Americans Can Recognize the Sources of the News They Read 56 Percent of the Time, New Pew Study Finds

Pew takes a dive into digital media consumption habits

There were a few surprises in the Pew Research Center’s study of digital media habits, including the fact that a sizable portion of participants in its study reported visiting websites directly for news, especially for business and finance news. And there were some unsurprising results, like the fact that those visiting sites directly skewed older, and that young and female audiences were more likely to get their news from social media.

The purpose of the study, as Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Elisa Shearer and Kristine Lu explained in the report, was to go deep on media consumption habits, “to discern the nuances of digital news habits when Americans’ attention spans are fractured, human memory is naturally limited and news comes at them every which way.” But lacking the magical capabilities of Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus gang to drive directly into their participants’ neurological pathways, the researchers relied on self reporting from more than 2,000 participants.

Over the course of one week last year (Feb. 24-March 1), researchers called participants twice a day to ask them whether they had consumed news within the last two hours, followed by a series of questions about the subjects they had read, the way in which they had accessed the news (direct to the site/app, social media, search engine, an email, etc.), whether they could name the news sources of links they had clicked on, whether or not their consumption of stories was in response to a specific search for news, and what, if anything they did with the stories they had read (shared, commented, bookmarked, etc.). At the end of this period, they had completed 25,602 interviews, in which respondents in a little over half of them, 13,086, had read–or consumed, in the parlance–news.

The survey questions link back to a series of ongoing inquiries related to the path from an article’s online inception, its journey to a reader, and the aftermath: how aware are readers of the source, and legitimacy, of articles they read? Do readers consume news as a huge swath of sourceless information, or do they remember what came from where? What makes for shareable content? And, of course, the eternal digital question, with its ever-shifting answers: where and how do people get their news?

Here are some of the survey’s answers to those questions:

  • Social media and direct visits to news sites or their apps were the most popular methods of accessing news, in roughly equal measure. News accessed through news sites/apps made up 36 percent of overall consumption and news accessed through social media made up 35 percent of overall consumption, compared to 20 percent through search engine results, 15 percent from emails, texts, and alerts from news organizations, 7 percent from emails or texts from family and friends and 9 percent from other sources.
  • While the split between access through social and websites was even, a majority of people on an individual level (65 percent) prefer to stick to one specific path.
  • Politics was the most popular topic, serving as the focal point of people’s news consumption 40 percent of the time, which makes sense given the time period in which the study was launched. At 16 percent, entertainment was a far second.
  • Consumers were able to site the specific news source of a link they followed 56 percent of the time.
  • Fourteen percent of participants who followed links named CNN as a source, the most in the study, followed by 12 percent of those who named Fox News, and 10 percent who named Facebook, which is not actually a source. Receiving mentions in single-digit percentages were The New York Times, The Huffington Post, MSNBC, Yahoo, ESPN, The Washington Post and CBS.
  • While younger and older respondents click on links at about even rates, source recall rates dropped from older to younger respondents. Those in the 50+ range could recall sources 61 percent of the time, compared with 57 percent of those in the 30-49 range, compared with 47 percent of those in the 18-29 range.
  • Respondents engaged in a follow-up action after reading an article 52 percent of the time, with the most common follow-ups being discussing the news with someone either in person or on the phone (30 percent), looking for more information (16 percent), and sharing on social media (10 percent).

Read the full report here.