Social Media – the Local TV for the Next Generation?

Millennials and Baby Boomers: A Generational Divide in Sources Relied on for Political News

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from Pew Research

When it comes to where younger Americans get news about politics and government, social media look to be the local TV of the Millennial generation. About six-in-ten online Millennials (61%) report getting political news on Facebook in a given week, a much larger percentage than turn to any other news source, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. This stands in stark contrast to internet-using Baby Boomers, for whom local TV tops the list of sources for political news at nearly the same reach (60%).

The Generations DefinedAt the same time, Millennials’ relatively low reliance on local TV for political news (37% see news there in a given week) almost mirrors Baby Boomers’ comparatively low reliance on Facebook (39%).

Gen Xers, who bridge the age gap between Millennials (ages 18-33 at the time of the 2014 survey) and Baby Boomers (ages 50-68), also bridge the gap between these news sources. Roughly half (51%) of online Gen Xers get political and government news on Facebook in a given week and about half (46%) do so on local TV.

This report, the latest in an ongoing study of political news and information habits, is based on an online survey conducted between March 19 and April 29, 2014, with 2,901 members of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. An initial report on these data explored the ways news consumption differs across the ideological spectrum. Here, we consider political news habits across three generations. Because this is a survey of online adults, data is not reported on those in the Silent generation, ages 69 to 86 at the time of survey. This age cohort is considerably less likely to use the internet and, as a result, those who are online may not be representative of the generation as a whole.

Even looking just at members of each generation who are on Facebook, Millennials still stand out for seeing somewhat more political content on the site. Roughly a quarter (24%) of Millennials who use Facebook say at least half of the posts they see on the site relate to government and politics, higher than both Gen Xers (18%) and Baby Boomers (16%) who use the social networking site.

This occurs even though Millennials express less interest in political news. Roughly a quarter of Millennials (26%) select politics and government as one of the three topics they are most interested in (out of a list of nine). That is lower than both Gen Xers (34%) and Baby Boomers (45%). Millennials also are less familiar with many of the 36 sources asked about in the survey, which range from USA Today to Rush Limbaugh to Slate.

Much Consistency Across Generations When it Comes to Trust and Distrust of News SourcesThe data do not suggest, however, that Millennials’ relative lack of engagement with or awareness of sources is based on some sort of deep-seated mistrust of the news media. Of the sources they are familiar with, Millennials are no less trusting than older generations. All three generations trust, on average, about four-in-ten sources they have heard of and distrust about two-in-ten. There are also few differences when it comes to which specific sources are trusted and distrusted across generations. Fourteen of the 36 sources are trusted more than distrusted by all three generations and four are more distrusted across the board.

A longer-term question that arises from this data is what younger Americans’ reliance on social media for news might mean for the political system. Understanding the nuances of the social media news environment is complicated: The experience is individualized through one’s own choices, through the friends in one’s network and their proclivities, and through algorithms – all of which can change over time. We are only beginning to understand these complex interactions.

Viewed in the context of the ongoing debate over political polarization in social media, for example, it is the Facebook users in the oldest of the three generations studied here who are most likely to see political content on the site that supports their own views: 31% of Baby Boomers on Facebook who pay attention to political posts say the posts they see are mostly or always in line with their own views, higher than both Generation Xers (21%) and Millennials (18%). At the same time, though, Baby Boomers are the least reliant on this platform as a source for their news – meaning that at least at the moment, this affects a smaller share of them. And, across all three generations, most Facebook users who pay attention to political content do, in fact, see views on the site that aren’t in line with their own.

As the research continues, these data suggest that younger and older generations espouse fundamental differences in the ways they stay informed about political news – differences that are of particular interest as the 2016 election campaigns ramp up.

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