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Dig down for gold in the latest Pew Research Center report
9/21/2010 6:58:01 PM
The latest news research from Pew, “Americans Spending More Time Following the News,” has a bunch of interesting information -- and plenty worth ignoring.  I admit to being a contrarian.  Show me a premise, and my natural inclination is to disagree.  Or is that just being a journalist?  Let’s start with the report's opening line:

“There are many more ways to get the news these days, and as a consequence Americans are spending more time with the news than over much of the past decade.”

Why is that a consequence?  There are a lot more magazines today than there used to be, but people aren’t spending more time reading them.  We don’t drive more because there are more roads.  

I don’t doubt that people are spending more time consuming news; I just question Pew’s premise that it’s because there’s more of it out there.  If that were true, then we should see total news consumption go steadily up year after year, but we haven't.  And we should expect to see usage of TV news and online news go up year after year – while newspaper and radio news go steadily down.  Okay, that's true for newspaper and online, but being right half the time is like flipping coins.  Since 1996, the amount of TV news has increased noticeably while the amount of radio news has fallen.  But according to Pew, both radio and television news time have been remarkably steady since then.  Up and down some, but the trend is flat.  

The good news in the news business is that people still care about news and the world around them.  The better news for radio and TV is that Pew reports that people are spending about the same amount of time with both now as they did before.  But let me add a few cautions before anyone celebrates.

As TV stations roll out more and more newscasts, the resulting fragmentation means that the typical TV news audience for each program is likely to be smaller – even if the aggregate remains the same.

Now let me throw in a bigger question.

Back in 2006, when we did the Middletown Media Studies and observed media behavior -- rather than just asking people what they did -- we found that the average adult (18+) spent 96 minutes a day with various news media.  The breakdown:
•    TV 53.6 minutes
•    Radio 6 minutes
•    Newspaper 12.2 minutes
•    News magazines 0.6 minutes
•    Online 23.6 minutes.  
I see that newspaper in the Pew study is remarkably close to our number (13 versus 12.2), but all the other numbers are off.  We knew our number for online was inflated because we included search as news.  That was a mistake.  But our radio number was a lot smaller than Pew's, and the TV number was a lot higher.  When we tested for reliability of self-reported recall (that’s in essence what Pew is doing in its phone survey), we found that there was a huge difference in what people thought they did versus what we actually observed them doing.  The only number people estimated with any degree of accuracy: how much time they spent reading the newspaper.  They were way off in whether they actually read it at all, but they were close on how long they spent doing it.  Computer and internet use were overestimated; TV use was grossly underestimated; radio was just wrong.

What we found, and it’s critical information to keep in mind as you go through the Pew study, is that human beings are not reliable judges of their own media behavior – especially when value judgments are attached.  By value judgments, I mean that we all know that TV is bad for you, and you should watch less; newspapers are good, and you should read them more.  We know that.  We know the right answers to these questions, and that's always going to be a problem in this kind of research.  If you really want to know how much time people spend with TV, the net or radio, go to Nielsen for the first two and Arbitron for the third.  Flaws and all, it's still much better social science research.  

Of course, our Middletown numbers could be off because news consumption is down since our study in 2006.  Except that Pew is reporting that news consumption is up since 2006.  Up for every group except 18-29 year olds.

My point is that you should view a lot of these numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism.  That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of worthwhile information.  While self-reported media usage numbers are all suspect, trends tell us something, and the relative placement of the various media tell us what people think they do even if it doesn’t exactly match their behavior.  Perception may not be reality, but it may well tell us where we're going.

Americans probably are spending more time with news.  Not because there’s more of it out there as much as because there are interesting things going on.  The study was done in June (an unhelpful time for TV).  We had the BP oil fiasco, tourist devastation in the gulf, major primary battles, the Tea Party movement, the World Cup, and Johnny Depp's birthday.

Overall, Pew says that TV news remains the primary source of information – with a more than 2:1 lead over number 2.  That’s been true over the years I’ve been researching the field, so the Pew survey results suggest that hasn’t changed.  The time division between traditional networks, cable news and local news isn’t clear, but if you really want to know how that breaks out, look at Nielsen for any given market.  I wish Nielsen would pull it all together, but they don't.  The Project for Excellence (funded by Pew) is moving in that direction, but it's not there yet.

Pew reports that online news is up.  Who’d have thought?  Frankly, I doubt very much that radio news is still in second place, despite the Pew numbers.  My money’s online, and I’d be surprised if it’s not noticeably ahead of either radio or newspaper.  If you're in the news business and still working on your strategy of how to reach news consumers, then, first, you're way behind, but, second, don’t bypass the web for mobile (which wasn’t measured as thoroughly in this research).  

The Pew study has a list of what consumers like about the news media they consume, but the way it's done appears to shed no light on anything.  Asking people what they like about the listed media becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  For instance, only 4% say they like in-depth reporting in the morning TV news programs.  What's astonishing is that even 4% think there's in-depth reporting in the morning news.  And despite their popularity, Pew apparently didn't ask about local radio and TV news in that list.  Too bad because that might have been instructive.

The survey reports that, “Far more men (50%) than women (39%) get news on digital platforms, such as the internet and mobile technology, on any given day.  Men are more likely to get news by cell phone, email, RSS feeds or podcasts than are women.”  Maybe.  But what we also found in our study is that men lie about their media consumption a lot more than women.  (Like that’s a surprise to any woman.)  We found that men tend to claim news consumption that they never had -- but probably think they should have had or maybe they think they usually have.  So, maybe, maybe not on those numbers.

The study notes that, "... the proportion of Americans who get news from traditional media platforms -- television, radio and print -- has been stable or edging downward in the last few years.  There has been no overall decline in the percentage saying they watched news on television, and even with the continued erosion of print newspaper and radio audiences, three-quarters of Americans got news yesterday from one or more of these three traditional platforms."  I think that's confusing.  The data show that over the last three surveys (2006, 2008 and this one in 2010) the percentage who watched news on TV yesterday went from 57% to 57% to 58%.  The percentage who got news from radio went from 36% to 35% to 34%.  The percentage who got news from a newspaper went from 40% to 34% to 31%.  Given those numbers, I guess I'd explain the results a little differently than the Pew people did.  People who watch TV news also watch more than users of other media spend with those other media.  A lot more.  For some data, Pew also adds a newspaper's online site to the newspaper's print numbers.  That helps the newspaper numbers, overall, but the trajectory is still down.  How come Pew doesn't add TV, radio or cable/network online sites to the broadcast numbers?   

The study also shows ABC's World News Tonight ahead of NBC Nightly News, so we know that the sample is at least a bit skewed.  It's not completely off, of course.  CBS comes in a distant (although almost respectable) third.

In the overall list of "regularly watch/read/listen to," local TV news still wins overall and in every age group except 18 - 29 year olds, where it comes in second to online.

So what's interesting in the study?  Here are few things that caught my eye:

•    People in their 30s are the only age group where a majority (57%) said they got news yesterday on one or more digital platforms.
•    Despite the perception that young people, 18 - 29, get most of their news from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, the Pew study finds that almost as many say they regularly watch the morning TV news programs; the same number say they watch CNN; slightly more report watching the network evening news;  even more say they watch Fox News; and two and a half times as many say they watch local TV news.
•    The Pew study suggests a strongly increasing tendency for people to watch politically-oriented programs that they see supporting their viewpoint.  That appears especially true for Republicans, with 40% saying they regularly watch Fox News.
•    Pew reports a big jump in the percentage of people who say they get news "from time to time" rather than at "regular times."  What Pew calls grazers have gone up from 48% in 2006 to 57% in 2010.  Even if that's just perception, it's meaningful ... and it should concern anyone who produces news.
•    Search engines are playing a much larger role in news gathering.  In 2008, 19% reported using a search engine to get news on topics of interest; in 2010, that number jumped to 33%.
•    Traditional only (TV, radio, and print newspapers) beat digital only news usage for all groups.  But those saying they used both traditional and digital won every group from aged 18 - 49.
•    About 9% say they got news over a cell phone or smart phone yesterday; 10% say they got news from RSS feeds or web pages; 14% say they got news via email.
•    While Sunday morning talk shows, weekday morning news programs and even the network evening news have largely held their own in the past 10 years -- and cable news has gone up -- local TV news has dropped 6 points (from 56% regularly watching to 50%).  That's still on top of all other TV and everyone else, but the numbers suggest that local TV news simply isn't responding to news consumers as well as it used to or as well as other news on television.
•    People aged 40 - 64 reported increasing their news consumption by about 10% from the 2006/2008 average to 2010.  People in their 30s rose 6%.  Others stayed the same or dropped.  In all cases, the increase appears to be driven by those with the most education.

One of the most interesting things I found going through the data is something that's just hinted at.  If you look at the detailed table of age and time spent with news, it appears that there might be a growing use of news as we track cohorts over time.  In other words, if we look at news consumption of 18-29 year olds in 1994, and follow them as they age, news consumption appears to be unchanged as they go into their 30s and up only modestly as they move into their 40s.  But if we look at 18-29 year olds in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002 -- all of which start noticeably lower than the group in 1994 -- we see all of them appearing to move much higher as they get older.  As I said, the data doesn't make it easy to see this, and I certainly can't be sure, but I hope the Pew people will look at their data in more detail to see.

Editors and news directors have always hoped that as people age -- get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, etc. -- that non-news consumers would become news consumers.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of historic evidence to back that up.  Older data that I've seen suggest that news habits formed early tend to persist.  Here, there appears to be some evidence of a marked increase in news consumption with age.  If that's true, that might be the best news of all.

This commentary was first posted at RTDNA.org: http://www.rtdna.org/pages/posts/dig-down-for-gold-in-latest-pew-research-center-report1082.php
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