A key factor at play here is that many young people have come of age amid growing suspicion of experts of all types, and they are exposed to increasingly bitter partisan critiques of mainstream reporting. In September 2012, Gallup reported that “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
A recent study by George Washington University and the market-research firm ORI finds this skepticism especially pronounced among young people. According to the report, 24 percent of American adults overall say information they get on social networks is of the same quality or of higher quality than that from traditional media outlets, versus 39 percent who say it is about the same quality and 31 percent who say it is of lower quality. But among those 18 to 25 years old, 31 percent said social networks provide higher-quality information than that of regular media, and only 25 percent said social networks offer information of generally lower quality. That’s a significant change from the Cronkite era of mainstream media authority.
“For years, people didn’t see information on social media as equally trustworthy,” says study author Dr. David Rehr, a professor at GWU’s graduate school of political management. Social-media news, he adds, “has moved into the mainstream of quality information.”
Those who no longer believe what the media tell them turn to people they do trust to help them decide what to think. “People don’t know who to trust, so they trust their friends,” says Jen Nedeau, 28, a director at the digital advertising firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. “People read what their friends recommend.”
In other words, young people do not want to entrust the decision about what’s news to the editors of one geographically proximate newspaper or another mainstream media outlet. They want to decide for themselves, via specialized streams. But the Internet has created such a deafening cacophony of information that they cannot sort it all by themselves. That would be a full-time job. And so it is, for some people. They are known as aggregators.
In the first decade of the 21st century, websites such as The Huffington Post garnered massive traffic for their fast-twitch aggregation, summarizing, quoting from, and linking to the sexiest and hardest-hitting news stories, catering to obsessives who would check in frequently. But many young consumers prefer to have their news filtered by an individual or a publication with a personality rather than by a traffic-seeking robot or algorithm. They like to see news that is selected, and sometimes analyzed, through the prism of a certain sensibility or set of interests.
Many blogs and websites have found great success with this approach (particularly if they add a dollop of attitude, in the tradition of The Drudge Report, which began as a gossip column in 1996). TalkingPointsMemo, founded in 2000, examines the news through a serious, if slightly sardonic, lefty lens, in the image of its chief blogger and editor, Josh Marshall. Gawker, begun 10 years ago by blog impresario Nick Denton, made its reputation with snarky takes on media, politics, and popular culture. And Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Dish—which employs a team of like-minded writers and interns—is largely a collection of links to outside stories, with a heavy focus on his favored political causes, such as civil liberties and gay rights. On the strength of the blog’s 1.3 million monthly unique visitors—one-third of whom are younger than 35—Sullivan decided to leave The Daily Beast late last year, and is now running the site as a free-standing, reader-supported operation. (After an enthusiastic show of financial support early on, subscriptions have slowed, and Sullivan recently tweaked his payment model.)