In democratic societies “being informed” is regarded as part of the citizen’s duty in order to form a political opinion and to participate in political life. The media, on the one hand, play a major role in the transmission of information about current events, and they are thought to be very influential. To fulfill its democratic responsibilities, the audience, on the other hand, is expected to consume news with a high level of attention in order to get detailed information, to learn as much as possible. Corresponding to these expectations, television is the principal source of information about current events for most people, and getting the news belongs to their daily routines. Research indicates that the acceptance of the civic duty to be informed is correlated with the frequency of news consumption (Poindexter & McCombs 2001).
News Consumption In The Mid-2000s
Television is the most popular source of news, but half of the public uses multiple news sources. On a typical day the average US American spends 66 minutes consuming news: 30 minutes watching television, 15 minutes listening to radio, another 15 minutes reading newspapers, and 6 minutes using the Internet for getting news (Pew Research Center 2006). However, in the mid-2000s the percentage of US Americans who get news from any medium is lower than it was a decade ago (about 80 percent in 2004 and 90 percent in 1994; Pew Research Center 2006).
This is the case for young people, in particular. Whereas among older adults (31 years and older), 60 percent watch TV news, 40 percent listen to radio news, and 35 percent read newspapers every day, only 30 percent of young adults (18 –30 years) watch TV news daily, 25 percent listen to radio news, and 16 percent read newspapers on a daily basis (Joan Shorenstein Center 2007). For some scholars, these figures are alarming, since research indicates that news habits develop early in life and remain rather stable. The Internet alone is a medium with rather low age differences in news consumption: about a fifth of the older and younger adults get news from the Internet every day (Joan Shorenstein Center 2007).
News Processing And Recall
In contrast to the expectations that the audience should learn as much as possible in order to fulfill its democratic responsibilities, a lot of studies show that people remember only a relatively small amount of the information presented in the news. Audience memory and comprehension of news is often very poor (Schaap et al. 2001). Furthermore, findings from exemplification theory indicate that news consumers rely on single cases rather than on more accurate, base-rate information when making judgments about the social phenomena described in news stories (Zillmann & Brosius 2000). It seems that consuming the news cannot be equated with rational, highly involved information processing. Some scholars suggest that consuming television news is associated with a rather heuristic mode of information processing. Because people want to assure themselves that nothing important has happened, that the world keeps on going as usual, they watch the news without great attention and interest, and without the objective to learn any details. Nonetheless, in contrast to these findings, the audience feels well informed (Robinson & Levy 1986).
In order to understand these discrepancies, it may be helpful to consider information processing theories. Top-down processes largely account for the selectivity of information processing: people selectively expose themselves to messages; pay attention only to those aspects of the content interesting to them; interpret information according to their needs, interests, and prior knowledge; and remember information within their individualized mental schemas. This may explain, for example, research findings that people tend to remember stories about more familiar topics better than stories about unfamiliar topics.
Individual variables, such as prior knowledge, cognitive abilities, and interests or attitudes toward the media (such as credibility or perceptions about how difficult it is to learn from different media) influence selective exposure, perception, attention, information processing, and recall. Knowledge gap research shows that socio-economic status is an important variable in understanding knowledge gain from news. People with higher socio-economic status are more likely to selectively expose themselves to news; they typically gain more knowledge and gain knowledge more quickly than people with low socio-economic status. Socio-economic status is of such high importance because it combines many other variables, like political interest, prior knowledge, access to information sources, communication skills, etc.
Moreover, motivations for watching the news play a major role in understanding knowledge gain from the news media. Uses and gratifications research has identified a series of motivations drawing people to news media. The motivations influence information processing and acquisition. Watching the news for information is linked to deeper, more elaborative information processing, and therefore to greater knowledge gain (Eveland 2002). However, the news serves needs beyond orientation; it also fulfils affective and social needs, and this is especially the case for television news. For most persons, watching the news is not a matter of being well informed; rather, it is a kind of social activity and entertainment. Television news connects the individual to society and provides topics to talk about (McQuail 2001).
Despite the rather disappointing results on news retention, there are also some clear and consistent research findings about news consumption and retention. First of all, people who regularly consume news are generally better informed; news attention and news reliance are effective predictors of political knowledge. Second, there are certain presentation features that can influence understanding and remembering (Perse 2001). For example, visuals or the personalization of stories can increase news retention: story placement, the frequency or length of a message, as well as visual/verbal redundancy affects recall. As part of bottom-up processes, such formal elements can attract attention and lead to orientation reactions, which might lead to mental engagement if the message is interesting or important.
Framing research suggests that the way the news is presented affects what people think about issues and events. Moreover, each news source exhibits characteristics that make its content easier or more difficult for the individual to process cognitively; thus, individuals may learn more effectively from some news sources than from others. For example, people remember more from print news than from a comparable television news presentation (DeFleur et al. 1992). Some researchers assume that whereas certain characteristics of television news (such as its fast pace and emphasis on pictures rather than text) inhibit viewers’ information processes, print news may be easier to process cognitively, since a reader can read at his or her own pace and can reread portions of the text that are difficult.
News Consumption In Times Of Crisis
Much of the work in news research, carried out since the 1950s, has focused on the informational impact on the audience. However, the field of news effects research covers a much broader range of topics. Other prominent topics are the study of news diffusion (the question of how rapidly and by what means information about an event is spread throughout a system) or the agenda-setting hypothesis. Another interesting topic is the study of news consumption in times of crisis.
Times of crisis are particular situations that are reflected in changed conditions of news consumption (Perse 2001). Due to heightened uncertainty and fear, television as an immediate source of the most current news is of great importance for receiving confirmation and details. The diffusion of news is rapid and complete. People rely on mass media for information, explanation, and solidarity. Even if media are unable to fulfill surveillance and correlation needs, because of constraints on news gathering, the function to offer assurance and tension reduction is very important for the audience. The solidarity building effect is associated with a heightened willingness to accept censorship and limits on press freedom, as well as with a strong increase in patriotism (the so-called rally effect – a sort of “rallying around the flag”). Many of these effects are uniform and universal; the role of audience variables is quite small.
News Consumption In Times Of Growing Internet Use
Looking at news consumption, we are currently at a turning point. There are more news sources than ever before: newspapers, network and cable TV, radio, the WWW, news headlines sent directly to mobile phones and PDAs, etc. The Internet allows people immediate access to news and the efficient selection of the news of interest to them. Some media analysts see the Internet as a threat to the traditional news media. On the other hand, there is evidence that people tend to remain relatively faithful to news sources that they have habitually used in the past, and that they often visit websites of the traditional media but the news they select on those sites differs from what they may have received via the traditional media. People seem to use online news to supplement, not to replace, their core news consumption (Ahlers 2006). The reliance on traditional news media and the adoption of online news seem to be influenced by lifestyle variables (Chang & Leung 2005). However, the exposure patterns on Internet news are not yet well understood; new technologies may change the nature of news consumption.
- Ahlers, D. (2006). News consumption and the new electronic media. Press/Politics, 11(1), 29 –52.
- Chang, J. K., & Leung, L. (2005). Lifestyles, reliance on traditional news media and online news adoption. New Media and Society, 7(3), 357–382.
- 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.
- Eveland, W. P., Jr. (2002). News information processing as mediator of the relationship between motivations and political knowledge. Journalism Quarterly, 79(1), 26 – 40.
- Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy (2007). Young people and the news. At www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/research_papers/R29.pdf, accessed July 18, 2007.
- McQuail, D. (2001). Television news research: Retrospect and prospect. In K. Renckstorf, D. McQuail, & N. Jankowski (eds.), Television news research: Recent European approaches and findings. Berlin: Quintessence, pp. 393 – 402.
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- Pew Research Center (2006). Online papers modestly boost newspaper readership: Pew Research Center biennial news consumption survey. At http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=282, accessed July 18, 2007.
- Poindexter, P. M., & McCombs, M. E. (2001). Revisiting the civic duty to keep informed in the new media environment. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 78, 113 –126.
- Robinson, J. P., & Levy, M. (1986). The main source: Learning from television news. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Schaap, G., Renckstorf, K., & Wester, F. (2001). Three decades of television news research: An action theoretical inventory of issues and problems. In K. Renckstorf, D. McQuail, & N. Jankowski (eds.), Television news research: Recent European approaches and findings. Berlin: Quintessence, pp. 47– 89.
- Zillmann, D., & Brosius, H.-B. (2000). Exemplification in communication: The influence of case reports on the perception of issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.