I recently co-authored a white paper for a think tank called New Paradigm tackling the common perceptions or misperceptions of "The Net Generation," i.e. young people 13-20. One of characterizations we examined was that "they don't read newspapers and are focused on their own myopic concerns and culture, and will therefore be bad citizens and lost employees." The Pew Research Center for People And The Press released their report on Generation Next (18-25 year olds), which documented the reality that newspaper readership is down, and that only 39 percent of Gen Nexters said "they enjoy keeping up with the news a lot," far fewer than older generations. Now there's new research out from Harvard's JFK School of Government that basically says teens don't pay attention to the news, get bits and pieces here and there from non-traditional sources and tend to care more about soft news like Paris Hilton's recent jail stint or Anna Nicole's death.
According to the research:
Teens are significantly less attentive to daily news than young adults, who in turn pay substantially less attention than older adults. The survey found, in fact, that 28 percent of teens pay almost no attention to daily news and that an additional 32 percent are casually attentive to a single source only. Taken together, 60 percent of teens can be considered basically inattentive to daily news, as compared with 48 percent of young adults and only 23 percent of older adults.
There are lots of reasons for this trend including the decline of print readership in general, nightly news and cable news attempts to reach this audience by focusing on soft news instead of on how to make real news relevant to this audience, and the increasing amount of time this generation spends online. With at least three browsers open, blogs, news aggregators and Wikipedia, teens usually encounter news when they're searching for something specific or surfing and happen to stumble upon it. Because of this, teens and young adults know a lot about stories or topics they're interested in, but not about current events in general.
Most the news industry's attempts at reaching them don't appear to have been that successful -- newspapers have have been slowly shuttering their teen oriented print editions. Newspapers will have to find ways to push their content out to where teens are grazing -- to news portals, MySpace and Facebook. CNN has elevated Anderson Cooper to its most visible anchor position, but it seems no amount of chatty banter about photos of the ugliest dog is attracting a dedicated young audience -- the continuous loop of Viagra ads proves this. When MTV does tackle real issues in its docs or election coverage, it does a great job, but it only makes up a sliver of the network's core programming, which is shows like My Super Sweet 16 and Jackass.
There is one network that I do believe has the potential to reach this audience -- Al Gore's Current TV. I used to work for Current before leaving to blog full time. The programming isn't perfect. It's a schizophrenic short-form shuffle of overly telegenic hosts, slickly packaged "viewer created content," hard hitting first person journalism and yes, some fluff. That said, there is no other network where you can find coverage of meth addiction in the gay community, the emotional struggles of young military wives or an up close look at life for young people living in North Korea in a 15 minute block of programming. Their vanguard journalism department produces news in a way that's relevant to young people -- by using young journalists, focusing on young characters in the stories they tell and showing [not telling] why young people should care about what they're watching. The challenge is that the network hasn't really begun marketing its programming yet, so most people don't know it exists.
Since the Harvard study also showed that teens and young adults were found to be twice as likely to get daily news from television, it's TV news that needs to be fixed first. Instead of arguing about whether Katie Couric is ruining the nightly news, network news execs should be worrying about their graying audiences and figure out how to cover news in a way that's relevant to this generation (and it's not more Paris Hilton coverage). It's essential that the next generation of citizens be informed and more importantly, engaged with what's going on in the world beyond their 50 friends on MySpace. And it's our responsibility as parents, educators, activists and media creators to make that happen.