Old broadsheet or young app? Discussions about media in Switzerland (and elsewhere) often conjure notions of a generational divide, but how we consume information may transcend questions of age.
When swissinfo.ch went to talk media habits recently with a group of teenagers (16-18) in a Bernese secondary school, the goal was to test some assumptions. Young people are not interested in news. They only read free news. Their notions of ‘quality’ have changed. They simply swallow the news that Facebook feeds them. Essentially, the general assumption that the habits of ‘digital natives’ are markedly different than those of previous generations – the ‘digital immigrants’.
The outcome was a mixed bag of responses that probably suggest that young people are more reflective of the population at large than a homogenous group unto themselves. Joshua, 18, reads the broadsheets NZZ and Die Zeit, and the Economist (his parents keep them in the house); Julia is into the Guardian (her teacher told her about it); Daniel, like most, reads the free 20 Minutes (“I have to kill my time anyway”); another says that 20 Minutes is “toilet paper” but still uses it for daily, no-frills news updates.
Other habits mark a break from the past that is only natural. John, a thoughtful 18-year-old, prefers to research specific topics in detail using YouTube documentaries and Spotify rather than ‘traditional’ sources. Others mention websites like Reddit and even 9gag, where interaction and user jokes are more “interesting” than stuffy old-fashioned outlets. A few mentioned the benefits of interacting among themselves: one even said he relied completely on conversations with Joshua (the Economist reader) to keep him in the loop.
In fact, the only thing approaching a unifying factor was the amount of time spent reading news each day: between 0 and 20 minutes, rarely more. Given that not many admitted to sitting down in front of the television each evening to watch news – the classic pattern of old, along with newspapers and radio – the overall impression was that current affairs simply didn’t play a major part in their lives.
Does this mean that the younger generation is less informed than before? According to the 2016 Quality of the Media Yearbook, an annual study by the Fög Instituteexternal link at the University of Zurich, young people are significantly over-represented in the category called “news-deprived”. Some 40% of 16-29-olds, it finds, devote “little time” to keeping up-to-date; and when they do, they tend to use mostly free or online sources.
Daniel Vogler, a researcher who worked on the report, is reluctant to be drawn on the broader knock-on effects of such a downtick in interest in traditional news. However, he says, there is a clear correlation “between reading only free or lower-quality sources, and trust in the media system more generally.” The less informed we are, the less trust we have in all media. And this is a problem, he says, because of the vital role that information media plays in the functioning of a healthy democracy.
Others have pushed this logic further and are worried about the broader effect of the internet on political engagement. A headlineexternal link in the Schweiz am Wochenende newspaper last year warned “how a generation is saying goodbye to democracy”, a nod to the dismal turnouts of younger voters in recent times. They follow events online, they become roused and riled about injustices – but they don’t get up and vote, the piece said. (The wider phenomenon is sometimes called ‘clicktivism’).
Our Bernese students didn’t have much time for such speculation. They might be less interested in traditional hard news than older groups, but this is not necessarily coming from a dearth of civic-mindedness. In fact, a common complaint was that many issues, particularly international problems like terrorism or conflict, were not reported on in enough nuanced detail in the media. “There should be more topics about other countries,” one said – and “not just the USA.” “Politics needs to be presented better, made more approachable,” another said.
As for making political choices, the answers of this group (not necessarily representative, of course) showed few signs of sliding into clickbait populism. Generally speaking, the information sent out by the government before votes is the most important; for further ideas, they dig into specialised online sources. One 20 Minutes reader goes to pains to stress that he “does not use it to form opinions.” Another mentions the impartial informational source easyvote.chexternal link, which sums up both sides.
And do they actually go and vote, I ask? The answers to this are non-committal.
More information, more choice
Sarah Gennerexternal link, a specialist in media, internet, and psychology, is also hesitant to overplay the ramifications of media shifts on youth behaviour. The major facts are clear: young people are mainly using phones and online sources; television as a source is fading; the notion of “news” is shifting, especially the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’; and 20 Minutes has become their dominant source of political news. This we know. Beyond, however, “it is really hard to generalise about any generation.”
Rather, she says, the nature of the new online news ecosystem means that the people best able to adapt are neither the wise old hedgehogs nor the young foxes exclusively, but more generally those who have the skills to distinguish between good and bad information. No matter what the medium or source, Genner says, “if you have no idea what propaganda means, it is difficult to be aware of it when you encounter it.”
The same goes for navigating the cornucopia of options which the internet has thrown open. Whereas in the past news was edited and curated in clearly-formatted, branded newspapers, the floodgates are now open and information unlimited. What this means, for Genner, is that we are moving from a “pull” system of old (where users had control over whether or not, and what, content to read) to a “push” system today, which throws all sorts of amateur and professional content at us. To manage it, “you now need to have the interest and the knowledge to be motivated to go and find the good information.”
Of course, more options are welcome. Another interviewee, 24-year-old Louis, an administrative assistant in Bern, touches on this when he says that he doesn’t watch TV, preferring Netflix, a choice driven more by the “scheduling flexibility” than quality or type of content. “I like the freedom of choice,” he says. A proactive freedom that is also reflected in his news habits: dipping into a range of “quality” sources like NZZ, Der Spiegel, Der Bund, Die Zeit – but without actually having a subscription to any.
This idea of self-curation is a common refrain, whereby we seek out like-minded people, specific articles, and generally what interests us, rather than having information forced down our throat. In this new world, could young people actually be better than previous generations at dealing with the choices? One student had a laugh about his father, who had always grumbled about new technologies, but was persuaded to get a smartphone and then “became pretty much addicted straight away.”
Mind the gap
Ultimately, Genner says that “the generational divide gets over-emphasised too often. For determining media use, family habits, education, political interest and socioeconomic status are more important than age. This is echoed by her Fög counterpart, Vogler, who reckons that in the future, the battle within the digitalisation process “will not be between young and old”. This gap is closing. The divide will be between “a socio-economic elite who benefit, and others who struggle.”
As for the effects of media on political and other habits, Genner stresses that it is difficult to isolate the precise socialisation effects on new generations. One week an article appears bemoaning the swamping of youthexternal link in antisocial smartphone addiction; a longer view usually says that every generation enjoys speculating on the nefarious habits of the next, while underlying values and politics endure.
As Margerita, one of the students, says: “when I sit on the train I sometimes hear elderly people complaining [about young people constantly on their smartphones]—but they are all reading books and newspapers anyway.” Is there a difference?