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It's become conventional wisdom that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ushered in a new era of heightened interest in current affairs among young people in America - but is it true? Recent research by Thomas Patterson at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy indicates that teens and young adults may not be as engaged as is popularly thought, at least in the context of attention to daily news coverage. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press.
Q: What does your research indicate about young people's attention to daily news?
Patterson: I think there is no question that young people by some indicators are more involved today than they were five or six years ago - not only 9/11 but the invasion of Iraq - and we saw some of the consequences of that in the 2004 election. Turnout was up substantially among young adults, and up slightly in 2006. I think young people today are more interested in what's going on out there than they were half a dozen years ago. On the other hand, they're not paying more attention to news about those events.
What we found in our study is that young people are about half as attentive to daily news as older adults, and that's by all indicators: the frequency with which they attend to the news; the depth with which they expose themselves to the news when they are exposed to it; whether they just simply skim the stories or dig into the stories; whether they watch a few minutes of a television newscast or watch most of the newscast. By every indicator, young people in that category - our survey included teenagers as well as young adults - are much less attentive to daily news than older adults.
Q: We know that the Internet is changing the way in which many people use news and information. How are teens and young adults in America getting their daily news - is it mainly through the internet?
Patterson: No, it's mainly through conventional sources like television news - particularly, also radio news. I think the big difference between younger Americans and older Americans in news use is that for a lot of older Americans news is a daily appointment. You wake up in the morning, you go to the door, you pickup your newspaper, you read your newspaper while you have a cup of coffee, at six-thirty in the evening you turn on the evening newscast. That's been the pattern for older Americans for fifty years, news as an appointment.
For young Americans, most of them do not make any appointment with the daily news, but it doesn't mean that they don't have some exposure to it. They are so media connected that it's really difficult for them or anyone else in this society to not have some news exposure, but they essentially don't put part of their day aside to partake of the news.
They make a lot of use of the internet, more use of the internet than do older adults, but because they don't have this driving news interest they actually do not get more news off the internet than do older adults. They pick a little bit of news up here and there, primarily from conventional news sources, but most of them don't have anything like a regular habit. We found that about 60 percent of teens and about 50 percent of young adults essentially have no regular news medium that they rely on for their news.
Q: What are other significant findings of your recent 'Young People and News' report?
Patterson: When you try to look ahead and think about what this might mean for the democracy and people's involvement in politics, interest in news has always been the way that Americans have renewed their political interest, to maintain it. When you have something like the Iraq conflict going on, people are keenly interested and they have varying opinions on the Iraq conflict - but nearly all Americans are deeply interested in it.
But day to day, year after year, whether there's a large issue out there or not, the news is the daily renewal of an interest in politics and public affairs. When you start to pull back from that, when you don't renew that interest on a daily basis, then it's pretty easy to slip into a pattern where it's not that you don't care about the public side of life, but you're not regularly involved in it. You're less connected to it; you're less informed about it. For example, young adults 40 years ago had nearly the same levels of public information as did older adults. Today there's a huge gap in terms of knowledge about public affairs, and that goes hand in hand with the level of attention to daily news.
Q: Some of your previous research has dealt with declining voting rates in the U.S., most notably in your book 'The Vanishing Voter.' What indication, if any, does the younger generation's engagement with current affairs through news consumption have for overall civic engagement?
Patterson: Well I think we're all quite delighted by voter turnout among young adults in 2004. It jumped about eight or nine percentage points, which is the highest jump in the last 40 years. It still didn't bring it up to where it was in the early 1970s for the overall level of turnout among young adults. I think what we're seeing - we saw a little in 2006 - and I think we're going to see another surge in 2008.
I think young adults are responding to the events of the moment and the long term concern is what happens after these large driving issues like Iraq leave the scene. Will they still be there? Will they be part of the body politic in the sense of going to the polls regularly? The news has always been a way of renewing interest, keeping interest alive, and the high voters are those who also pay regular attention to news. So the prediction would be - and we're entering a new era and you can't always trust old data when times are changing - but the prediction would be that as soon as these large events are off the table, we'll see declining turnout again among young adults.
Q: How does the news consumption of young people in the U.S compare with younger people in other parts of the world?
Patterson: There's a strong cultural component to the news and the attention that a public pays to the news. American have not been on the high end of that scale. Germans read on average something close to two newspapers a day, among the Japanese it's more than two newspapers a day, so we're kind of average among the vast democracies in terms of the amount of news we consume. So when you look across democracies young people vary and they vary in the way that you'd think given the general tendency in their particular country.
On the other hand, when you look at the trend, when you look at whether they're paying as much attention to the news - whether 20-year olds today are paying as much attention to the news as they did 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago - across almost every country what you see is declining attention to news among young people, particularly interest in the newspaper. The newspaper circulation almost everywhere is declining and in the vanguard of that movement are young people. Only a small minority of them in almost every country have anything like a newspaper habit.
Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on July 12, 2007.