it, however, are changing quickly, and that can impact everything from how stories are covered to the way people feel about unfolding events.

A new poll of news habits by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday shows that half of Americans sometimes get their news from social media, and vastly more people get it on their digital devices than from television, radios or printed publications.

The survey, which was conducted from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, found one sharply rising source of news: TikTok. Since 2020, the number of TikTok users who say they get news on the app has almost doubled. A third of adults under 30 and 14 percent of all adults in the United States now regularly get news from the viral video app, though it still follows behind Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.

“People are making very conscious choices in the social media they turn to, many times based on their identity,” said Katerina Eva Matsa, the director of news and information research at Pew Research Center, in an interview.

She says the shifts show people aren’t just looking for facts when they seek out news, but also a sense of community. While consumption of printed news, television and radio continues to drop, that doesn’t mean people are less informed. Matsa said they are seeing evidence that more users are now exposed to news in general.

“I don’t think there’s been a decrease in appetite for the news and I think some situational events — in particular the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza — have seemed to engage the younger generation of these consumers pretty well,” said Bartosz Wojdynski, a professor of new media at the University of Georgia’s College of Journalism.

We asked people about their own evolving news habits, and how they are affected by world events, mental health and misinformation.

Traditional media, but only sometimes

When Americans want news, they’re likely to pick up their phones. What they do once they’re on them varies and crosses over, with links from social media to full stories and back again. News websites and apps are the most popular option, followed closely by search, then social media and podcasts, according to Pew.

Sheila Milon reads traditional news only four times a month. The 23-year-old consultant from Los Angeles will sit down at her computer or device and go deep on the big mainstream news publications.

“I find it hard to keep up with everything in a given news cycle, so I will typically check on the weekends,” Milon said.

During the week, she absorbs the news in bits and pieces though social media, mostly on Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter. She listens to NPR and Wall Street Journal podcasts on Spotify, and reads daily newsletters from MorningBrew and ProPublica.

When the news she’s following is especially intense, Milon said she needs to tap out and take a break, like she did recently after reading about Gaza and Israel for four days straight.

“I recognized how privileged it is to be able to tune out, but it is really overwhelming, and you feel powerless,” Milon said.

The loyal television watchers

Television news, once a giant of breaking international and national news, has fallen out of favor with younger demographics. Pew found that 41 percent of people 18 to 29 years old get news from television at least sometimes, but 85 percent of people 65 and older do. Half of people in the older age group say they prefer television for news, with that number dropping to 8 percent for adults under 29.

Tony Adams has a consistent routine for getting news he trusts. Every evening, he turns his TV to Fox News and watches for one to four hours, depending on what is happening in the country. If he’s interested in sports news, he opens up YouTube and types in the games or teams he’s following. He listens to conservative news radio at work, local news is just for weather, and he doesn’t dabble in social media at all.

“I trust Fox News, but not the general CNN news sources,” said Adams, a 63-year-old in Dayton, Ohio.

The length of stories, combined with the sheer number of things happening in the world at any given time, can be overwhelming for people already juggling full-time jobs and personal lives.

Christopher Bach, a 23-year-old electrician apprentice from Montebello, Calif., tries to make sure he knows just enough about everything. Every morning he opens a site called Ground News and scans it for 30 minutes before he starts work. For each headline, the site collects articles for a variety of sources and labels their political leanings, assigning a “Bias Distribution” score to coverage.

“It shows me a lot of important things going on right now, and there’s not a lot of junk or filler,” Bach said. “That’s why I don’t watch the news, because it’s not the best way to get unbiased news, it’s more for entertainment.”

His other go-to source of news is a syndicated progressive podcast called “The David Pakman Show.” Bach is on social media, and gets some news from X, but doesn’t find it as useful for learning about world events. His TikTok feed is also devoid of much news, offering an escape from the world with basketball, cooking and random comedy content.

Holding on to mainstream news

Steve Love reads most news stories to the end. The 54-year-old executive at a California science and technology company says he’ll finish 60 percent of the written articles he opens, but he has become more comfortable skimming them over the years.

“News articles on the whole just sort of peter out,” he said.

He pays for a New York Times subscription and enjoys a morning round of newsletters from Axios and the Times to catch him up on the basics. Because of his job, he tries to stay up to date on business news.

Over the years, he has had to cut back on how much news he consumes for his mental health.

“The world is depressing,” Love said. “Late in the Trump term I stopped reading as much stuff and just flying past an article or only reading a summary in the morning.”

His X usage has dropped off, and he hasn’t touched Facebook since 2016, but he will look at Instagram a few times a week where he finds politics and conspiracy theorists are easier to avoid. Lately, he gets information he missed from his young adult children, who are discovering their own passion for news and activism.

Alerts and social media bring news to you

“For me it’s always been social media in some form. I was never part of the generation who remembers TV news,” said Fanny Cheung, a Gen Zer who works in biotech in San Francisco.

People of all ages now turn to social media, with half of all Americans getting at least some of their news from the sites and apps. Facebook is the most popular source, with 30 percent of adults regularly getting news there, followed by YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and X, according to Pew.

Consuming news on social media doesn’t necessarily translate to people seeking out articles on traditional news sites. The amount of traffic to news sites from Facebook has declined over the past year, according to Chartbeat, an analytics company that tracks traffic to news and media sites around the world. Meanwhile, traffic from Google Search has risen and continues to be the top referrer of readers for large media sites.

Cheung’s path to news stories is alerts from the iPhone’s built-in news app. She’ll get push alerts for articles from The Washington Post, the Times, CNN and others, and decide whether she wants to click through and read the entire articles.

Over the past few weeks, the Israel-Gaza war has started taking over her social media feeds, and she now estimates nearly 25 percent of her TikTok algorithm is updates about the war. Following the news motivates her to take action, including calling her representatives and signing petitions, but she requires breaks from the more graphic content across sources.

“I’m not tired of seeing it, but it’s like I’ve done the things that I can at this point. I don’t know what seeing more is going to do.”

Even when it’s on social media, the news itself can often be traced back to traditional sources, Wojdynski said, or the posts are news in their own right.

“The person from whom they’re consuming the video is often not the traditional reporter. Where that person is getting their information can be a mix and include traditional sources, first person on the scene, sources questioning things on social media after someone posted a video annotating it,” Wojdynski said. “Allegedly they’re on the scene in Gaza or wherever else the reporting is taking place.”

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