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Not the New York Times: Where College Students Get Their News

Susan Moeller's picture

This is a "Wordle" data visualization of the 111,109 words the students in the study wrote about their experiences of going 24 hours without media. This Wordle cloud makes larger those words that appeared most frequently in the students' comments.

American college students today show no significant loyalty to a news program, news personality or even news platform.  Students have only a casual relationship to the originators of news, and in fact don’t make fine distinctions between news and more personal information.  Yet student after student, in a new ICMPA study, demonstrated knowledge of specific news stories. 

How did they get the information?  In a disaggregated way, and not typically from the news outlet that broke or committed resources to a story. 

This is one of the key takeaways from the study out last week from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, (Full disclosure:  I led the study).  The study concluded that while many in the journalism profession are committing significant resources to deliver content across media platforms—print, broadcast, online, mobile—young adults appear to be generally oblivious to branded news and information.

The ICMPA study, 24 Hours: Unplugged, asked 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park to give up all media for a full day, but they were allowed to pick which 24 hours in a nine-day period, from February 24-March 4, 2010.  By coincidence that period saw several major news events, including the earthquake in Chile on February 27, and the close of the Vancouver Olympics on February 28.

After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to report on private class websites about their experiences: to respond to questions about their successes and failures.  The 200 students wrote over 110,000 words: in aggregate, about the same number of words as a 400-page novel.

In their responses, students noted their addiction to media and their dependence on the information that they both gather and disseminate by text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook.  Said one student who failed to make it for an entire 24 hours: “I got back from class around 5, frantically craving some technology and to look through my phone, so I cheated a little bit and checked my phone. From my phone, I accessed text messages, close to a dozen missed calls, glanced at some emails, and acknowledged many twitter @replies from followers wondering where I was and if I was ok.”

What came through clearly in the study was that students care deeply about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large.  But after being forced to do without media for a 24-hour span, they repeatedly said that what they care about most of all is being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seemed tied to any single device or application or news outlet.

For most of the students reporting in the study, information of all kinds comes in an undifferentiated wave to them via social media. If a bit of information rises to a level of interest, the student will pursue it—but often by following the story via “unconventional” outlets, such through text messages, their email accounts, Facebook and Twitter. "To be entirely honest I am glad I failed the assignment," wrote one student, "because if I hadn’t opened my computer when I did I would not have known about the violent earthquake in Chile from an informal blog post on Tumblr."

Very few students in the study reported that they regularly watched news on television or read a local or national newspaper (although a few said they regularly read The Diamondback, the University of Maryland student newspaper).  They also didn't mention checking mainstream media news sites or listening to radio news while commuting in their cars. 

Said one student, for instance:  “Although I will admit I do not actively keep up with breaking news every day I do get a lot of information on a daily basis through social networking, text messaging, and websites such as Gmail, where it does have headlines on the homepage. It is very important to me to have some sense of what is going on in the world on a daily basis, but I also focus in on issues that I do care about, and I keep up with that particular issues progress. For example, the Equal Rights campaign, or local and global environmental organizations, whose progress I follow via Twitter, Facebook or their websites.”

Students said that only the most specific or significant news events—for example, a medal event at the Olympics—merited their tuning into to a mainstream outlet.  Even news events that students cared about were often accessed via their personal interactions.  To learn about the Maryland vs. Virginia Tech basketball game, for example, one student told of “listening to someone narrate the game from a conversation they were having on their own phone” (although he would have preferred watching it on TV) and another student told of calling her father to learn more about the earthquake in Chile.



According to separately obtained demographic data, about three-quarters of the students in the study self-identify as Caucasian/White, slightly less than 10 percent as Black, 6 percent as Asian, 2 percent as Latino and 7 percent as Mixed Race or Other.  Students who self-reported themselves as non-American said they were from China, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Germany.  Women outnumbered men, 56 percent to 44 percent.

44 percent of the class reported that their parents or guardians earned over $100,000 or more; 28 percent reported a household income of $75-$100,000; 22 percent reported an income between $50-75,000; and 6 percent reported that their families' income was between $25-50,000. 

Most students reported their ages as between 18-21; a handful of students were in their mid-20 and 30s. 

When asked about what types of media devices they own, 43.3 percent of the students reported that they had a "smart phone" (i.e. a Blackberry, Droid or iPhone), and 56.7 percent said they had only a “regular” cell phone.


Photo Credits: 

  • Photo 1: This is a "Wordle" data visualization of the 111,109 words the students in the study wrote about their experiences of going 24 hours without media. This Wordle cloud makes larger those words that appeared most frequently in the students' comments.
  • Photo 2 (middle):  “Seksi Eyes” by arkworld
  • Photo 3: "iTeeth" by ∆ toma01


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