Most of the discussion of youth news consumption and news literacy—including that of yours truly—focuses on articles and written content. Increasingly, however, young people are consuming their news via online video. The annual State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of American adults watch news videos online, a rate that is rising steadily. And it is rising faster among younger viewers than older ones.
“Nine in ten 18-to-29-year-olds watch online videos, and almost half, 48 percent, watch online news videos,” Pew writes. “That is equal to the 49 percent of 30-to-49-year-olds who watch online news video and outpaces the 27 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds and 11 percent of those 65 and older who do the same.” Those figures are all increases from the 2007 percentages, and the increases are greatest among 30-to-49-year-olds and then among 18-to-29-year-olds.
More news consumption of any type might be viewed as a good thing, but it’s only as good as the videos younger folks are watching. When comparing legacy media outlets, studies have often found that cable news viewers glean less than newspaper readers. In fact, according to one study from Fairleigh Dickinson University, the worst-performing viewers—those who rely on Fox News—actually know less about current events than those who do not watch news at all.
But not all TV news is created equal: In that study, Sunday morning talk show viewers demonstrated far superior news knowledge to cable news viewers. Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson, suggested that is because the network Sunday morning shows spend longer on each topic and are less likely to descend into a partisan shoutfest.
So which approach will dominate online? There is evidence on both sides. Many of the cable TV news clips that get blogged about and aggregated online do so precisely because they are full of emotionality and personal insults. But most of the original digital video news content is not much like cable TV news.
“They don’t call TV ‘the idiot box’ for nothing,” says Duy Linh Tu, director of the digital media program at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “But video online is not just TV replicated online.”
Many of the most popular original online news videos feature on-the-ground reporting. Vice Media, for example, has been so successful with its hip, irreverent, but long, travelogues like the Vice Guide to Karachi that it launched a TV news magazine on HBO last year.
As the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School detailed in its recent report, Video Now, leading newspapers like The New York Times are also investing in original digital news videos. Meanwhile, Lerer Ventures startup NowThis News, launched in 2012, makes concise news segments that aggregate reporting done elsewhere. Think of it as the video equivalent to Atlantic Media’s The Wire.
Despite all this, there’s at least potential reason for concern: Watching videos is a more passive experience than reading, especially online. While reading, one can use multiple tabs to verify the quality of an article’s reporting by clicking on hyperlinks to check sources. News literacy educators would urge students encountering a publication for the first time to look at its other articles, or the author’s other work, to get a sense of its general quality and possible biases. One can even copy and paste the names of quoted sources into Google.
Video, by contrast, is for simply playing and either watching, or listening while reading something else. There are no hyperlinks. That may be one reason that digital news video consumption seems positively correlated with smartphone use. One doesn’t typically toggle between open tabs on a smartphone.
Drake Martinet, head of platform for Vice News, argues that because Vice’s video content is embedded in related text and surrounded by related links, and it is filled with vivid visual reporting, it does lead to high levels of viewer engagement. “One of the things I’m most thankful for about the internet is that content doesn’t live in a vacuum,” he says. “Video on our site has associated materials and annotations to articles we’ve written.”
And it’s important to be realistic about how much double checking typical readers do while reading news. Since most readers at a typical news site spend only seconds on an article page, and many of them don’t even scroll to the end of the piece, they simply can’t be spending much time looking up sources or checking out hyperlinks in another tab. “The reality is most people don’t right-click on a name and check them out,” says Tu. “In theory it’s harder to do that on video, but in practice most people aren’t doing it anyway.”
The experience of watching digital video is also very different than the old paradigm of tuning in for a program and not reading or consuming other media during that timeframe. Now, watching videos on a computer can be part of a larger experience of Web browsing. You can switch between reading articles, listening to audio, and watching video. “People don’t go online and say, ‘I’m going to watch some video now,’” says Tu. “They say, ‘I’m going to learn about the world, whether video or otherwise.’ [Historically], you watch TV and you’re captivated, and the most you could do is change channel. Now you’ve got audio in background while you click on other links. So it just becomes one component of your media diet. Video is now enhanced by other media.”
And, despite the vast majority of young people having never studied news literacy, many young viewers have also grown, through experience, to trust and identify with specific outlets, such as Vice, in the same way their parents did one of the three nightly news networks. Says Martinet: “Part of building a great news brand is promising something to somebody and delivering on it over and over every time they check back.”
Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.