The news is like lifeblood to democratic societies. The information provided daily through the major mass media television, radio, newspapers, and increasingly the Internet – keeps citizens up to date with the latest political, economic, and social developments, world events, natural and man-made disasters, lives of famous public figures, scientific breakthroughs, and sports and weather. It serves to keep electorates apprised of the performance of their elected political representatives, helps people to cope with bad news, and also provides a sense of continuity in an increasingly varied media landscape and a sense of security even during times of extreme adversity.
Functions of the News
The news media bring governments and politicians to account, expose scandals and antisocial behavior, and remind citizens of their own responsibilities within democratic societies. In non-democratic and developing regions of the world, the news media are used to maintain social order, but may also lead the people to question the actions and motives of their leaders. Where citizens display a lack of engagement in democratic processes, however, as evidenced for example by falling turn-outs in major political elections, attention often turns to the role and performance of the new media. On such occasions, questions may be raised about the failure of news media to capture the interest and attention of news consumers and to provide them with the types of information and a style of delivery that are palatable (Hargreaves & Thomas 2002).
In particular, questions are raised about whether the news media provide the news that the people want. Such questions, however, have been asked over many years. One observation – fueled by empirical evidence – is that news appetites vary across media consumers. The extent to which media audiences, as citizens or consumers, process news often displays a developmental pattern linked to age and experience. What adds to the complexity of news impact, though, is that while the appetite for news evolves with age, greater maturity eventually brings psychological deterioration, which results in reduced news-processing capacity. News is appreciated and consumed more by older members of the audience than by younger ones. At the same time, the ability to effectively process complex new information in single packages declines with age (see Gunter 1987).
An examination of news processing across the life-span can be articulated in terms of patterns of news consumption; relationships between news exposure and news and political awareness; and ability to recall information from specific news packages.
News Consumption Across the Life-Span
The main sources of news have consistently been identified as television, followed by newspapers, then radio (Towler 2003). Since 2000, the Internet has emerged as a key news source that rivals other news media in the extent to which it is endorsed. Such macro-level findings disguise variations in news consumption that occur with age. Children, teenagers, and young adults exhibit less interest in mainstream news provision than do middle-aged and older adults. For children, mainstream news on television and in newspapers tends to be articulated in a style that holds little appeal. Attempts to produce news broadcasts targeted at the younger audience, though, such as Newsround (produced by the BBC in the UK), have met with some success in both attracting young news audiences and creating an appetite for news with this age group.
What has also emerged is that young media consumers in the twenty-first century turn to newer information sources such as the Internet for their news. Evidence that audiences switched from major news media such as television over the final years of the twentieth century indicated that those aged 25 to 44 turned away more than did older adult news consumers, and more than did those aged 16 to 24 (Hargreaves & Thomas 2002). By way of compensation, though, younger news consumers outstrip older consumers in their use of the Internet and of interpersonal communications networks to find out about news.
In general, therefore, it is an oversimplification of the research evidence to conclude that young people lack interest in the news and that news appetites only really emerge in later life. Young people do possess interest in the news but their consumption is driven by the way in which the news is presented. The convenience of news sources in terms of when and where they are available holds paramount importance for the young consumer, who does not wish to be constrained by the fixed news formats and times of availability associated with traditional “old” news platforms such as mainstream television and newspapers.
The news media potentially bring a wealth of information into people’s homes. To what extent awareness of the issues and events that the media report upon is enhanced through news exposure is a debatable question. In the case of young media consumers, knowledge of recent news and of political affairs in general has consistently emerged as poorer than that found among older adults. While the news tends not to be named among children’s favorite content, they do begin to tune into news increasingly as they pass through their adolescent years. (Chaffee et al. 1973).
Even before they reach their teens, young people may display some elementary likes and dislikes in relation to prominent political figures, though it is not always clear whether these opinions have been rationalized or are simply imitated from influential adult role models in their immediate environment. It has long been known that the more children report consumption of televised news and newspapers, the greater their civic awareness (Conway et al. 1975).
Pre-teenage children who acknowledged an interest in the news, who watched it on television, and who discussed news with their friends tend to exhibit greater knowledge of current news issues and have a greater political awareness. Further, research that has tracked such links over time has indicated that news exposure tends to lead to political knowledge growth (Atkin & Gantz 1978). Children were found to pay attention to news about local conflicts in Northern Ireland. Greater reported exposure to news about such events was linked to greater awareness of them (Cairns 1984).
Recall of News Packages
Another way in which news processing can be assessed is to investigate more directly how much information people remember from specific news packages. In this context, a news “package” could be a news broadcast or a printed news story. Researchers have used survey interviews and interventionist experiments to explore this type of news impact.
Comparisons of news recall via different media among children, teenagers, and young adults have produced conflicting findings. Many early studies consistently reported that print presentations yielded better content recall scores than audiovisual or audio-only presentations (e.g., DeFleur et al. 1992). Later research found, in contrast, that televisionstyle presentations could yield better news recall among children than printed versions of the same content, especially if the narrative in the televised versions occurred alongside supportive pictures (Gunter et al. 2000; Walma van der Molen & van der Voort 1997). The essential feature was that the pictures should contain the same basic propositional meaning as the text.
Research with American children aged 8 to 13 years found that their learning from a television news story presented to them in the classroom improved with age and was also associated with how much they enjoyed the item (Drew & Reeves 1980). A follow-up study found that 10 –16-year-olds recalled news stories better if they were presented with film footage rather than simply with “talking head” formats (Drew & Reese 1984). Television news programs, such as Channel One in the USA, made especially for young people have been found to enhance their political knowledge (Brand & Greenberg 1992). Across the age-span, advancing years can eventually bring a decline in memory capacity that undermines news consumers’ ability to process complex news packages, especially if they have poor verbal abilities (Dixon et al. 1984).
With emerging new technology platforms that have opened up a wider array of new news sources and an increased diversity of news presentation styles, there is a need to discover more about the news processing demands of different news media. The growth in news sources and the greater convenience in terms of news availability of new news sources may be regarded as positive developments by those who believe it is important to find new ways of engaging the public interest in news. For older news consumers, however, some new formats may prove to present significant barriers to effective news processing.
- Atkin, C., & Gantz, W. (1978). Television news and political socialisation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 42, 183–197.
- Brand, J. E., & Greenberg, B. S. (1992). Effects of television news and advertising in the classroom: The impact of Channel One. Paper presented at the International Communication Association annual conference, Miami, Florida, May 21–25.
- Cairns, E. (1984). Television news as a source of knowledge about the violence for children in Ireland: A test of the knowledge-gap hypothesis. Current Psychological Research and Reviews, 3, 32–38.
- Chaffee, S. H., McLeod, J. M., & Wackman, D. B. (1973). Family communication patterns and adolescent political participation. In J. Dennis (ed.), Socialisation in politics, New York: John Wiley, pp. 349–364.
- Conway, M. M., Stevens, A. J., & Smith, R. G. (1975). The relation between media use and children’s civic awareness. Journalism Quarterly, 8, 240–247.
- DeFleur, M. L., Davenport, L., Cronin, M., & DeFleur, M. (1992). Audience recall of news stories presented by newspaper, computer, television and radio. Journalism Quarterly, 69, 1010 –1022.
- Dixon, R. A., Hultsch, D. F., Simon, E. W., & von Eye, A. (1984). Verbal ability and text structure effects on adult age differences in text recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 23, 569–578.
- Drew, D., & Reese, S. D. (1984). Children’s learning from a television newscast. Journalism Quarterly, 61, 83 – 88.
- Drew, D., & Reeves, B. (1980). Learning from a television news story. Communication Research, 7, 121–135.
- Gunter, B. (1987). Poor reception: Misunderstanding and forgetting broadcast news. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Gunter, B., Furnham, A., & Griffiths, S. (2000). Children’s memory for news: A comparison of three presentation media. Media Psychology, 2, 93–118.
- Hargreaves, I., & Thomas, J. (2002). New news, old news: An ITC and BSC research publication. London: Broadcasting Standards Commission and Independent Television Commission.
- Towler, R. (2003). The public’s view 2002. London: Independent Television Commission.
- Walma van der Molen, J. H., & van der Voort, T. H. A. (1997). Children’s recall of television and print news: A media comparison study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 82 – 91.
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