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What Kind of News Comes in 140 Characters or Facebook Status Updates? – New Global Study

Susan Moeller's picture

Quick.  If someone says to you: “Give me the latest ‘news’” what do you think to tell them? 

Maybe the latest from Libya or Japan or Cote d’Ivoire?  Perhaps something about the NYSE bids or the US government shutdown?  Maybe you mention India winning the Cricket World Cup or UConn taking the NCAA basketball tournament?

Well, if you are talking to a college student, you might want to think twice about what you say and how you say it.  According to a new global study just released by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, when college students around the world talk about needing to get “news,” they don’t just want updates on world affairs, business or even sports.  “News” to students means “anything that just happened” – and students most care about “news” of their friends and family, before any “news” that might be globally momentous.

You also might want to tell students the news via Twitter or Facebook. Think of telling the news as Dickens’ serialized his novels.  Students now want news in small chunks, but continuously. And if they happen to miss or skip a chapter or along the way, well, so be it.  The students don’t bother to go back – nor do they often click into the shortened URLs embedded in posts or the 140-character messages.

"Having a smartphone means I am also used to regularly checking internet sites such as BBC News, Facebook and Twitter. Without these, I felt a little out of touch with the world and craved to know what was going on not only in worldwide news, but with my friends’ everyday thoughts and experiences, posted in statuses, tweets and blog posts daily." — UK student

“The world UNPLUGGED” study, available at theworldunplugged.wordpress.com, concludes that most college students, whether in developed or developing countries, are strikingly similar in how they use media and digital technologies.  The study, conducted with the assistance of the university partners of the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change, asked around 1000 students in 10 countries on five continents to give up all media for 24 hours.  After their daylong abstinence, the students recorded their experiences.  In total, students wrote almost half a million words: in aggregate, about 100,000 words more than Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Students also completed a demographic survey.

There were many insights of the ICMPA study – not the least of which was that students around the world reported that they are 'addicted' to media, describing in vivid terms their cravings, their anxieties and their depression when they have to abstain from using media.  "My dependence on media is absolutely sickening," said a student from Lebanon.  "I felt like there was a problem with me," wrote a student from Uganda. "Because I became so addicted," observed a student from Hong Kong, "I have less time for my studies and face-to-face meetings with my friends." "I was itching, like a crackhead, because I could not use my phone," said an American student.  "Media is my drug; without it I was lost.  I am an addict," said a student from the UK.  A student from China said:  "I can say without exaggeration, I was almost freaking out." A student from Argentina observed: "Sometimes I felt ‘dead.’" And a student from Slovakia simply noted:  "I felt sad, lonely and depressed."

But there were other insights, too.  And some of the most interesting for policy makers had to do with how students reported they thought about and accessed news.

Here are a few of those takeaways:

1) “News” is both worldwide events AND friends’ everyday thoughts.  In their daily trawl online, most students around the world didn’t discriminate between news that The New York Times, the BBC or Al Jazeera might cover, and news that might only appear as a friend’s Facebook status update.  Journalists need to stop arguing that there is a moral high ground to news, and determine how to help meet all the information needs of the young adults – ways of delivering “news” of friends and family can be a Trojan horse to also deliver local, national and world “news.”

2) Students no longer search for news (if they ever did), news finds them. No matter where they live, the amount of information coming at students via their mobile phones or on the Internet – via text message, on Facebook, Twitter, chat, Skype IM, QQ, email, etc. – is overwhelming; students are inundated 24/7. As a result, most students reported that they rarely go prospecting for news at mainstream or legacy news sites. They inhale, almost unconsciously, the news that is served up on the sidebar of their email account, that is on friends’ Facebook walls, that comes through on Twitter.

3) The non-stop deluge of information coming via mobile phones and online means that most students across the world have neither the time nor the interest to follow up on even quite important news stories – unless they are personally engaged. For daily news, students have become headline readers via their social networks.  They only learn more about a story when the details or updates are also served up via text or tweet or post. "We are used to having information about everything on the planet and this information we have to have in an unbelievable time," observed a student from Slovakia. "Our generation doesn’t need certified and acknowledged information. More important is quantity, not quality of news."

Most students see the de facto text-message-length headlines as sufficiently informative for all but the most personally compelling events.  It’s not that students are uninterested in news – in fact data from the study suggests that students today are more catholic in their concerns than their immediate predecessors.  It’s more that the flood of information is so continuous, and the bandwidth already is so great that there isn’t a hole of curiosity that needs to be filled.

4) That raises the final point: There is a tremendous need for news curation:  people and tools to make sense of the 24/7 influx of information. Some of the headline-length bits of information come from legacy news providers via Tweets and RSS feeds on Facebook and the like; most of the “chunked news” comes in Re-Tweets and viral messages second and third and tenth-hand from a miscellaneous assortment of “friends” and “follows.”

How to sort through it all in a digestible way AND have that method be part of a social network will be an increasingly greater challenge and opportunity as, for example, TweetedTimes, Paper.liStorify, Storyful and Yogile are observing. Increasingly what is needed is are people who have the critical and analytical tools to sort through the vast amount of data that is being created in all fields.  And news curation needs to be a concept embedded in app design as well as hardware creation:  If the public has to do it, they need intuitive ways to handle it.

Check out the full study here.
 

Photo Credit: Flickr user kiwanja

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Comments

Submitted by Paula on
It would be interesting to apply some of Benedict Anderson's analysis in "Imagined Communities" to this study. Anderson connected the concept of "news" (events that happen to people we do NOT know) to the rise of nationalism and national identity. What many of these students seem to be describing is more personal and seems almost pre-industrial.

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