September 26th, 2011

What the latest Pew/Knight Foundation report means for media literacy

Report confirms Marshall McLuhan's claim that "the medium is the message."

Released today, the report “How People Learn About Their Local Community” reveals findings from a joint survey between the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It seems that, as a whole, when people want information about the day-to-day items concerning their immediate lives, they turn to local television first (this includes the corresponding websites of local television stations). However, most people tune in to local TV primarily for weather updates, traffic reports and breaking news. When they want analysis or coverage on a more specific topic like social services, crime or local government, they go to their local newspapers. (As with television, when referring to newspapers, the survey includes both the physical newspapers and their websites.) For information on restaurants, local businesses, jobs, schools and housing, people are more likely to turn to the Internet.

But all of this changes when you break out the survey results by age group. People younger than 40 are more likely to use the internet for more news on a wider variety of topics. After the internet, this same group will probably go to newspapers, then TV, then radio and, finally, word of mouth. People 40 or older are more likely to begin with newspapers, then go to TV stations and then to the Internet. Furthermore, according to the report, age is the most influential factor when it comes to how people get their local news—not gender, not race, not income level.

And so we see the future, and the enduring wisdom of Marshall McLuhan’s mantra that the medium is the message. Younger generations are relying on more varieties of media, and as such it is increasingly important that we understand how a message is determined by and changes with the vessel in which it is delivered.

As detailed in the report, when people are looking for news on a particular topic, they choose different media depending on its capacity to offer detail and scope. For example, weather and traffic are pretty objective, so television, with its limited timeframe, is a popular outlet regardless of age—44% of people age 18-39 go to TV for weather, compared to the 41% in this group who turn to the Internet; 67% of people age 40 and older look to TV for weather, as compared to 27% who go to the Internet first. But for political reporting, which generally involves more opinion, point/counterpoint and complexity, the 18-39 age group is more likely to go first to the infinite medium of the Internet. Those age 40 and older start with newspapers (however, we don’t know how many begin at a printed page or the paper’s website).

Younger generations will probably continue to vary their news diets as more media, technologies and platforms are developed, and as this happens, it will be more and more important that we understand how a piece of news is different when it comes from a radio versus a website versus a television. It’s not enough to teach just media literacy—we have to teach medium literacy as well. This has always been true, but the Pew/Knight report demonstrates a looming urgency to proactive media engagement and critical thinking in a multimedia world.

–Emily Long

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Follow Emily Long on Twitter: @emlong

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