Pew: Most news sharing remains low-tech, offline

The Pew Research Center’s latest report supports much of what we already know about news media: Print is dying, digital is growing, and the future lies with mobile. What stand out are the findings about our news sharing habits, which suggest that sharing overwhelmingly remains a low-tech, offline activity.

Despite huge growth in the use of social networks, 85 percent of US adults still prefer to share news by word of mouth rather than digitally, according to Pew. That’s not surprising if the news comes from a traditional medium, such as newspapers or TV, but even consumers who primarily got their news online were nearly three times more likely to share the news verbally than to post on social media, according to the report.

In fact, active engagement with news on social media is relatively low in general. The proportion of people who often liked, commented, posted, and shared news was less than 16 percent, while those who did it only sometimes accounted for less than half of those surveyed. Interestingly, although young people are more likely to get their news online, they are no more likely to engage with news online than older people; indeed, Pew found that people over 50 were most likely to comment on news posts. That could be because young adults are less interested in news than their elders and discuss news at lower rates.

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Age and a preference for consuming news online aren’t the only factors that affect online news engagement. Studies conducted over the past decade show that personality and circumstance also play a role. People who see themselves as opinion leaders are more likely to share, as are those who seek to build up their reputations and attract followers. The quick proliferation of police shooting and protest videos this week supports findings that people are more likely to share content that’s emotionally charged. Sharing also increases during times of crisis, when people are motivated by a sense of civic duty to spread information quickly, organize offline protests, and gather more details about unfolding events.

We saw the downside of being too quick to share unverified information Thursday, when Mark Hughes was identified on Twitter by the Dallas Police Department as a suspect in the killing of 5 police officers. Social media users were equally quick to help clear his name by posting and spreading evidence proving he wasn’t involved, but he still received thousands of death threats.

In a 2011 report, Pew posited that “if searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.” Thursday’s study shows that the people who share and engage with news online are still a minority, but recent events demonstrate that the social impact of sharing is more significant than ever.

More takeaways from the report:

–        People still prefer to watch news over reading or listening, and TV remains the dominant medium. However, older viewers are shielding broadcast news from the disruption that has ravaged the newspaper industry. More than 72 percent of those over the age of 50 still prefer getting their news from TV, but the number drops to just 27 percent for people aged 18-29. That means broadcasters shouldn’t be complacent about their digital strategy if they want to maintain and grow their audiences.

–        In line with findings from a recent study conducted by CJR and the George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism, digital news consumers are less trusting of news than their more traditional counterparts. Pew also found that younger news consumers are generally less trusting and approving of news organizations than their elders, unless they are already familiar with the news brand.

–        In the digital environment, more people consume news while doing other things (55 percent) than actively seek it out (44 percent). Seekers are more likely to supplement their social news diet with visits to news organization websites and apps.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.