Jennifer Elizabeth Frank, Alumna, School of Educational Leadership & Change (2013)
American Millennials grew up with 24-hour access to news, but have not established consistent news habits—reading the morning newspaper or watching the nightly news—that are needed for membership in the informed electorate on which our democracy depends. Since voting is a pillar of American democracy, the major research question in this dissertation is: What role will news play in preserving and advancing American democracy in the digital generation? Technology enables Millennials to filter out information that does not interest them, which could have implications for both news and the American political system.
This mixed-methods study used an online survey and interviews to measure the interest of a sample of 18- to 30-year-olds in news: how they define it; their exposure to it growing up; their current consumption habits; the role they think news plays in society; their civic knowledge and understanding of American democracy; and their engagement in political activities.
The major finding is that Millennials do pay attention to news and politics, but not according to a set schedule or loyalty to any one source. They favor newspaper websites over other sources, which is consistent with Mitchell and Rosenstiel’s (2012) finding that newspapers are not dead. Millennials customize their news on aggregator sites like Google News and Reddit, where they can also engage in discussion about serious or political issues that they would not post on Facebook, which is clearly a social space. They care about serious issues, think critically about their world, and believe they have some power to change it. Their news habits differ from those of the adults they grew up with, but they want the information they need to participate in democracy and will make an effort to get it. Millennials are highly critical of the two-party system, participate in political activities, and value their right to vote.
The study results have implications for news organizations and politicians who rely on traditional methods to reach Millennials, many of whom do not have televisions or cable subscriptions. Young people scrutinize everything politicians say, often verifying voting records and other claims via news and non-news sources. They are paying attention, but there is no one place—even Facebook—to reach Millennials because they customize their media. These findings affirm the Millennial traits that Tapscott (2008) identified, especially in how they customize their news and scrutinize the politicians and the news media. Millennials want to maintain American democracy through dialogue in online democratic spaces like Reddit that mirror the traditional places where the exchange of news and ideas elevated the public and gave them political strength (Carey, 1993).